Monday, January 22, 2007

Meyer Lemons -- that's what's for dinner

This Saturday, I've come to a conclusion that the most necessary tool in today's kitchen is not a KitchenAid mixer, a food processor, or a mandoline. It is, without a doubt, an internet connection. I never realized how much I rely on it until it was gone. After teaching for 3 days straight, and tidying up my kitchen after the last class, I was finally going to get to play with my beautiful meyer lemons. I got these little smooth beauties at Whole Foods a few days ago and couldn't get enough of them. I drizzled them over fish, put a slice in my tea each morning, and used them for salad dressings. They are a little sweeter and more perfumy than regular lemons and simply irresistable. I was thinking of dishes that would put meyer lemons center stage rather than use them as an accompaniment and came up with meyer lemon hollandaise sauce and meyer lemon tart.

I've never made hollandaise before since I am not a big butter sauce person. I wonder if I am the first culinary instructors who doesn't know how to make hollandaise with her eyes closed? With Julia Child's instructions, it was a piece of cake. To lighten it up a bit, I stirred in a bit of whipped cream and extra meyer lemon juice. As I found out, that would be called Sauce Maltaise if I used orange juice. Was it yummy? Well, how can this much butter not be yummy? But to tell you the truth it wasn't any yummier than my regular fish reduction with a touch of cream, which is about 75% less fat than hollandaise.

The lemon tart is where I really got stuck. I remember seeing a recipe for a lemon tart with a torched top, but for the life of me couldn't remember where. I looked through the recent issues of Gourmet and Saveur with no luck. It must have been someone's blog. Oh yikes -- our internet connection was still dead, and verizon people were impossible to reach on a weekend. I started looking through my cookbooks to see what I could find. Julia's book had a lemon soufflé tart, but I was looking for more or a custard tart. The only one I found was in Jamie Oliver's book, and he and I are not the best of pals. Well, actually, I am sure Jamie is a great guy, but whoever writes and tests his recipes drives me nuts. I remember making this tart years ago and not being happy with it.

You'd think it would be wise to wait till I could find a good recipe. But when one needs a lemon tart, one needs a lemon tart. I even had a perfect little piece of pâte brisée (tart dough) left over from my French Bistro class. I collected the edges of the dough after trimming a tart tatin, and put them back in the fridge. It was just enough for one tartlet for Jason and me to share after dinner and the meyer lemons sitting on my counter made waiting simply impossible. So I decided to fearlessly plunge into this baking adventure with or without a proper recipe.

When I tried to remember what went wrong with Jamie's tart, I figured it was nothing that couldn't be fixed.
  • The dough sucked, but I had that already taken care of.
  • The lime zest looked cool in the picture, but it distracted from the creaminess of the custard. I decided to infuse the cream with the zest, but strain it out before using.
  • The custard cracked -- that might have been my fault. Maybe I baked it too long, or maybe my oven is hotter than I think it is. To be on the safe side, I decided to lower the temperature from recommended 350F to 325F.
Now that I had a plan for the custard, I just had to figure out how to bake a little tartlet without a tartlet shell. Here Julia came to the rescue. I have long wanted to try her method of baking tart dough on an inverted pan. I flipped my tiniest pyrex dish, arranged the dough on top and trimmed, then set a ramekin on top of the dish to prevent the dough from puffing up. After 18 minutes, I removed the ramekin and baked a couple minutes longer to make sure the bottom (which was actually on top) was done. It tuned out beautifully! Very evenly baked without all that foil, beans, etc. I popped it off the pyrex dish, put it back in the oven, filled with custard and baked until only the center was quivery. Then I cooled it for an hour, sprinkled with sugar, and torched the top like I do for crème brûlée.

It was a truly spectacular tart. The custard packed a good lemony punch. The dough was perfectly flaky and delicate. And how can you not love that sugar crust?

Meyer Lemon Tartlets

Serves 6

pâte brisée for 1 large tart divided into 6 parts, rolled out and baked.
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 Tbsp lemon zest (preferably meyer lemons)
2/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (preferably meyer lemons)
4 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
  1. Since the tart dough doesn't cook at all once the custard is added, cook it completely before proceeding to step 2. Follow instructions for rolling our and baking the dough, but add an extra 5-10 minutes to the baking time to make sure the dough is golden brown all over.
  2. Set the oven to 325F.
  3. Combine cream and zest in a small saucepan and warm up over low heat just until the mixture is hot. Don't let it boil. The easiest way to do this is in a pyrex measuring cup in the microwave. Take off heat and let stand 5 minutes. Strain out the zest and discard.
  4. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs and the sugar. Slowly beat in the cream, lemon juice and vanilla.
  5. Put the tartlet shells on a cookie sheet and set them in the middle of the oven. Pull out the oven rack, fill them with custard, and very carefully move the rack back in the oven. Cook just until all but the center of the custard is set, 30-40 minutes.
  6. Cool on a rack for 1 hour. Do not eat right out of the oven -- the custard will be too runny. If you have a torch, you can sprinkle the top with sugar and torch it.


Anonymous said...

I applaud your comment on Jamie Oliver: "but whoever writes and tests his recipes drives me nuts." Richard Ehrlich wrote an article called "Cooking the Books" for the Financial Times that addresses this very topic. In just about every other profession--sports, acting, whatever--ghost writers get a credit. Ghost writers for celebrity chefs do not, even though they often work much harder. They're not just making stories more interesting and/or coherent--they're often, as you point out, taking recipes that are scaled for restaurants or are mere scribbled notes and turning them into something doable in a home kitchen. What's the big deal? I don't think anyone imagines some random athlete can actually write his or her own book--why should they expect more of a chef?

Anonymous said...

Funny Helen, my post today is about the same thing ;-) Nice to compare recipes!

Helen said...

Well, as all you food bloggers know, putting together good quality recipes is really hard work. It's a shame when these writers aren't given credit. But in case of Jamie's book, whoever this writer was, he did a pretty bad job. Maybe the other books are better, but "The Naked Chef" has wishy-washy instructions, glaring omissions and errors. I love using it for inspiration though -- many cool ideas :)


Dianka said...

This looks delicious, Helen. I love Meyer Lemons too, they are such a cut above regular lemons.

Sara said...

Your tarts look delicious! What a lovely blog :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the recipe. Copied it. :)

Blue Plate said...

What a beautiful tart.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

These little tartlets look wonderful! I've been craving Meyer lemons, too -- good to know that Whole Foods has them, as they are tough to come by here in the Northeast.

Ditto, too, about Jamie Oliver. I applaud what he's doing with kids and nutrition, but I have little respect for chefs who dash off badly written or badly-tested cookbooks. Doesn't make me want to eat in their restaurants, which, after all, is why most chefs write books -- to enhance the cachet of their restaurants.

Lisa Johnson said...

Yum! That looks great.

And I agree about the Internet connection being vital for cooking. I've been getting lots of baking inspiration from blogs!

Anonymous said...

That tart just jumps off the computer screen- beautiful. I like the idea of caramelising the top like a creme brulee too.

I agree with you (and quite a few other commenters) on Jamie Oliver's books. I own Jamie's dinners and while the photos are nice I have never actually cooked anything from it that has worked without significant alteration.