The tarte au citron – a classic staple of the French patissier‘s craft – involves a lovely combination of tart lemon curd baked in a shortcrust case, usually made with the mildly sweetened pate sucree. This citrusy pastry dish’s success is based on a number of contrasting elements: the crispness of the shortcrust against the smooth, velvety creaminess of the filling; the tartness of citrus softened by cream and the sweetness of real sugar.
In contrast with most French desserts which can be overwhelmingly rich with all the cream, custard, and perhaps a lot of chocolate, the tarte au citron is strikingly simple and the basic formula of lemon curd and shortcrust has changed little throughout the passage of time. It is considered a necessary part of the repertoire of any baker worthy of the title, either professional or amateur.
I confess at this point that making pastry has never really been my strong point. It’s more of a matter of biology as it is of skill. My hands, you see, were pretty much built for baking bread and not pie crusts – for the basic reason that my hands are actually hot to the touch. A proper pastry-maker needs to have cool – even cold – hands to keep the butter in the dough from melting a tad too early in the prep process. However, long-time readers know that I tend to be quite stubborn once I’ve taken a notion to do something and so, here we are.
Another confession: the recipe I took a cue from isn’t even from a French chef. It’s actually from British chef Mary Berry from the BBC show The Great British Bake Off and was featured in the September 2011 issue of BBC Good Food magazine. I had to do a bit of tweaking since I had just one lemon, a whole lot of calamansi (calamondins – those wee native fruits that are a cross between oranges and limes – like a tiny version of a Meyer lemon only with a sharper tang), and some Pakistani oranges I picked up from the fruit stall at the local market. Plus, I didn’t have the icing sugar Mary Berry used for her pastry. But, in a pinch, we must make do with what we have on hand.
The end result was a sharp-tasting dessert – rather tart in a pleasant way with just enough sweetness to keep it from being lip-puckeringly so – with a beautifully crisp yet crumbly crust. It was all golden and fragrant, reminiscent of the summer that is now (finally!) on its last legs in these parts as the rains have begun to fall and the storms are howling in. While the citrus curd filling was creamy enough though, I felt that it wasn’t as smooth as it should have been. Anyone have any suggestions on how to make it smoother?
One other thing for any of you readers who wants to bake this particular tart: it is rather fiddly to do as you have to squeeze so much in the way of citrus fruit, grate the zest off both an orange and a lemon, and bake the pastry blind before filling it. Believe me, however, when I saw that it’s definitely worth doing.
Tarte avec Trois Agrumes (Three-Citrus Tart)
For the pate sucree:
- approximately 200 grams all-purpose flour
- 100 grams very cold salted butter, cubed
- 25 grams white granulated sugar
- 1 large egg yolk
For the citrus curd:
- 5 large eggs
- 125mL all-purpose cream
- 225 grams granulated white sugar
- finely grated zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
- mixed juice of 1 orange, 1 lemon, and enough calamansi to yield 150mL of juice
Make the pastry by rubbing the butter into the flour and sugar till it resembles coarse cornmeal or breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolk and 1 tablespoon cold water and combine until the ingredients clump together. Knead the pastry a couple of times, just till it gets smooth. Form into a ball.
Dust a clean work surface with flour and remove the base from a fluted loose-bottomed tart tin. On the floured surface, lay a sheet of waxed paper or baking parchment and trace a circle about 4cm bigger than the tin base. Dust the tin base with flour, then place the balled pastry in its center. Flatten the pastry ball, then roll it out until it meets the edge of the penciled circle.
Gently fold the pastry at the edges inwards. Carefully lift the tin base and pastry from the waxed paper and place in the tart tin. Just as carefully ease the folded dough into the corners and sides of the tin, pressing it well into the flutes. Prick the pastry base with the tines of a fork, cover with a sheet of waxed paper, and chill in the fridge for about 30 minutes. In the meantime, preheat your oven to 400 degrees / Gas Mark 6.
Remove the pastry from the fridge but don’t remove the waxed paper. Place baking beads or dried beans over the waxed paper. Place the tart tin on a baking sheet and cook for 12 – 15 minutes. Take the pastry case out of the oven and remove the waxed paper and baking beads. Return to the oven and bake an additional 10 – 12 minutes until crisp and properly dried-out. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack. Lower the oven temp to 325 degrees / Gas Mark 3.
Prepare the filling by whisking together the eggs, sugar, citrus zest, and the juice till well-combined. Pour into the cooled pastry case and bake for 30 – 35 minutes or just till the filling is set on the edges but the middle still has a bit of a wobble to it. Leave to cool completely before transferring to a serving plate. If desired, dust the cooled tart with icing sugar before serving.
Serves 10 – 12.