Bitter Lemon Tart
V. and I are heading off for a short vacation very early tomorrow morning. Our flight departs at 7:30, which means we have to be at National Airport at 5:30, which means waking up and leaving home at hours too indecent to be mentioned. The upshot of all this is that we'll celebrate the new year by snoring.
Because we won't be awake when 2007 arrives, we decided to have a New Year's Eve brunch for those of our friends who are not out of town and who did not have previous commitments. As it happens, brunch on New Year's Eve (when it falls on a weekend) is not a time when people generally have previous commitments, so despite our having planned this little get together about three days ago, most of the people who were in town were able to show up.
I decided to rein myself in somewhat on the food preparation, so there was only about twice as much food as we needed, and that's much better than I usually do. I doubled a lot of recipes and made two versions, so I ended up with two quiches: one with bacon, jarlsberg, and caramelized onions; the other with caramelized onions and all the leftover cheese (chevre and brie) from our recent party. I made a generous batch of pâte brisée (15 ounces all purpose flour, twelve tablespoons butter, 1/4 tsp salt, 2 egg yolks, 1/2 tablespoon red wine vinegar, and about 3/4 cup of ice water) which allowed me to have large circles of thick crust so that I could fold the edges under and keep the rim of the pastry standing upright even through a blind baking (fifteen minutes with foil; another five minutes without: all at 350). I made the custard from seven whole eggs, three cups of half-and-half, two teaspoons of dijon mustard, half a teaspoon of salt, a grating of nutmeg, and some freshly ground black pepper. I baked the quiches at 375, and they took about forty-five minutes to get nicely browned. Delicious.
I also made a double batch of my favorite (from Beat This) blueberry muffin recipe and used half of it with frozen blueberries and the other half with a combination of frozen sweet cherries and toasted slivered almonds. Also delicious.
I had originally intended to be very good about my diet today, so I also made two salads which were more or less on my plan. And the salads (one green bean salad dressed with a bit of walnut oil and an equal amount of white balsamic vinegar with some garlic, ginger, and salt and pepper; one salad of halved grape tomatoes, cubed feta cheese, halved black olives, fresh red pepper strips, baby spinach, and a lot of chiffonaded basil -- all dressed with a standard vinaigrette) were also delicious, but I also made a punchbowl full of exceptionally good mimosas, and after a couple of those, I couldn't resist trying all of the stuff that I'd made extra rich because I'd only been going to give it to my guests. Ah well.
For dessert, I had the last of my Christmas cookies, and this stunning bitter lemon tart. And "stunning" really is the word, because the taste is both a bit of a shock and unexpectedly wonderful. At least to my palate. Because of the bitterness, I felt it necessary to warn my guests, but about three-quarters of them raved about it. The other quarter, I think, were put off by the bitterness, but they were polite enough to say nothing. Take your own taste and the tastes of your guests into account if you're considering making it.
I didn't really set out to make a bitter lemon tart. But I had a small package of Meyer lemons. I saw them last week in the supermarket, and since I'd never seen any around here before, I picked them right up, without a real plan. I decided on the lemon tart when it became clear we were having a bit of a crowd for brunch. I have often heard it said that one can use the entire Meyer lemon without fear of excess bitterness. One would, of course, never include the white part of the peel of an ordinary lemon (except, of course, if one is making candied lemon peel, which requires Herculean effort to tame the bitterness) because of bitterness, but I chopped up most of my Meyers (they came in a pack of four, ranging in size from not very big to decidedly small), added some sugar, and left them to macerate overnight in the refrigerator with no fear of bitterness.
But then I tasted them the next morning. I also tasted fear, but I was determined not to be bested. I tossed my finely diced (sort of: I had chopped some of them fine, but others I had cut into wedges and then put through my handy dandy Japanese, ceramic-blade slicer, and I ended up with a variety of shapes of small pieces) lemons into the food processor, added more sugar until I got a bitter taste that I liked, and then added the rest of the ingredients.
I'd made the tart base the night before. And I think that even if you start out by grinding your Meyer lemons in the food processor with sugar, you probably want to let them sit with the sugar overnight, so you may as well make your crust the night before, too.
I had wanted a nut crust for the base, and after some thought, I decided to make something very like a macaroon batter and spread it along the base of a springform pan and bake it until brown. A word to the wise: if you attempt this, make sure that the batter completely covers the bottom of the pan and runs all the way to the sides of the pan so that there are no gaps for the lemon filling to run down into. I didn't lose any of my filling to the oven floor, but some of it did seep down and make the crust a bit soggy. But still very, very good.
You will not want to chop all of your lemons, however. Take the smallest of your lemons, cut it in half crosswise, and make several very thin slices. These slices will end up being a decoration, and they are very pretty indeed. If you are very skilled with a knife, then go ahead and do this by hand. (But keep it to yourself, okay? The rest of us don't need to be made to feel inferior.) I have very recently sharpened my knives, so the lemon chopping was relatively easy. Still, I made the slices with the 2 mm setting on my handy dandy Japanese ceramic-bladed slicer. My handy dandy slicer has two settings that are thinner than 2 mm, but I very rarely find anything that slices well much thinner than 2 mm. Perhaps I am not buying enough truffles. You will candy your lemon slices in a sugar syrup and leave them to dry on a rack overnight. You will be extremely taken with just how pretty they look sitting there. It will seem almost a shame to have to eat them, but you will go ahead and put them on the top of the tart and, eventually, eat them because I said so.
The macaroon batter recipe will make more than enough to make your tart crust. You want a substantial but not thick layer of the macaroon for the crust. I think about a quarter-inch is right, but a little more or less will not hurt anything. The leftover macaroon batter will make excellent macaroons. Just use a largeish cookie scoop to put mounds of the batter on a lined cookie sheet and bake along with the tart crust. The macaroons will take an extra ten minutes or so. They are yummy. Crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, delicious throughout.
Cashew Date Macaroons
1 cup toasted sweetened coconut
6 dates, halved
1 cup roasted, unsalted cashew pieces
1/4 t. salt
2 egg whites
2 T. sugar
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
Put the date halves and coconut in the bowl of your food processor. Process until the dates are chopped into small bits. Add the cashews and salt and process until the cashews are ground but not oily.
Put the egg whites in the bowl of your stand mixer, with the whisk attachment fitted. Whisk on low until they are foamy, and then increase speed to high and whisk until you have soft peaks. Gradually add in the sugar and whisk until you have stiff peaks. Fold in the cashew mixer.
Spread about a quarter-inch layer of the mixture in the bottom of a nine-inch, non-stick springform pan. With a large (two-inch) cookie scoop (or two tablespoons), form the remaining batter into mounds on a lined cookie sheet. Bake until medium-brown on the outside: about twenty-five minutes for the crust and thirty-five minutes for the cookies.
Bitter Lemon Tart
A macaroon crust in a nine-inch springform pan
4 Meyer lemons
4 T. butter, melted
1/2 t. almond extract
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
The night before, take your smallest lemon and make eight to ten very thin crosswise slices from the middle of it. Reserve the slices.
Cut the rest of the smallest lemon and the remaining lemons into rough dice. Scrape all of the lemon pieces and juice into a large measuring cup and determine how much you have. Add an equal volume of sugar and stir well. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Meanwhile, in small saucier, combine the sugar and water. Put a lid on it and bring it to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and slide the lemon slices into the syrup. Put the lid back on it and simmer for half an hour. Turn off the heat and let sit until cool. Remove the lemons to a rack and let dry overnight.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Put the lemons and sugar in the bowl of your food processor. Process until very finely ground. Add the eggs, the melted butter, and the almond extract, and process again until very well mixed.
Pour the batter into the macaroon-lined springform pan and top with the candied slices. Bake until set, approximately thirty-five minutes.
Let cool. Serve at room temperature right away, or refrigerate and serve cold. It's good either way.
You will want to run a dull knife around the edge of the springform pan before you open it so as not to tear the tart apart.
You will also want to cut small slices of this tart because it's very potent. I cut mine into sixteen pieces, and they were just about the right size.
V. and I will be spending the week in Florida, first in the Everglades and then in the keys. We had planned to stay in Key West, but the hotel we'd booked was closed down because of carbon monoxide poisoning, so now we will be staying just south of Key Largo, which suits me just fine. While I will doubtless be enjoying and comparing various key lime pies, I won't be posting, so let me take this opportunity to wish each and every one of you a happy new year and the best of all possible years in 2007.