Sometimes I feel that I’m losing my touch. I’m sure this is normal, but it’s unnerving. How can you go wrong with lemon tart? Anything with lemons, I’m told, and I’m a sure-fire winner. I have a way with the lemon. So I was feeling rather cavalier, particularly as these reminded me of jam tarts. Not so much jam as gel, admittedly, and a bit rubbery. And the way the pastry rose up in the oven was odd, upending the lemon mixture, which lay blank and flabby on the floor of the pan. It was all rather irregular.
I was unsure what to write about this week. Or what to make. Perhaps this was what did it. The Oscars were coming to Hollywood for which we needed to be prepared. Halle Berry and Ben Affleck and various plasticated lovelies would be sashaying down the red carpet, and the road was closed off for days in preparation for this world-changing event. We had people over to watch it live and bet on who would win. I decided to make something with lemons. We have a rather bedraggled-looking lemon tree which produces small, intensely perfumed and rather sweet Meyers, but mainly we just pilfer them from the overhang of other people’s trees. You walk along and pop them in your pocket, while looking innocently around you as if new to the area.
I started off exploring a new recipe. It looked easy, but following a recipe is never just about following instructions. The language is important; it needs to be straight-forward, clear, unfussy. Lyrical is fine but too much information and I am apt to skip things, become impatient. I am not a baking nerd. And an old recipe is like an old friend – you pick up where you left off. One look at the page covered in pencilled amendments and various spillages, and I know we’ve been through something together, this recipe and me. There is also such a thing as muscle memory – the body remembers even if you don’t. A few swipes of a wooden spoon, an egg in the hand about to be cracked and the page warrants only a cursory glance from then on in. So the recipe below is a tried and trusted one – a lovely, simple Rick Stein offering that has never failed me. I have been kicking myself for wasting ingredients, and embarrassed that friends had had to eat something as willfully mediocre as the untried recipe proved to be. I swept the whole thing with a veil of confectioners’ sugar and hoped for the best. And it was fine. But there is a lesson in this, I’m sure – if in doubt, do what you know.
The rather prosaic-looking bars (above) are easier to manage at a party, but go for the classic and classier tart shape if you wish. You can certainly improvise here with other citrus, such as grapefruit, lime and even bergamot, if such a thing exists near you. Passion fruit (the juice of) may work too. However, nothing quite does the lemon’s job. I also add the zest for a bit of textural oomph. Use the left-over squeezed lemons for cleaning the sink.
From Rick Stein, Food For All Occasions (Puddings)
For the sweet pastry: (makes about 350g/12 oz)
175g (6 oz) plain flour
A small pinch of sea salt
50g (2 oz) icing/confectioners’ sugar
100g (4 oz) chilled butter, cut into pieces
1 egg yolk
1 – 1½ tsp cold water
For the filling:
6 medium eggs, beaten
3 large lemons
250g (9 oz) caster/superfine sugar
150ml (5 fl oz) double/thick cream
For the pastry – sift the flour, salt and sugar into a food processor or bowl. Add the pieces of chilled butter and work together briefly, either in the food processor or with your fingertips, until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the egg yolk and enough water until the mixture starts to come together into a ball (or add to the processor and process briefly), then turn out on to a lightly floured surface and knead briefly until smooth. Roll the pastry out thinly on a lightly floured surface and use to line a lightly greased, 25cm (10 in), loose-bottomed flat tin, 4cm (1½ in) deep. Prick the base here and there with a fork and chill for 20-30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F. Line the pastry case with crumpled greaseproof paper, cover the base with a thin layer of baking beans (or rice) and bake for 12-15 minutes, until the edges are biscuit-coloured. Carefully remove the paper and beans/rice and return the pastry case to the oven for 3-4 minutes. Remove, brush the inside of the case with a little of the beaten egg and return to the oven once more for 2 minutes. Remove and lower the oven temp to 120C/250F.
For the filling – finely grate the zest from 2 of the lemons, then squeeze out enough juice from all the fruit to give you 175ml (6 fl oz). Beat the eggs and sugar together until just mixed but not frothy. Mix in the lemon juice and cream, pour through a sieve into a jug and stir in the lemon zest.
Partly pull out the oven shelf, slide in the pastry case and pour in the filling. Slide the shelf back in and bake the tart for 40-45 minutes, until just set – the mixture should still be quite wobbly in the centre but it will continue to firm up after it comes out of the oven. Remove and leave to cool, but don’t refrigerate it. This tart is best served on the day it is made. Wedges or bars – you decide, and a bit of crème fraîche is lovely alongside.