It all started, because we ate out at a new, or rather, new-to-us restaurant in town a couple of weeks ago. The food was pretty good, though I really wish that folks in Ohio would learn what al dente means when it comes to cooking pasta, and they had a dessert that sounded delightful–lemon blueberry tart.
It sounded delightful, but Zak and I declined, because Zak pointed out that blueberries were in season, I knew how to make lemon curd and he bet that any tart I made would be better than what we paid too much for in a restaurant.
When he put the logic to me in that way, I couldn’t rightly disagree–especially since it meant that he trusted me to make a bang-up beautiful pastry all on my own in the kitchen.
And well, that is probably what I should have done in the first place. I should have just stuck to my usual instincts and made either a pate sucre crust or a batch of shortbread and pat it into a tart pan and call it a tart crust.
But no. I had to go and mistrust my own instinct and decide to get all fancy and follow a recipe out of a cookbook.
Without changing it as I went along.
I really don’t know what possessed me to decide that actually following a recipe as written was a good idea, since I so seldom do that, but there I was. I had bought a quart of fresh blueberries and a dozen eggs at the farmer’s market and a bag of lemons at the grocery store. Butter, flour and sugar I had in the kitchen, so I trotted off to look up my pate sucre recipe, when my eye was caught by a book that I loved reading, but had never baked from.
In the Sweet Kitchen: The Definitive Baker’s Companion by Regan Daley won the International Association of Culinary Professional’s prestigious Cookbook of the Year award in 2001, and with good reason. It is an excellent resource on dessert baking, and is chock full of facts, figures, tables and reference material that, while it may be available elsewhere, is not available all together in one volume.
Regan Daly is a young pastry chef who has worked at many of the finest restaurants in Toronto, and she really does know her stuff, and it is obvious by the way in which she writes.
So, I felt pretty comfortable taking that book out to see if she had a recipe for a lemon-blueberry tart. I figured a hotshot pastry chef is bound to know more about these things than I am.
And lo, and behold–there it was! A recipe for “Cornmeal Crusted Lemon Tart” that had a variation called simply, “Lemon Blueberry Tart.” I read the description of the dessert and my mouth watered: “a mouth-puckering, intensely lemony version of a classic bistro dessert…the cornmeal crust adds a rich nutty flavor and acts as a crunchy contrast to the sikly curd…the Lemon Blueberry Tart variation that follows is divine–these two flavors complement each other beautifully…but be sure you prepare it with fresh wild blueberries, or don’t make it at all!”
I had to cop to liking her attitude–insisting that your reader do the recipe your way or not at all appeals to me–not that I had fresh wild blueberries, mind you. I had fresh, locally grown cultivated organic blueberries, and figured that was good enough.
But it wasn’t the berries that gave me fits.
It was the crust.
I read the recipe, and read her method and thought about it. And something bugged me awfully much about it. It only had 1/3 cup of yellow cornmeal, preferably stoneground–but it also included baking powder, one large egg and one large egg yolk.
Daly warned in her description of how to put the recipe together that her tart dough turns out looking like dry, crumbly floury bits of weirdness and not like a proper dough at all. That gave me pause. She explained it away by saying that cornmeal takes a long time to assimilate liquids and that after the liquids soaked in a bit the dough would come together. She advocated putting the dough together in the food processor, but also gave a method for doing it by hand.
What really bothered me wasn’t crumbly tart dough–pate sucre can be crumbly and shortbread is intensely crumbly and looks like a disaster until you start patting it into its mold or the tart pan. It was the insistence upon the use of both an egg and an egg yolk that made me cagey. I was afraid that the eggs would make the tart dough too tough–which is probably why she added a single egg yolk in addition to the whole egg.
A little kitchen science to explain my wariness with this recipe: what causes pastry dough to be flakey and good is the way it is put together. The fat, in this case, butter, is cut into the flour–in this case, flour mixed with a very small amount of cornmeal–and then a scant amount of liquid is added–just enough to make the dough stick together.
Tart doughs are supposed to be somewhat stronger than regular pie dough, because after they are baked, they are removed from their pan to stand on a serving plate alone. The pie pan holds the crust of regular pies in shape–it is so flaky that it would crumble if it didn’t have the pie pan to give it structure.
The egg was obviously meant to help strengthen the tart dough, and I figured that the use of a single egg yolk in addition to the whole egg was meant to tenderize the dough by the addition of extra fat. The part of an egg which provides the most structural elements are the proteins in egg whites, while the egg yolk is mostly fat and water.
What was bothering me was this–not only was the dough going to have very strong structural elements–the crunch of cornmeal and the binding element of eggs, but it was also not rolled out, but instead, patted into the tart pan by hand.
I was fearful that all of this handling of the dough would make it tougher than it needed to be. The addition of the baking powder was obviously meant to lighten the pastry to some extent by providing a bit of lift, but I didn’t think that the amount she put in the recipe was really going to accomplish much.
I measured out the ingredients and almost chickened out and went for the shortbread crust instead. I figured I could use my shortbread recipe that includes ground almonds in it for the crunchy aspect of the cornmeal, and all would be well. I nearly did it, too, but my curiousity was too much for me. I had to know what that cornmeal crust tasted like.
And so, I followed the recipe, to the letter.
And the result was stunningly beautiful to behold: I have to toot my own horn here and say that the tart looked fantastic, which, really, anyone with eyes can see.
Making the crust was simple, and the lemon curd went together just as lemon curd goes together, meaning, I stirred and stirred the ingredients over a hot water bath for what seemed like an eternity of boredom, while nothing happened, when all of a sudden, it came together, thickened and became lemon curd.
The blueberries with their garnish of fresh raspberries made a lovely presentation. Everyone oohed, aaahhed and drooled over it.
Until I went to cut the thing.
The crust, the beautiful golden crust, had turned into concrete.
I knew I hadn’t overbaked it. I had baked it at the right temperature. Morganna had very delicately patted it in the pan without handling it overmuch.
It had to be those eggs. And the cornmeal. And patting it into the crust made for just a bit too much handling.
After I managed to saw through the crust, and served the tart, people’s reactions were eloquent.
The cornmeal didn’t just add crunch–it added grit. Our dining room sounded like it was full of a bunch of cows chewing cud mixed with gravel. The lemon curd was beyond tangy into downright wicked puckery goodness, and the blueberries were perfect, a little sweet, a little tart and very lovely contrasting with the yellow lemon curd and golden crust.
But the crust was just way too tough, gritty and unpleasant, and it ruined the dessert.
It was a demoralizing lesson, but one I had to learn.
Now, I know, the next time I get an inkling that something may not work out, I will follow my instincts–even if they run counter to what the hotshot chef who wrote the book says to do.
That said, I have decided to follow my instinct and remake the tart this weekend, using my shortbread recipe that includes almonds. I will report upon the results and post the recipe when I get to putting it together.
Until then, folks can feast their eyes, if not their palates, on the beautiful picture of the tart that should have been divine, but instead had a crust of concrete. (Which is like my feet of clay, only crunchier and harder on the dental work.)
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