Dorrie Greenspan’s Most Extraordinary French Lemon Cream Tart

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Dozens of plump, yellow fruit are weighing down the boughs of the meyer lemon tree in my garden. For the past week, I’ve picked over twenty lemons. When it came time to decide what to make for Thanksgiving dessert, I felt I didn’t have much of an option. Whatever I made had to be citric in a major way.

Dorrie’s Lemon Cream Tart was the obvious choice. I’m glad I choose it, but I don’t think I ever worked so hard. If I hadn’t made a lot of avgolemono soup years ago, I am sure I would have made a mess of this recipe. Whisking egg yolks over heat takes stamina, dexterity, and concentration. Is it worth it? The short answer is yes. The long answer comes at the end.

Here’s the way she presents the recipe:

1 cup sugar
grated zest of 3 lemons
4 large eggs
3/4 cup fresh lemon juice (from 4-5 lemons)
2 sticks plus 5 T butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces at room temperature
1 9-inch tart sweet shell (I used her Good-For-Nearly-Everything Pie Dough, but I’m getting ahead of myself)

Getting ready: Have an instant-read thermometer, a strainer and a blender (first choice) or food processor at hand. Bring a few inches of water to a simmer in a saucepan.

Put the sugar and zest in a large heatproof bowl that can be set over the pan of simmering water. Off the heat, rub the sugar and zest together between your fingers until the sugar is moist, grainy and very aromatic. Whisk in the eggs, followed by the lemon juice.

Set the bowl over the pan and start stirring with the whisk as soon as the mixture feels tepid to the touch. Cook the lemon cream until it reaches 180 degrees F. As you whisk — you must whisk constantly to keep the eggs from scrambling — you’ll see that the cream will start out light and foamy, then the bubbles will get bigger, and then, as it gets closer to 180 degrees F, it will start to thicken and the whisk will leave tracks. Head up at this point — the tracks mean the cream is almost ready. Don’t stop whisking or checking the temperature, and have patience — depending on how much heat you’re giving the cream, getting to temp can take as long as 10 minutes.

As soon as it reaches 180 degrees F, remove the cream from the heat and strain it into the container of the blender (or food processor); discard the zest. Let the cream stand, stiring occasionally, until it cools to 140 degrees F, about 10 minutes.

Turn the blender to high (or turn on the processor) and, with the machine going, add the butter about 5 pieces at a time. Scrape down the sides of the container as needed as you incorporate the butter. Once the butter is in, keep the machine going — to get the perfect light, airy texture of lemon-cream dreams, you must continue to blend the cream for another 3 minutes. If your machine protests and gets a bit too hot, work in 1-minute intervals, giving the machine a little rest between beats.

Pour the cream into a container, press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface to create an airtight seal and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight. (The cream will keep in the fridge for 4 days or, tightly sealed, in the freezer for up to 2 months; thaw it overnight in the refrigerator.)

When you are ready to assemble the tart, just whisk the cream to loosen it and spoon it into the tart shell. Serve the tart, or refrigerate until needed.

The little details Dorrie didn’t mention:

I could tell that it would be a disaster if I didn’t have all the ingredients and equipment ready and close at hand before I started. In a glass pyrex bowl, I combined the sugar and zest as she described. I brought water to a boil and then lowered to a simmer. Then, I broke the eggs
into the sugar and zest and began whisking. From this point on, I whisked constantly. My arm ached.

It took quite a bit longer than 10 minutes to thicken the custard. And whisking with one hand and holding the thermometer in the other was uncomfortable. Whisking, whisking, WHISKING, I watched the egg custard become frothy like eggnog and then thicken. But damned if I could get the heat up to 180 degrees! I turned the heat up a little at a time, but I never got it hotter than 160. Fortunately, it seemed sufficiently thickened after 15 minutes of whisking. I decided to go with my gut.

Straining, too, wasn’t as easy as Dorrie made it sound. For the first time in my life I wished I had a chinois with a pestle instead of the inexpensive, fine-mesh sieve I used so awkwardly. After plopping a big dollop of custard in the strainer resting on the blender container, I used a silicone spatula to mush it through the mesh. I had to use a knife to scrape off the strained cream on the bottom of the sieve. Another dollop, and then another. By the time I had smushed all the custard through the sieve into the blender, the temperature of the custard was, if anything, a little cooler than probably was good for it. The custard filled about a little less than half of the blender container.

I dropped in the butter and turned on the blender. By the middle of the second stick, I didn’t need to prod it down. The cream was now swirling on its own. I let the blender run for a while. When I sampled the cream, I realized what the fuss was about.

Since I planned on taking it with me to Oakland for Thanksgiving dinner, I transfer the cream to a plastic container, pressed plastic wrap on the surface and placed the top over that. Into the fridge it went. When I assembled the tart, I did not have to stir it up. It spread smoothly over the pastry dough.

Last thoughts:

My only regret is that I didn’t leave it in the fridge right up to the moment when we served it. This tart deserves to be served chilled. What appears in the photo above is the tart nearly at room temperature, which is too warm.

That’s it for Dorrie for the time being. Aside from not wishing to push the fair use of her book too far, I need to avoid desserts for the time being. I’m sure you’ll agree!

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Dorrie Greenspan’s Good-for-Almost-Everything Pie Dough

from Baking: From My Home to Yours, p. 442-3.

Dorrie Greenspan is an example of how small a circle really good cookbook authors form. For almost ten years, my favorite baking cookbook has been Baking with Julia. I can’t count the number of times I’ve made the rich cake in it. As soon as the review for Greenspan’s Baking started to appear, I kept my eye on it for about a year before I finally bought it. It was only after using Greenspan’s boca negraBaking for about the fourth time that I realized Greenspan is co-author of Baking with Julia. Well, that makes sense, I thought. And you will think so, too, if you work with these two books.

The investment in the new book has already paid off many times over. The only time I was unhappy with something I’ve made from it involved the pairing of a ganache tort with her all-butter sweet crust, when I think I would have preferred using the crust I present here. But I don’t anticipate needing any other dessert cookbook for another decade.

I will post her Fruit Gallette separately.

Here’s Dorrie’s recipe for a 9-inch single crust:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 T sugar
3/4 tsp salt
1 1/4 sticks (10 T) very cold (frozen is fine) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces
2 1/2 T very cold (frozen is even better) vegetable shortening, cut into 2 pieces
About 1/4 cup ice water

Put the flour, sugar and salt in a food processor fitted with a metal blade; pulse just to combine the ingredients. Drop in the butter and shortening and pulse only until the butter and shortening care cut into the flour. Don’t overdo the mixing — what you’re aiming for is to have some pieces the size of fat green peas and others the size of barley. Pulsing the machine on and off, gradually add about 3 tablespoons of the water — add a little water and pulse once, add some more water, pulse again and keep going that way. then use a few long pulses to get the water into the flour. If, after a dozen or so pulses, the dough doesn’t look evenly moistened or form soft curds, pulse in as much of the remaining water as necessary, or even a few drops more, to get a dough that will stick together when pinched. Big pieces of butter are fine. Scrape the dough out of the work bowl and onto a work surface.

Shape the dough into a disk and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate the dough for at least 1 hour before rolling. (If your ingredients were very cold and you worked quickly, though, you might be able to roll the dough immediately: the dough should be as cold as if it had just come out of the fridge.)

To roll out the dough: Have a buttered 9-inch pie plate at hand.
You can roll the dough out on a floured surface or between sheets of wax paper or plastic wrap or in a rolling slipcover. (I usually roll this dough out on the floured counter.) If you’re working on a counter, turn the dough over frequently and keep the counter floured. If you are rolling between paper, plastic or in a slipcover, make sure to turn the dough over often and to life the paper, plastic or cover frequently so that it doesn’t roll into the dough and form creases.

If you’ve got time, slide the rolled-out dough into the fridge for about 20 mins to rest and firm up.

Fit the dough into the pie plate and, using a pair of scissors, cut the excess dough to a 1/4- to 1/2-inch overhang. Fold the dough under itself, so that it hangs over the edge just a tad, and flute or pinch the crust to make a decorative edge. Alternatively, you can finish the crust by pressing it with the tines of a fork.

To partially or fully bake: Refrigerate the crust while you preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Better the shiny side of a piece of aluminum foil, fit the foil, buttered side down, tightly against the crust and fill with dried beans or rice or pie weights. Put the pie plate on a baking sheet and bake for 25 mins. Carefully remove the foil and weights and, if the crust has puffed, press it down gently with the back of a spoon. For a partially baked crust, return the pie plate to the oven and bake for about 8 minutes more, or until the crust is very lightly colored. To fully bake the crust, bake until golden brown, about another 10 minutes. Transfer the pie plate to a rack and cool to room temperature before filling.

My experience with this crust:

First of all, because I only use Diamond Crystal kosher salt, I up the amount to 1 3/4 tsps to compensate for its low salinity. And I use organic vegetable shortening, not Crisco. I know, I know, what’s the difference? I’m supporting the corn lobby, but I promise I’ll drive less.

Dorrie warns against overpulsing the ingredients in the food processor. I take this to mean really only process until it just begins to form a ball and then pour it out and press it together yourself.

As for the question of whether you should chill the dough before baking, count on doing it. She says if you work quickly the dough will still cold, but I don’t see how this is possible. So, I always factor in at least an hour for the ball of dough to sit in the fridge.

The dough rolls out very easily. I’ve rolled out it as she recommends, on a floured counter, but I’ve also found it very easy to roll out between two sheets of parchment paper. The paper , too, makes it easy to transfer to the pie tin.

Baking the shell is essential. I use pie weights. Pull the foil off the baked crust very slowly. In spite of the buttered side of the foil, it still adheres to the crust.

If you’re making something that calls for a double crust, doubling the ingredients is easy enough. As her introductory remarks indicate, you need a large-capacity food processor to make a double-crust in one batch. Otherwise, just make two batches.

Last thoughts:

I love this crust. I think I’ll make an apple galette with custard for dessert at Thanksgiving.

A Second Visit:

Sherry’s daughter Rachel was exasperated by this posting, because I didn’t stress two points. First, it’s essential that the dough be very cold before baking. For instance, today, when I made a second French Meyer Lemon Cream Tart, I put the rolled out dough fitted into the tart pan in the freezer for 20 minutes. And then, second, I put pie weights on the crust and arranged them so that many of them were right up against the side of the pan. I don’t know how much this helps, but it seems to prop up the side crust and prevents it from sliding down. Moreover, I left a generous amount at the top so that it wouldn’t shrink while baking below the level of the rim.