Sunday, March 21, 2010

Creamy, Crunchy, Sour and Sweet: Lemon Brulée Tartlettes

We've had the kind of fabulous, energizing, spring-is-finally-here weekend that comes with balmy breezes, lounge chairs under umbrellas on the deck and conversations with friends around a bonfire under the stars.  The dog has transformed from a moping mop of white to a bounding cotton ball on crack now that the snow no longer confines her "walks" to a narrowly shoveled tunnel along the backside of the house.  There's a cat in every open window and dinner has that lovely charred flavor that's been missing through all of those months that were decidedly not grill-friendly.

This blissful weather calls for casual gatherings, with food that hints of summer without blatantly pretending to be something that it's not.  Now is not the time for tomato tarts or sweet corn - pushing those too early will only result in utter disappointment.  But vaguely sunny preparations of outdoor friendly food like burgers and bacon-ranch potato salad hit the perfect note.  What to have for dessert?  It's no longer time for über rich cakes and custards, but we're not quite ready for ice cream.  The perfect compromise?  These lemon-brulée tartlettes.  Light shortbread crust filled with puckery lemon filling and finished with the snap of a sugar crust.  Everyone gets their own little beauty (no food anxiety for my dear L), tapping away with little spoons like breaking up the ice of the winter and diving into pure lemon sunshine.

Lemon Brulée Tartlettes
Makes 6.
Inspired by a lemon tart from Elise of Simply Recipes
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup sugar
zest of one lemon
1 stick (1/2 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch squares
1 jumbo beaten egg
1/4 tsp almond exract
1/4 tsp lemon extract
1 Tbsp lemon juice

beans for use as pie wieghts

In a medium bowl, mix together flour, salt, sugar and zest until well combined.  Add in butter pieces and use your fingers or a pastry blender to cut and smoosh the butter and flour together until it resembles a sandy, flaky mixture of different size crumbs.  Don't overdo it - more uniform tends to mean less flakey.  Add the remainder of the ingredient and mix around with a spoon or preferably your hands until the dough is uniformly moist and starts to stick together.  Form the dough into a ball and squash it into a disc.  Wrap in plastic and store in the fridge for at least an hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.  Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let sit for about 5 minutes on the countertop.  Grease 6 tartlette pans with removable bottoms (these are now quite easy to find - I got mine at Bed Bath and Beyond) but I've even seen them at Target on occasion.  On a well floured surface, roll out the dough into 6 rounds about an inch larger than the bottoms of the tartlette pans, about 1/3 inch thick.  Transfer the rounds to the pans, pressing the dough into the crevices and pressing down on the rim to cut off the excess.  Line the inside of each tart shell with aluminum foil and fill with dried beans.  These will keep the crust from shrinking while baking (just don't try to cook them up for dinner afterwards).  Transfer all tart shells to a large baking sheet and bake for about 27 minutes.  At this point the tart shells will be very pale in color but should be semi-cooked.  Remove from the oven and let cool 5 minutes before removing beans, then finish cooling on a wire rack.

Lemon Curd
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1 Tbsp shy of 1/4 cup thick Greek yogurt
1 Tbsp heavy cream
juice of 3 lemons (once strained of seeds and pulp should be approximately 3/4 cup
2 jumbo eggs
3 jumbo egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
zest of 3 lemons

In a double boiler, melt butter, yogurt and cream, whisking occasionally to combine.  Transfer to another bowl and whisk in lemon juice.
Heat the eggs with the sugar and zest until just warmed.  Then whisk in the butter mixture and heat until it slightly thickens.  Strain into a heat-proof measuring cup with a spout, then pour into the prepared tartlette shells (which should still be on a baking sheet).  I like to fill them most of the way, then get them on the oven rack to fill them all the way to the top without spilling).  Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 25 minutes, or until the centers are just slightly jiggly and the crusts are lightly golden.  Cool and refrigerate at least 2 hours before serving

Sugar Crust
approximately 12 Tbsp sugar

Sprinkle approximately 2 Tbsp sugar evenly over each tart.  With a butane kitchen torch, use quick short back and forth strokes of the flame to liquify and caramelize the sugar.  (Alternatively you can do this under a broiler instead, just expect to serve warm lemon tartlettes instead as it really heats up the entire dessert).  Let sit for one minute before serving, so that the sugar cools and hardens.  Then tap, tap, tap your way to sunny happiness!

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