I tend to be overly cautious in life. When someone tells me, “Make sure you don’t do X, or something bad will happen,” you can count on me not to do X. In fact, I will be so careful to avoid X that I will also steer clear of Q, R, S, T, U, V & W for good measure. And I will think of hardly anything except what terrible things might ensue if I did, by woeful accident, do X.
This is no way to make a lemon tart.
It all started last week with a craving. I longed to sink my teeth into a lemon tart that was just set, not soggy, but squishy and smooth. One not overly sweet, that let the tart lemons shine through, and with a buttery, crisp crust and a hint of coconut.
The first attempt was tasty but not the right consistency — too squishy. And after a couple hours in the fridge it became lemon sludge in the middle. But I liked my coconut-shortbread crust creation and was dreaming of just the right lemon topping to complete it.
So I turned to acclaimed baking expert Rose Levy Beranbaum’s recipes and discovered the secret to her never-soggy lemon bars: a lemon curd, thickened on the stovetop and then baked briefly with the crust to ensure it sets completely. I tried adapting the lemon bar recipe to a lemon tart and gave it a go. As I began heating up the eggs, sugar, lemon juice and butter in a saucepan, I heeded Beranbaum’s caution to not let it come to a boil or the eggs would curdle. So I stirred and kept a watchful eye for steam and bubbles, and at any hint it might come to a boil, I would quickly reduce the heat and continue to stir.
My lemon curd never quite set, even after double the time it was supposed to take. But maybe, I thought, it would gel more in the oven, or upon cooling. Hours later, my cooling lemon soup slopping around inside a coconut-shortbread crust despaired me; I put it in the fridge, then the freezer, hoping it would somehow set. When I took it out of the freezer it did look set, so I took a knife to cut a slice and brought it down through the middle. Crackle, went the lemon icicles. Then: whooooosh! Lemon soup splattered all over the kitchen floor, uncurdled eggs and all.
As I read and re-read Beranbaum’s recipe and all the rave reviews, I knew it was completely my error. Just like my caramel catastrophe of last year. It despaired me so much I thought I’d had enough of trying to create a lemon tart. I really began to berate myself for all my faults and shortcomings. It was only later that it hit me: Isn’t this just like me, to fret so much about ruining the eggs that I end up ruining the whole darn thing? I went back to the stove, shed every fear of curdling the eggs and just went for it. The result was a beautiful golden-orange lemon curd that seemed to gel so naturally and effortlessly:
The closer we got to Valentine’s Day, the more this lesson hit home for me. I went on my first “date” with my husband during the short overlap we had together in the U.S. We had just returned from long stints living overseas in separate regions and were both headed overseas to separate regions just weeks later. In that short overlap, we reconnected as friends from grad-school days and had a lovely evening together. But I had a flash of panic about what might come of everything and told him it wasn’t a date, that we shouldn’t mess with our longtime friendship and that I wasn’t interested in pursuing a long-distance relationship across different continents.
I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t see him again or return his many calls over the next few weeks before my departure. To me, the thought of starting a complicated relationship as I headed overseas was too much, too likely to lead to pain and failure. I wish I had had the decency and foresight to at least return his calls, but at that time it was the Q, R, S, T, U, V & W I needed to avoid at all costs. Better to turn the heat down, avoid disaster.
So I flew to North Africa and began my life there, unattached. He flew to Europe a few weeks later. And in the months that followed I tried to convince myself that everything was settled between us. Then came an unexpected email from him, saying, “I’m coming to your neck of the woods and I want to see you.” I felt a tiny shift, a crackling of icicles, then whoooosh. It’s kind of a whirlwind from there, but I learned that North Africa and Europe are only divided by the warm Mediterranean or a short flight. We had lots of opportunities to stir things up, and this time let them gel properly.
And this, my friends, is the best way to make a lemon tart. Live a little, turn up the heat, toss your fears and worries aside, and believe. Hey, there are worse things than curdled eggs anyway. Like letting yourself miss out on this:
Happy Valentine’s Day! May you be brave.
Lemon Tart with Coconut Shortbread Crust
Adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Ultimate Lemon Butter Bar recipe
- 1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup finely ground coconut powder
- 1/2 cup confectioners sugar
- pinch of salt
- 1 1/2 sticks (170 g.) cold butter, cut into small cubes
Lemon Curd Filling:
- 4 large egg yolks
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter (softened) (2 ounces = 57 grams)
- 3 fluid ounces (use a liquid measuring cup) freshly squeezed lemon juice (2 to 2 1/2 large lemons)
- Pinch of salt
- 2 teaspoons lemon zest (finely grated) (4 grams)
- 2 tablespoons confectioners sugar for dusting
- Preheat oven to 350 F/180 C. In a large bowl, combine the flour, coconut powder, confectioners sugar, and salt with a whisk. Add the cold butter cubes and mix with hands to combine. The dough will be crumbly; if still too sticky to spread, add a bit more flour. Spread the dough out on a tart pan, using your hands to flatten the bottom and work up the sides, leaving a 1-cm space or so at the rim. Cook for 25 to 30 minutes, or until edges are lightly browned and top is golden.
- Meanwhile, make the lemon curd: weigh the butter and set aside; zest and juice the lemons and set aside separately. In a nonreactive medium saucepan, use a wooden spoon to combine the egg yolks and sugar, mixing well. Then add the softened butter and mix well again. Add the juice and salt and mix again (with the addition of the juice, it will separate a bit, but a good stirring of the butter beforehand helps).
- Set a spouted bowl with a sieve over it close to the stovetop area.
- Set the saucepan over low heat and be ready to tend it, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. When mixture is incorporated well again, slowly turn up the heat closer to medium. Keep stirring until it thickens like hollandaise sauce. A little steaming and bubbling on the sides are okay as long as you keep stirring vigilantly and lift off the heat when it looks like it might actually boil. You will feel the bottom center of the pan thickening the most as you stir. Keep letting it thicken until it is no longer translucent but slightly opaque and coats the spoon a nice golden-orange. It will thicken some in the oven and upon cooling, but get it to a good thickness here. When it thickens enough to coat the spoon (about 7 minutes), pour it through the sieve into the bowl you set aside. Add the zest.
- When the crust is lightly browned on the edges, remove from the oven and set aside on a cooling rack. Reduce the oven temperature to 300 F/150 c. While it is still warm, pour the lemon curd on top of the crust and return to the oven; cook for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool completely, then chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes before cutting.
- Sprinkle confectioners sugar on top through a strainer, cut with a large kitchen knife, and serve.