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Although always credited with the dictum that eating “pâté de foie gras was like entering heaven to the sound of trumpets” the Reverend Sydney Smith never actually said it. He didn’t, apparently, particularly like foie gras. What he did say – or was purported to have said, but that’s the trouble with great conversationalists – was that it was his friend Richard Luttrell’s idea of heaven, not his. His gentle chiding of his friend’s venality has been lost to history and those ringing trumpets have drowned out the actual purport of the remark. There is no such ambiguity in his response to starting a new life at the vicarage of Foston-le-Clay in North Yorkshire: there is a special poignancy in the observation that “the nearest lemon is 12 miles away”.
As a fruit and a flavour, its ubiquity may blind us to its value: we tend to take the lemon for granted and yet it makes the best sorbet, the best cheesecake and probably the best tart of all.
When I was apprenticed at Le Gavroche, we used to make a lemon tart that was featured on some elaborate assiette but considered insufficiently grand to be on the menu in its own right. The consequence was that three-quarters of the delicious lemon tart turned up on the staff menu every night.
A lemon tart is not the simplest recipe: you need a high-sided tart ring or tin, 22cm wide and 3cm high, and you have to form a light, crisp and leakproof pastry lining inside it.
The result is worth waiting for: I think the good parson would have heard flutes at the very least.
A good lemon tart needs no accompaniment although a little zest candied in syrup is permissible.
120g unsalted butter
180g plain flour
A pinch of salt
50g caster sugar
2 egg yolks plus 1 egg
1 tbsp milk
● Cut the butter into very small dice without letting it warm up too much. Rub the flour, salt, sugar and butter together in a large bowl, using only your fingertips. The mixture should be blended to a sandy texture with no lumps of butter remaining.
● Whisk the egg yolks with two tablespoons of cold water and pour into a well in the middle of the pastry mixture. Very gently blend the mixture together to form a dough. Shape into a slightly flattened ball and refrigerate for one hour.
● Butter and flour the inside of the tart ring. Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface. Allowing extra for the depth of the tin and to overlap the sides by a minimum of another centimetre, roll it out to a disc of at least 27cm in diameter. Carefully drop the pastry into the ring, making sure it fits right into the corners and hangs over the edge of the ring at every point. Do not cut off this overhang. Make absolutely sure there are no holes in the pastry, using any excess overhang to carry out repairs. Refrigerate the case for 30 minutes.
● Line the interior of the case with greaseproof paper or foil and baking beans. Bake in a moderate (mark 4, 180°C, 350°F) preheated oven for 25 minutes. Remove the baking beans and paper from the case and return to the oven for five minutes to finish cooking the base. Beat the egg with a tablespoon of milk and brush the interior of the case the minute it comes out of the oven.
4 eggs plus 1 yolk
150g caster sugar
150ml double cream
Icing sugar for dusting
● Very finely grate the zest of the lemons into a bowl and then strain the well-squeezed juice over the zest. Whisk together the eggs and the sugar until the sugar is dissolved and the mix is smooth. Pour in the double cream. Mix together well before stirring in the juice and zest.
● Lower the oven temperature to mark 2 (150°C, 300°F). Place the tart tin on the middle shelf of the oven. Pour the mixture into the case (stir beforehand if you have let it rest) and slide it into the oven for an hour and 10 minutes. The surface should not colour: if it threatens to do so, cover it with foil. To test, give the tray a gentle nudge back and forth – there should be no sign of liquid movement.
● Allow the tart to cool a little before sawing off the overhang with a knife and gently lifting off the tart ring. Transfer the tart to a plate only once it has completely cooled and then refrigerate. Dust the tart with icing sugar and serve chilled.