French lemon tart

Following on from my last blog post, this weekend I decided to learn how to make tarte au citron, a luscious lemon tart using the recipe from Christophe Felder’s Pȃtisserie. The classic tarte au citron, consists of a wafer thin sweet pastry case, filled with a mouth-puckering lemon cream, the contrast between the sweet and sharp making a refreshing ending to any meal. This recipe included a garnish of lemon slices braised in syrup and an apricot jelly glaze.

Felder’s instructions for the sweet pastry, or pȃte sucrée were very clear and easy to follow. His only advice was to not mix the pastry too much, so as soon as it came together, I scooped it up with my hands, made it into a ball, wrapped it in plastic film, and put it in the fridge. It needs to chill for a minimum of two hours before it is firm enough to roll. As I was wrapping it, I was delighted to see small black flecks, the grains from a vanilla pod, distributed evenly throughout the dough. Unfortunately this is where my pleasure ended since I was about to discover that pȃte sucrée is very hard to handle.

The main problem is that it’s very sticky and also very weak. It’s prone to adhere to the work surface, unless you are lucky enough to have a chilled marble pȃtisserie worktop—I’m not—and it also breaks easily when you are placing it in the mould. As per the recipe, I was using a traditional French pȃtisserie ring, harder to line than a tin but the best way to avoid so-called soggy bottoms to your pastry cases. The base of the pastry touches the baking tray directly and so there’s less chance of condensation building up underneath as it cools. It’s also quite hard to get a perfect edge on the top of the pastry unless your ring is perfectly buttered. If it is, the advantage is that the pastry will shrink slightly and you can just lift the ring off. I will confess that I baked three pastry cases before I was happy with the result, which still was not perfect. There were some small imperfections in the sides which I think were caused by over-buttering the ring.  I feel I still need to practise.

The two other main steps were more straightforward. The lemon filling, made by whisking lemon juice, sugar, and eggs into a cream and then melting butter into it, was very similar to making a lemon curd. Then you had to the boil slices of lemon in sugar syrup which would eventually act as a garnish. By the time I had placed the lemon cream into the cooled pastry case I was feeling much better as it had begun to look just like the one in the pictures in the book. Always a rewarding experience.

After chilling the assembled tart in the fridge for one hour, I was ready to place the slices of lemon on the tart and then glaze it with melted apricot jam. The recipe called for a mixture of apricot and quince, but I couldn’t find the latter without visiting a speciality shop in the centre of the city. I will try it next time and report if it makes a huge difference. I also need to find apricot jam without pieces in it, as I was a little disappointed that I managed to paint some pieces onto the tart. You’ll see those in the pictures. However, it added a beautiful glossy lacquer to both the pastry and the filling which sparkled in the light.

The finished tart garnished and glazed.

Then came the moment of truth. Felder says to keep the tart in the fridge until it’s ready to serve. I did this and tried the first piece the evening of cooking it. The pastry was still very crisp and broke a little while I was cutting it, but the taste was divine. The perfect balance of citrus and melt in the mouth cream. Leaving it overnight in the fridge made the pastry soften to the perfect consistency and the flavours really infuse into the cream. I would recommend leaving it overnight before serving next time. My last tarte au citron had been in a bistro on the Rue du Bac a couple of weeks ago, and I would have been more than happy if they had served me this one.

My next step now is to rethink this into something original, retaining, as per Philippe Conticini’s rules, all the original elements. I already have some ideas, but let’s see how it goes. Come back next week to find out.

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