Finding out my mother had cancer was an experience that forever changed my life. Today, as we gratefully count off the years of her survivorship, our always close relationship has grown even closer. Now, I am filled with thankfulness, but I can still remember what it was like to first find out. For the first time in my life I understood what it meant to say that you literally could not stand up. My legs buckled under me as I clung to the public telephone in Ghana trying to make sense of the words coming out of the receiver. If my husband hadn't been there to catch me, I would have collapsed like a heap on the ground.
In those first few dark and confusing days I understood what it must be like to be pulled under the water in a rushing river. Everything went fast. Nothing was clear. No one knew which way was up. And the way that I fought back to sanity was by reaching out to the only place that I could think of that could give me information to make sense of things: the American Cancer Society. During those first awful and confusing days, organizations like the American Cancer Society and now Lance Armstrong's popular LiveSTRONG Foundation are lifelines.
But what to make? I thought for a while about the warm yellow of cheddar and broccoli soup. I debated the anti-oxidant rich yellow of gazpacho made from yellow tomatoes and yellow peppers. But finally I decided on the sunny yellow of my favorite lemon tart.
I have been really learning the art of tart making for about four years now. During that period the "tart" has probably become my favorite dessert. I have made all sorts of creative variations on the tart using unusual fruits, tea-infusions etc. But for this I wanted to return back to my roots and make a basic lemon tart. The crust is based on my great-aunt's recipe for shortbread cookies, with some modifications. The filling base I have experimented with over the years to get something that will set up nicely and uses just enough butter and egg for firmness while still trying to stay in the range of an acceptable indulgence.
For my tastes, this tart showcases the slightly assertive power of lemon as a citrus fruit, and that's just the way I like it. It is a glorious shade of yellow, thanks to the juice, zest, and the golden egg yolks. Sitting on my counter top as it cooled it reminded me of a summer sun in a child's crayon drawing.
I won't go into any poetic lengths about when life gives you lemons...but of course those ideas were probably lurking in my sub-conscious when I made the choice of a lemon tart to celebrate LiveSTRONG day.
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/3 cup crushed toasted almonds
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 tsp salt
6 T unsalted butter, cold
1/2 tsp almond extract
3-5 Tablespoons ice water
Put the almonds in a non-stick skillet over medium-low heat and toast, jostling regularly, until aromatic and medium browned. Do not allow them to burn or they will be bitter.
Remove almonds from the skillet, chop to medium fine sized pieces, and set aside to cool. (for rapid cool, put in fridge or freezer)
Combine the flour, wheat flour, brown sugar, salt. Sprinkle the almond extract over the dry ingredients.
Cut the cold butter into cubes with a knife and then add to the dry ingredients. "Cut" in the butter using a pastry blender, two forks, or a potato masher. Technically you could also blend this together in a food processor, but in my experience the heat from the friction of the food processor tends to heat the dough up too much, melt the butter, and generally interfere with the perfect cold-butter chemistry of baking. But then again, if using a potato masher to cut the butter really makes you feel irritated, then by all means better to make it in a processor than not at all.
Add the chopped almonds. Note: DO NOT add the almonds until they are cooled, or the heat from the almonds will also melt the buttery bits and mess up the chemistry of the dough. Cut in several times to mix.
Dough should look like wet sand, with a few lumps the size of pebbles.
Slowly begin adding ice water. At first, add one tablespoon at a time, but as dough approaches desired consistency, add one teaspoon at a time. To test for the correct consistency, pinch together some dough in your hand. Before pinching, it should look like wet sand, but it should hold together when pinched.
Wrap dough in plastic wrap and press together. If the dough has a very difficult time holding together, and lots of parts crumble or flake off, remove from plastic wrap, return to bowl, and another 1-2 teaspoons of ice water.
Once dough is wrapped in plastic, refrigerate for approximately ten minutes. You can skip this step if pressed for time, but I like to use this time to tidy up some of the mess I just made while making the dough.
Remove dough from fridge. Press into a tart pan (ideally with a removable bottom). Try to ensure even coverage of the crust or some parts will brown too quickly. I like to cover the outside rim with a pie shield or with a little bit of aluminum foil to overlap the edges of the crust, because otherwise these tend to get too dark.
Bake the crust at 425 for 15-20 minutes. If your heating element is in the bottom of your oven, bake in the top third. If your heating element is in the top of your oven, bake in the bottom third. Be sure to check in on the crust so it does not over-brown. You want a light golden brown color. Remove and cool.
3 whole eggs
3 egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar*
2 Tablespoons clover honey
3/4 C fresh lemon juice, strained (4-5 large lemons)
2 T. lemon zest (3 lemons)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed
*If you prefer a sweeter tart, increase the sugar to one cup.
I prefer to buy organic lemons for this recipe because you are using the zest, which is otherwise where the pesticides can concentrate.
To begin, zest three of the lemons using either a microplane zester or a standard zester. Then cut all five lemons in half and squeeze out the juice until you have 3/4 cup. Strain the juice to remove any seeds.
Separate the yolks from three eggs. In a room temperature pan, combine yolks with another three whole eggs. Whisk together with sugar. Add lemon juice and whisk to combine. Add lemon zest and salt. Add honey. If you don't have clover honey, substitute regular honey.
Heat pan with lemon, zest, salt, sugar, and eggs over medium heat, whisking constantly.
It is important that you add the eggs to a cooled pan and then gradually raise the temperature while stirring. If eggs are added to a warm liquid they will tend to congeal before combining properly with the custard, resulting in little bits of scrambled egg in your tart. Also, if you leave the liquid without stirring it for too long (say, to run around photographing things for your blog) you may also get little bits of egg that separate out. It isn't pretty, but it isn't the end of the world, and it certainly won't kill you.
Cut the butter into cubes and add the butter to the pan. Continue whisking. You will see and feel the lemon filling thicken. The filling may simmer a bit, with slow plops of bubbles, but if it starts to resemble "boil" be sure to turn down the heat.
When the filling has thickened so that it thickly coats the back of a spoon and does not immediately slide off, it is ready for the tart shell. Pour the filling through a fine mesh sieve to ensure a smooth finished tart.
Bake at 325 degrees for 10-14 minutes, just for the filling to set.
Serve plain, sprinkled with powdered sugar, or topped withs sliced strawberries.
Nutritional Information, per serving (1/16 recipe): 178 calories, 9.9 g fat, 20.4 g carbohydrates, 0.5 g fiber