Desserts are definitely not my forte. Most likely because I’m not very good at sticking to a recipe. With cooking, it’s a character trait that has served me well. But with desserts, the otherwise innocuous habit of getting “creative” in the kitchen has led me down the path of the bad and the ugly more times than I’d like to admit.
Successful baking generally requires the anal-retentive precision of a scientist – someone who revels in the joys of perfect calculations and measurements. Since 10th grade calculus, I have not found numbers the least bit enticing. It’s a fetish that escapes me. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I cooked anything by following a recipe to the letter, let alone measure the quantities. I prefer eye-balling it. It makes me feel tough. Pat Benetar tough.
Unfortunately, desserts require a bit more predictability and little less tomfoolery. They LOVE precision. They adore carefully levelled cups of flour and pristine egg whites; timers and double-boilers. But sometimes even lab-coat meticulousness doesn’t guarantee success with some of the more capricious members of the dessert family. Akin to dogs, bees and small children, they can sense fear from a mile away. This is especially true of meringues, shortbread pastry and dainty little confections like French macarons. As far as I’m concerned, these are the hard-to-please sultanas of the baking empire – fussy, bitchy and unforgiving. They know when you are afraid of them and they take great pleasure in melting into a floppy mess when you treat them with quivering hands.
Knowing that many of my dessert-fails can be traced back to performance anxiety, I am making a concerted effort to make more of them – the logic being that the more comfortable I get with beating egg whites, calculating measurement conversions and shaping pastry, the less intimidated I will be with all things delicate and sweet – particularly those of the French persuasion. Starting with…
French lemon tart (adapted from Laura Calder)
- 2 whole eggs
- 4 egg yolks
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 3/4 cup lemon juice
- 2/3 cup heavy cream
- zest of 1 lemon
- 1 cup + 2 tablespoons flour
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/2 cup butter, cut into pieces
- 2 tablespoons cold water
- Put the flour, salt, and sugar into the bowl of a food processor. Add the butter pieces and pulse to create a texture that resembles coarse meal.
- Add ice water in a slow steady stream through feed tube of food processor with machine running. Pulse for a few seconds to incorporate the water.
- Turn out into a lightly floured work surface and knead until dough comes together in a ball. Be careful not to over-work the dough.
- Form dough into a disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate 15 minutes.
- Heat the oven to 400ºF. Roll out the dough, line the tart shell and bake blind by placing a piece of parchment paper over the shell and filling it to the top with baking beans. Bake for about 15 minutes.
- Remove pie shell from oven, remove baking beans (store for future use) and allow to cool.
- Reduce oven temp to 325ºF. Beat together the eggs, yolks, and sugar in a bowl. Add the lemon juice. Whisk in the cream.
- Pour lemon cream mixture into the shell. Bake until just set, about 30 minutes.
- Remove from oven and sprinkle with lemon zest. Let cool before serving.