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My attempt at the Roux brothers' lemon tart

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

"This is not a typical lemon tart you will find in a cafe. This is a tower of perfect lemon curd sitting upright, barely able to hold itself under its own weight, atop the finest short crust pastry there is." The Culinary Camel

On the left what it's supposed to look like - on the right what it did look like. I should have tidied it up a bit, but I think you can see that it's close but not quite. It was quite a saga so I shall share.

I found my recipe on a website called The Culinary camel whose author is a nameless male Sydney chef. He claims that the recipe comes from this book - New Classic Cuisine, first published in 1983 by the Roux Brothers which:

"is full of the most difficult, rich, unhealthy, perfectly deicious French food ever … and this recipe for Lemon Tart comes straight from it, untainted."

A quick word about the Roux brothers, now both dead - Albert the older died early this year and Michel some time before. They independently came to England in the mid sixties, but joined up and ran La Gavroche the first restaurant in London to ever receive three Michelin stars, and which trained both Marco-Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay. After a while they parted and set us separate ventures - Michelin stars all round. Here they are getting an OBE from Jack Straw - a top British minister of the time. (Albert - the older on the left, and Michel on the right). I think this was the 80s.

Anyway their lemon tart is credited with started the craze for the French tarte au citron that you will find on just about every French restaurant. So when it was requested I decided to try the 'real thing'

I'll take you through The Culinary Camel's version because it is littered with little instructions and tips. I don't know whether they come from the culinary camel himself or the Roux brothers, but he begins by saying:

"Do not deviate or change one molecule, degree or minute of this recipe"

And I tried, I really did. But then as Nigella says in Cook, Eat, Repeat:

"When I test recipes - and this is even the case with baking, where the precision required would seem to guarantee some degree of uniformity - I am freshly astonished how each time there will be some small variation in either cooking process or outcome."

Which comforted me a little. And actually my variations, I suppose, although fraught with near disaster at times, were ultimately small I think.

So let's begin. Make 1 or 2 days ahead - You need to do this because the pastry has to be left in the fridge for at least several hours. I chose to go for the overnight that was suggested. You also need to leave the finished tart in the fridge overnight - indeed for 24-72 hours. I think I just made the 24 hours.

I now realise that I should have taken pictures as I went along, but I didn't so you will just have to make do with words. Apologies - it would have been so much better with pictures.

"For the base.

200g unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, room temp, in a large bowl.

Sift in 100g icing sugar and a pinch of salt, and work in with clean hands.

When totally mixed, add 2 egg yolks, and mix lightly.

Sift in 250g plain flour, using your right hand to amalgamate it thoroughly into the dough, but do not overwork it. Roll it into a ball, wrapped in gladwrap, and chill for several hours, or overnight. It will keep for a few days."

Well for a start I had forgotten to take the butter out of the fridge, and so of course it was rock solid. But I had left this until late afternoon so had no time to just leave it and come back later. First mistake, for of course I could not work it in with clean hands. Yes my hands were clean I promise. So I changed to a wooden spoon, sorely tempted though I was to resort to an electric mixer of some kind. Eventually I did seem to get the icing sugar worked in to a smooth mixture, although, as I realised when I later came to roll it out, not smooth enough - there were still lumps of butter in there. I did not mix the egg yolks in with my hands - was I supposed to? But they got mixed in easily enough. Not being able to juggle holding a sieve in one hand whilst sieving in the flour and mixing it in with the other, I resorted to sifting in a bit of a flour, mixing it in and then doing some more. Which seemed to work. I now had what seemed to me was an enormous ball of pastry - at least three or four times the size of what I use for a quiche - and didn't he talk about "the finest short crust pastry there is"? I think at the time I took 'finest' to mean 'thinnest' but of course he actually just meant 'best' didn't he? No hold on, Lindsey Bareham has famously said of this tart:

"It was shockingly good. A dish to linger over, the pale yellow cream set to just within a wobble of collapse ... beautifully complemented by a thin sweet pastry case."

She definitely said 'thin'. Anyway with doubt creeping into my mind I wrapped it in glad wrap and put it in the fridge, then set about cooking dinner.

Next day, with some trepidation I preheated my oven to the required 170°C, although I wondered whether this was a fan-forced temperature or a conventional, and should I put it on my oven's pizza setting anyway? Decisions, decisions. I went for pizza and 170°C, thinking that the pizza setting would ensure a crusty base - it works for quiche so why not a lemon tart?

The culinary camel warns that "Now when you use the dough, you must not overwork it. This is a delicate dough" Not encouraging. So:

"Roll out the dough (it is ok to do it between sheets of glad wrap or greaseproof paper, or just a floured rolling pin on a clean, perfectly flat, lightly floured surface). I went for the latter. "It should be about 4mm thick, and even. As it warms, it gets tricky, so work fast."

Now here is my first real problem. My lump of dough is rock hard - almost frozen. Alternatives. Walk away and come back when it has warmed a little - but there's that warning about it being tricky when warm - or just have a go. Which I did. I'm a tiny bit short for my work top, but standing on tip toe and leaning heavily downwards I gradually flattened it down a bit. But as I flattened it bits of it started to peel away from the main block and then it all started to disintegrate. So in despair when it was almost cool enough I started to do what he said not to do - to overwork it - i.e. squeeze and knead it until it was soft enough to come together in a ball - a bit like the one I had put in the fridge the day before - and then roll it out. This is when I saw those recalcitrant lumps of butter here and there, which, of course, wanted to stick to the rolling pin. I even got out a ruler and measured the 4mm thickness (which is not thin), but at that thickness it did fit the tin more or less perfectly.

"Place greaseproof paper all around the base, and half way up the side. Pour rice or dried chick peas or other legumes into the base (to stop it warping), and put into the oven for 10 minutes (no less, no more). This blind bake will make sure the base is cooked later, so the 4mm thickness is important here. remove from the oven, remove the rice/beans/paper, and set aside."

Next major problem - not apparent at first. I lined the base and side - more or less all the way up actually and tipped in my ceramic balls that I use for baking my quiche cases blind, and put it in the oven, setting the timer for the regulatory 10 minutes.. Fortunately a few minutes later I looked through the glass and saw that the pastry was collapsing, almost melting, down into the bottom of the tin. Hastily I removed the tin and topped the shell up with a whole lot of dried legumes that I used to use for baking blind, having, squashed the pastry back up against the sides. Phew - I saved the collapse.

At the end of the 10 minutes, fortunately the pastry had hardened enough to stay in place, although I have to say I was really, really nervous as I removed the paper and the mixed ceramic balls and dried legumes.

"Lower the oven to 150°C

Wash and grate 4 lemons, and add their juice to a bowl (together)

Whisk 9 eggs together with 375g caster sugar in a bowl, just until fully blended, no more required.

Add 300ml double cream. This does vary country to country, but the rather solid Gippsland (or other brand) double cream in Australia is fine. just bring it to room temperature, so it will whisk into the egg mix..whisk lightly, this is not a beating! Stir in the lemon juice and zest…be sure it’s very evenly mixed."

I actually started the filling whilst the base was cooking and this was the easiest and most trouble free part of the whole thing. But yes - you read it right - 9 eggs! Well it was my son's birthday so I lashed out. I lashed out on the cream too - only the best Meander Valley double cream - not available in Woolworths by the way - they don't seem to do real cream.

"Add the mix to the pastry shell, and bake for 40 minutes. If the top is getting too dark too soon, cover with foil loosely."

Well it didn't get too dark so I didn't have to cover with foil. And whilst it was cooking I spent several minutes - maybe a quarter of an hour, retrieving my ceramic balls from the dried legumes. Very tedious.

However, at the end of the 40 minutes, it was very wobbly in the middle. Do you remember Nigella's words about not being tempted to cook her wobbly Basque cheesecake more? Well dear readers I ignored her words. I just wasn't game. Even after an extra five minutes I still wasn't game and cooked it for five more minutes. When I took it out of the fridge next day it was very firm - and cracked - so I was very cross with myself. I should have listened to Nigella.

And if you ever consider trying this recipe here is some advice from me that was not included in the recipe. I placed my tin - one with a removable base - inside another flattish tin, in case of stuff leaking out. And leak out it did - lots of butter. So make sure you place it inside something else. Actually I think this goes for anything cooked in a spring-form tin or one with a removable base. And honestly how you would get this out of any other kind of tin I do not know. I guess if it was in a decorative ceramic dish it wouldn't matter.

"remove from the tin or silicone before completely cool (but not straight away!).

When cool, refrigerate in glad wrap for 24-72 hours. Stand at room temperature for at least an hour (up to 3 hours) before dusting with icing sugar, and serving with a few berries and cream."

It did come away from the sides pretty easily, but there was no way I was game to get it off the base. I had a quick try but it looked like it would all crumble away. The pastry was very crumbly. Whether that is a good thing or not is probably a matter of taste.

As I said, after it's overnight sit in the fridge it had definitely solidified, so my extra ten minutes were probably a mistake. And Dionne sprinkled the icing sugar over and we served it with strawberries.

"You will see…it was worth the work…" says the culinary camel. Hmm. It was certainly very impressive looking when cut into. Perhaps not quite as smooth as it should have been, but almost, and it actually wasn't too hard. But not really very lemony. I am used to very sharp tasting lemon tarts. And Felicity Cloake, who of course has had a go at the perfect tarte au citron sort of confirms this opinion:

"I can't help feeling slightly disappointed by the flavour: the pure sharpness of the lemon flavour seems muddied and muted by the cream."

Nearly all of it was eaten though, and some of the family went for seconds. It was very rich. And I did feel very pleased with myself at going through the whole thing. There was even a little left over for the birthday boy tomorrow.

Michel Roux published a later version which had one more lemon and less cream. I wonder if he felt the same about the taste? Next time I might try the Heston Blumenthal version which is similar but thinner, as you can see here.

Happy birthday Dom - at least the spaghetti and meatballs, although always different, are also reassuringly the same - and utterly delicious.


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