“This is a special feeling towards fruit, its glory and abundance, is, I would say, universal.” – Jane Grigson
My idea of the perfect spring Saturday? Adam and I hit the Farmer’s Market in the morning, followed by two sets of tennis at the club, enjoy a light afternoon picnic while we cruise around Lake James on our boat, then an impromptu dinner. That’s what happened last weekend. After a full day of fun in the sun, our friends called and invited us over for a late-night bite. I never like to show up at someone’s house empty-handed (that’s my momma’s fault) and I almost always bring dessert. But I needed something to pull together fast to take over. Having scored some gorgeous berries earlier from the market, I thought, “Shortcake!” Quick. Easy. A beautiful way to showcase those glorious fruits. But remembering how my friends love anything lemon, I decided to include the curd I had made a few days earlier. Berries dipped in lemon curd? Done! But, as I pulled out the squatty Mason jar from the fridge, almost drooling at that creamy, puckery gold, I spied some puff pastry defrosting next to the eggs – and, well, that changed everything.
Now, lemon curd wasn’t always a part of my culinary repertoire. As a kid, I never even heard of a curd, which proved problematic in my reciting “Little Miss Muffet.” This was, of course, before my young literacy came into being. “Curds and whey” did not correspond with any of my limited colloquial expressions. So, I reached for the only similar match that my wee brain could produce: “Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curls away.”
My justification for this artistic liberty was that Miss Muffet was so hungry and eating so fast that it made her ringlets fall out. And since I had never heard of a tuffet either, I deduced in my little mind that a tuffet must be a silly rhyming word or a very polite way of referring to Miss Muffet’s backside.
I love the English. And not just because of their amusing jargon. But these fabulous folks gave us lemon curd. Introduced in the late 19th century, it was considered an alternative to jam and served on scones for afternoon tea. The term curd refers to curdle, basically. When milk coagulates, it separates into a semisolid portion (curds) and a watery liquid (whey), as in cheese-making. (After learning this little tidbit of trivia years ago, I was finally able to put that childhood question about Miss Muffet’s vittles to bed.) But some egg-based sauces have gotten a bad rap because they can “break” if cooked at too hot a temperature or sometimes when they contain an acid, like lemon juice. In this sense, curdle is not a happy thing for a cook. But don’t be frightened away!
My recipe is virtually foolproof. Mixing the butter, sugar, eggs and lemon juice before cooking is the key. And unlike those cloyingly sweet commercially-prepared lemon curds, my version has a bright, intense flavor (thanks to the zest), with just the right amount of sweetness. This recipe is also the basis for the key lime pie pavlovas. The beauty is that you can switch out whatever citrus juice and zest that you like – or a mix – for different flavored curds.
Mixed Berry Fruit Tart with Lemon Curd
- For the Curd:
- 1-1/2 cups sugar
- 4 lemons, room temperature
- ½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick), room temperature
- 4 large eggs, room temperature
- pinch of kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- For the Tart:
- 1 sheet all-butter puff pastry, thawed overnight in the refrigerator
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 egg plus 1 tablespoon water, beaten together
- 3 cups fresh berries (I used baby raspberries, blackberries and blueberries)
- ½ cup all-fruit blackberry preserves, warmed
- For the Curd:
- In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, place the sugar in the bowl. Completely zest the lemons using a fine rasp over the bowl of sugar. Turn the mixer on to combine the sugar and zest. Juice the lemons in a measuring cup-you should have a little over ½ cup of juice. Set aside.
- Add the butter to the sugar mixture and beat until smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well before adding the next egg. Add the lemon juice and salt and mix until smooth.
- Pour the mixture into a heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan. Cook over low heat, whisking constantly until mixture has reached a bare simmer and has thickened (I average about 10 minutes, sometimes more). DO NOT BOIL! When cooked, it will register 170-175 degrees on a instant-read thermometer. Remove from the heat and whisk in the vanilla until combined. Allow the curd to cool to room temperature with plastic wrap pressed directly on the surface before refrigerating.
- For the Tart:
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Unfold the pastry on the prepared pan and brush the edges with a little water. Fold the edges over to create a tall lip/border all around the pastry. Using a fork, poke holes all through the center to help prevent it from puffing up. Sprinkle the bottom of the pastry with the sugar and brush lightly all over with the egg wash. Bake in the upper rack until golden brown, about 20 minutes. If the center puffs up at all, take it out of the oven and press it down with the back of a large spoon. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
- To assemble the tart: Spoon enough lemon curd to cover the center well. (Refrigerate the leftover curd). Gently toss the berries in a large bowl with the warmed preserves until coated. Spoon the berries over the lemon curd decoratively.
…from the Picture-Perfect kitchen:
Planning: Room temperature lemons are easier to juice. The lemon curd will keep for at least one week if well-covered in the refrigerator. You can also refrigerate the assembled tart for up to 3 hours. Bring to room temperature before serving.
Product Purity: The puff pastry that is commercially available in grocery stores is made with hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup (plus, a whole boatload of other chemistry). When a recipe is as simple as this one, you want all your ingredients to be the best. I use DuFour Pastry Kitchens all-butter puff pastry. Look for it at kitchen specialty shops or order it on-line. Also, check your preserves’ ingredient label. Most contain high fructose corn syrup.
Presentation: Have fun decorating your tart! I always make sure that the colors are balanced, which makes the food look appealing. Sur La Table sells the small Ball canning jars that make a nice presentation for the lemon curd as a hostess gift (unless sudden possessive feelings overcome you…).