When I worked as a pastry chef at The Cleaver Company in New York City more than twenty years ago, one of our most requested recipes was this lemon tart. I have no idea who originated the recipe – it was floating around food businesses all over New York City in the 1980s, and with good reason.
It’s a minimalist confection, prepared with just flour, sugar, eggs, lemons, butter and cream. On the plate, it consists of only three colors; that is, if you choose to sprinkle on the optional confectioners sugar –otherwise, it’s two. And it tastes mostly of one thing – lemon.
That said, this tart is the pastry proof of “less is more.” It’s easy to make, requiring no mechanical devices, just a couple of bowls, a whisk, and your fingers. You don’t even have to roll out the dough – it presses into the pan.
And it is suitable for any time of year – as welcome in the heat of the summer as in the cold heart of winter. It travels well. It cuts into precise, gem-like pieces. On the tongue, it is a wonderful juxtaposition of assertive lemon, delicate custard, and buttery, crumbly crust.
I have made dozens of different recipes for lemon pies and tarts in my time, but this is my favorite, by far. So here it is: my New Year’s gift to you, a recipe worth saving and sharing.
The Best Lemon Tart
(from The Cleaver Company, circa 1986)
For the tart shell
2 cups flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup salted butter (2 sticks), clarified and measured out to 2⁄3 liquid cup (see below); if using unsalted butter, add ½ teaspoon salt to the dry ingredients
1 egg, whisked
For the lemon filling
1½ cups sugar
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon rind
1½ cups freshly squeezed lemon juice (depending on the size of the lemons, 8-10 lemons)
8 eggs, well whisked
¼ cup heavy cream
1-10 inch tart pan with a removable bottom
To clarify the butter, melt two sticks of butter either in the microwave or in a pot over medium low heat. When it is melted, pour it into a glass measuring cup and allow the clarified butter to separate from the milk liquid. The clarified butter will float on top of the milk liquid; if there are any solids floating on top of the clarified butter, scoop them off and discard.
Pour off 2⁄3 cup of clarified butter into a separate cup, leaving behind the milky liquid. If there is extra clarified butter, reserve it for another use. The milky liquid can be discarded.
To make the tart shell, combine the flour with the sugar in a medium-sized bowl. If using unsalted butter, add the salt to the dry ingredients.
Toss the clarified butter into the dry ingredients. When well-mixed, add the whisked egg and toss. You should wind up with a crumbly mixture.
Put about half the dough-crumbles into the tart mold. Press the mixture evenly along the sides of the pan. When the sides are completed, put most of the remaining dough on the bottom of the tart pan (reserve about ½ cup of the mixture for patching). Press evenly into the bottom of the pan. Make sure the sides and bottom have no gaps between them.
Use a fork to prick the bottom of the shell. Place in the freezer or refrigerator for a half an hour or so. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
When the shell is well-chilled, place in the preheated oven. Bake for about twenty minutes, turning once so it browns evenly.
Remove the shell when it is golden. It will probably have a few cracks in it. Sprinkle some of the remaining dough crumbles over the cracks and let them warm a little before pressing them into the cracks. Set the shell aside while mixing the lemon filling.
While mixing the filling, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Mix the grated lemon rind with the sugar and mix well with your fingers to release the oils from the rind into the sugar.
Whisk the lemon juice into the sugar mixture, then whisk in the eggs. Finally whisk in the cream.
Place the baked tart shell on a tray. Pour the egg mixture into the baked shell. Do not over-fill the tart shell. If there is more filling than will fit, you can bake it in a custard cup for an extra treat.
Bake the filled shell for about 30 minutes, turning once, so that the custard cooks evenly. As soon as the custard is barely set, remove the tart from the oven. It will continue to set as it cools.
When the tart is set and cool, and just before it is served, garnish the top of it with confectioner’s sugar poured through a sieve. The tart is best within a day of baking.