Pie Failures {French Lemon Cream Tart Recipe}

I love baking.

But I am not a pie baker.

I’ve never been able to make crusts all that well. I guess I’m not good at leaving things be, and I probably overwork the dough. I try, and I try, and that’s probably the problem. I try too much.

A few years ago, my mom and I decided that everyone should bring a pie for Thanksgiving so the burden for pie didn’t rest with any one person. I thought it was a great idea, even though there was that nagging thought in the back of my head that I really can’t bake pies. I pushed it back, thinking to myself that anyone can bake pie, and I am a good baker–certainly I could bake a pie.


Well, I decided to try a free form tart for Thanksgiving that year, because in my head, I reasoned that free form meant easier.

Yeah, whoops. Rustic only looks good when you know how to make a regular pie look good!

I made a free form tart from Dorie Greenspan’s excellent Baking book and it was a disaster. The filling leaked all over the pan, the pastry spread out (I didn’t even know pie crust could do that!), and it looked awful. It tasted okay, but not enough to make up for the awful appearance. My family, of course, was gracious, and reassured me that it was fine.

I knew better.

The next year (last year), I made a pie in a graham cracker crust. That, I can handle. Pressing crumbs in a pan is right up my alley. And it was great! But, my inability to make pie crusts still nagged. Can I really consider myself a baker if I can’t make a pie crust? Really?

Well. I didn’t set out to conquer the pie crust when I decided to bake this lemon tart, but it did end up being a great time to practice. My friend brought back a bag of Meyer lemons from her mom’s tree when she visited California a couple of weeks ago, and instead of making my standby muffins, I decided to try a new recipe, one that would really showcase the flowery flavor of the lemons. I pored over my cookbooks and settled on a lemon cream recipe from Dorie Greenspan. I worked up the courage, and made it.lemon cream tart

And it wasn’t half bad. I am pretty sure I overworked the dough (big surprise) because I misread the instructions, but it turned out okay. It was a tart crust rather than a pie crust, so it was a bit more forgiving, but it was pretty hard and not as crumbly as it should have been. But, it held up. And browned nicely. And the cream.

Oh, the cream. The lemon cream was airier than I expected, but very tart and flavorful. Almost too flavorful. And with as airy as it was, it managed to be rich at the same time. I can’t quite make out what I really think of it, so I think I’ll probably have to make it again. Just to make sure. But I think I love it.

Sweet Tart Dough

from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 9 tablespoons very cold butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 large egg yolk

Put the flour, powdered sugar, and salt in a food processor and pulse a couple of times to combine. Scatter the pieces of butter over the flour mixture and pulse until the butter is cut in. Some pieces should be the size of peas and some should be smaller. Break the yolk and stir so it runs easily. Add the yolk to the processor a little at a time, pulsing after each addition. Once the egg is in, process in several 10-second pulses until the dough clumps together. Turn the dough out onto a clean counter and knead the dough lightly until the dry ingredients are just incorporated.

Butter a fluted tart pan with a removable bottom, either a 9- or 10-inch. Press the dough evenly over the bottom and up the sides, reserving a small piece of dough for patching. Be gentle. Freeze the crust for at least 30 minutes before baking.

While the crust is chilling, preheat the oven to 375. Butter the shiny side of a piece of aluminum foil and place it, shiny side down, on the crust, pressing it firmly into place. Put the cold tart on a baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes. Remove the foil and check for spots that need patching. Use your reserved dough to patch if necessary, then return the tart to the oven and bake for an additional 8 to 10 minutes until the crust is golden brown and firm. Transfer the tart to a cooling rack and cool completely before filling.

French Lemon Cream Tart

from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking

  • 1 cup sugar
  • grated zest of 3 lemons (Meyer if you have them for an extra flowery cream)
  • 4 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup fresh lemon juice (again, Meyer if you can)
  • 2 sticks plus 5 tablespoons butter, cut into tablespoon-sized pieces, at room temperature
  • 1 10-inch tart shell, fully baked and cooled

Get ready by preparing an instant read thermometer (calibrate it first), a strainer, and a blender. Prepare a double boiler by either using a prepared double boiler, or bringing a few inches of water to a simmer in a saucepan.

Put the sugar and zest in the top of a double boiler (or use a large heatproof bowl that can be set over the simmering water without touching the water). Off the heat, rub the zest and sugar together until the sugar is moist and fragrant. Whisk in the eggs first, then the lemon juice.

Set the double boiler (or makeshift bowl) over the pan and start stirring with a whisk as soon as the mixture is tepid. Cook the mixture until it reaches 180 degrees, staying extra close and whisking constantly. This will help prevent the eggs from scrambling. It may take 10 minutes or more to bring it up to temperature depending on how hot your stove heats.

As soon as it reaches temperature, remove the cream from the heat and strain it into the blender jar. Discard the zest and any scrambled egg. Let it stand for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it cools slightly, to about 140 degrees.

Turn the blender on high and, with the machine running, add the butter a few pieces at a time. Scrape the sides if needed. Once the butter is all in, continue blending for 3 minutes. If you need to, give your blender a rest, blending for 3 one-minute increments.

Pour the cream into a container and press a piece of plastic wrap directly against the surface. Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, at least four hours.

To assemble the tart, whisk the cream briefly and gently to loosen it before pouring into the cooled tart shell. The tart can be served immediately, but will cut cleaner if you refrigerate it before serving. Serve with sweetened whipped cream.


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