As I write this my house smells like butter. That incredibly rich, fatty, greasy, oh so amazing scent of melted butter combined with sugar and flour and baking in the oven. Doing chemical things to create a crumbly Breton butter cookie.
My house also smells like lemons. Tart, oh so tart citrus mixed with eggs and yes, sugar and even more butter coming slowly to a warm rich curd in a bain marie.
A few days ago now, my husband asked me if I would be in the mood to go to his mother’s house for dinner on Sunday night. I’m not going to lie. I wasn’t in the mood. Sunday is a very busy day at the restaurant; a day I always come home way later than any other; a day I come home exhausted with aching feet and back and don’t want to talk to anyone except my cats. I also already had plans. But after he informed me that this was a big family dinner with everyone including my father-in-law from Marseille and my brother-in-law and two-year old niece from Antibes I said alright.
I even offered to bring a dessert. Usually I offer to bring wine, but I figured my father-in-law who has a very good cave would have that covered. Plus I might as well put this new experience of mine to some use. I already knew what I would make and damn the person who says they don’t like lemons.
Ever since tasting the tart aux citron served at the restaurant I wanted to try making it for myself. It was a leftover dessert, a mistake from the order sheet that we had plated only to discover the diner wanted something else. Though I wasn’t hungry, I hadn’t tasted this particular dessert yet, so I said I’d have a spoonful and then give the rest to the Commis Chef or the dishwasher or someone. That is – until I looked down at my plate and realized I had eaten the whole thing. It was that addictive. I think I must have shoveled the whole tart in my mouth in under 5 minutes.
I could have found plenty of recipes online for a lemon curd tart, but I wanted to know what their secret was, why the tart was so good. I explained to the chefs I wanted to make a tart aux citron for my family and did they have any advice on how to make the crème citron or lemon curd, (you’ll find a lot of variations out there) and their recipe for the sablé Breton they used underneath. And as Pastry Chef X was writing the recipes out for me in proportions big enough for a restaurant that seats 70, I realized what the secret was.
So much butter.
Even after scaling the recipe back for 10, I knew I’d never be able to tell my mother-in-law exactly how much butter I used. When I gave my husband the shopping list, he stared at the 5 contents and their quantities and said “Really? You need THAT much?”
There were two days of consultation over this recipe. It’s a good thing I don’t really care for recipe books and prefer face to face explanations because the method he wrote out for me was nothing but arrows and temperatures. Discussions on how I would make the lemon curd and the Breton butter cookies included explanations of butter chemistry and the idiosyncrasies of hot sugar. What kind of mixers do I have at home? Do I have a stand beater? Did I mind sticking my hands into the gooey pre-batter of the Breton cookies? Seeing as how I’d been up to my elbows in it earlier that morning, it wouldn’t be a problem.
How far in advance can I make the custard?
“It has to stay in the fridge for at least 24 hours but 48 is best.”
“If you’re going to use the mixer for the crème citron put the butter in first. But make sure it’s room temperature. And make sure the damn mixer is set to the right speed.”
I scribble notes on a scrape of paper in my typical Franglais.
“Don’t take the butter out of the fridge until you’re ready to mix it into the sablé Breton paste. Cut it first and put it back in the fridge.”
I scribbled some more.
“The eggs have to be removed from the fridge two hours before you make the meringue.”
“Here’s a list of the type of lemon juice you can’t use…”
With a pile of lemons and bricks of butter set up on my kitchen counter, I set out for the two-day task of making a lemon tart à la restaurant.
It was just as addictive as I remembered. I told myself Saturday after I made two little test tarts, to stop eating it because I’d be eating enough stuff at work – sometimes it’s just easier to lick the whipped cream off your hand than find a paper towel – everyone does it. My husband ate his in less than 5 minutes and then informed me that we should keep the huge tart I’d just finished baking in the fridge and conveniently forget it the next day.
“My mom can make a fruit salad.”
But like I’d promised both me and the tart showed up Sunday night, fully dressed. There was some ooh-ing and aww-ing and explanations on meringue. Dinner was simple and everyone left room for dessert. Plates were almost clean before I finished slicing the tart and sat down to my own portion. I’m not sure now if I’ve been relegated to “in charge of dessert” for all future gatherings, but it was highly well-received to say the least. Fruit salad is for the birds.
Bring on the butter.
I’m not including the recipe here because it belongs to the chefs and I didn’t ask their permission to post it. I doubt it’s any sort of well-guarded secret, but just in case. However, here is Dorie Greespan’s recipe for Sablé Breton and Lemon Curd (scroll down) and another by David Lebovitz which will be just as tasty.