Friday, March 23, 2007

Tart obsessions

I somewhat coyly mentioned earlier that we got a tart making lesson while in France. We managed to obtain this lesson via Ami's sister, Shelia (aka Kirk). Shelia was on vacation with us, but was also writing two articles about the region, one for an American Express Magazine (they only send it to very exclusive card holders, so being a lowly non-AmEx lass, I've never seen this one) and one for the New York Times Magazine. The latter piece (look for it in August in the special Travel edition of the magazine) was the occasion for our visit to the Menton lemon festival and through her press credentials and the contacts Shelia made at the tourism bureau, Ami, John and I got to tag along on some unique behind-the-scenes experiences.

One was a visit to a tiny little terraced lemon orchard where the low-acid Menton lemon is grown. John posted this lovely photo of the orchard we visited, over looking the old town. Here is my much crummier photo:
The bare tree in the foreground gave the Times photographer some trouble since it kept interrupting the scene. But it is a fig tree and the orchard owner told us he loves to come up here in the summer, put a chair in the shade it casts and eat its figs, so the tree is forgiven.

The other not-open-to-the-public event was getting a tart making lesson at the patisserie known for the best lemon tarts in all of Menton, La Cigale (the cicada--why name a patisserie after a bug, I don't know--anyone?). The owner and baker grows his own lemons for all his lemon creations (we also got info on making pate de fruits, lemon cake and a lemon custard cake thingy that I never caught the name of). He was a lovely man and very forgiving of my erratic conjugation skills, though perhaps more distressed by my lack of skill piping meringue.... John posted a photo here of my attempt (the baker thought I was left handed I was so lousy with the pastry bag. Nope! Just uncoordinated!)

We tasted a good number of his tarts and they were lovely though I'm not sure that I'm sold on the low-acid Menton lemon for this recipe--personally, I like a stronger acid punch in my lemon deserts. They were paler in color and creamier in texture than the tarte au citron that I remember eating (quite often, thank you very much) when I lived in Bordeaux.

Side note: I did try one combination both the baker and the orchard grower recommended for thirst--thin slices of Menton lemon sprinkled with salt. They were quite refreshing and the low-acid was great for eating the fruit raw.

Once we were back from our trip, I felt compelled to try my hand at making a good tarte au citron, albeit with our regular super market high acid lemons. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to translate the La Cigale recipe demonstrated to us from the proportions for 80 or so small tarts (which included something like 40 eggs) down to one 9 inch tart. Shelia gets to embark on that fun project and the recipe will be published in her New York Times piece so we can all give it a whirl in August. I also did not attempt to make the tart with the Italian meringue (Well, not yet. Once I get a candy thermometer and master the filling I'll take on the meringue issue.)

I did a little research and discovered that there are two distinct schools of tarte au citron making out there. The first recipe I tried was Dorrie Greenspan's lemon cream tart from her new cookbook Baking: From My Home to Yours (which is a terrific book I plan to post a separate entry on later). Her recipe sounded the most like the one we saw and tasted at La Cigale: it has a fully baked tart shell and the filling is a combination of eggs, sugar, lemon juice and zest that is cooked in a bowl over simmering water. Then the room temperature butter (a whole hell of a lot of it) is added a piece at a time to make an emulsion and create the creamy texture (Greenspan has you do this in a blender; I think the La Cigale guy did it in a mixer) . Then the cream is poured into the tart shell. This is a photo of my finished product:
And then there is the other tarte au citron school with a baked tart which starts with a partially baked tart shell, mixes up lemon juice, sugar, zest, eggs and additional yolks and some heavy cream. This concoction is then poured into the shell and baked for about 25 minutes to set. And here is its photo:
Since I made these two tarts within 3 days of each other, I managed to have some of both to do a taste test:
Lemon cream tart and baked lemon tart, side by side.

And the results? Hmmm. Well, both had their merits and neither tasted like La Cigale's version....

The lemon cream tart was almost too creamy and rich for my taste. The texture was lovely and silky (the zest is strained out) and there was enough lemon to brighten it up, but I think a recipe with less butter than Greenspan calls for might be the way to go. La Cigale's tarts were wonderful without being nauseatingly rich.

The baked lemon tart was much more sour--the zest doesn't get strained out of this one so it packs a lemon punch. But the texture was unimpressive. It was more of a looser lemon bar texture than what I expect in a tart.

I feel kind of like Goldilocks and her porridge dilemma--these two tarts were on opposite ends of the continuum and both were acceptable in some ways, but neither made me say "Ah! That's it!" or make me want to cut a second slice. One was too rich and the other not rich enough. So my quest continues. I think my next attempt will involve using the Greenspan/La Cigale emulsion method, but I'm going to tinker with the quantities. I'll report back if I come up with a recipe worth sharing!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

As if peeling off those little stickers wasn't bad enough... those little stickers also contain advertising. Because I always look to my tomatoes to find out when Disney's Peter Pan will be released on a 2 Disc DVD!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The great yarn give away vol. 1

We interrupt the regularly scheduled France revelry posting for this important message:

I have too damn much yarn and I'm giving a lot of it away.

The spring-ish weather last week got me cleaning and I unearthed my yarn stash in the process. I have decided that I am finally ready to part with some gorgeous yarn that I will never use.

First up:
The abandoned Norwegian sweater
What you see above is the yarn and bottom border for a sweater I intended to make for Brian before I found out that the man won't wear wool. Yes, I bought about $100 of Dale of Norway Heilo yarn to make my sweetie into a Sven-God but this was early in our relationship (we hadn't gone through a winter together yet) and I had not yet mastered his linguistic quirks. When interviewing him about a proposed sweater his only request was that it not be "picky." Now "picky" to me means a yarn that will produce fuzz balls easily so I thought this sturdy Norwegian wool would resist the urge to fuzz ball and be just the ticket. It was only a few months later that I received the translation from Wait-speak to English: "Picky" means "itchy." (I was also later to learn that the word "goosebumps" in Wait-speak is "duddlies," as in, "I can see you are cold because you have duddlies all over your arms." See how interesting life is when you are fluent in Wait-speak?) While I wouldn't define this wool as super scratchy, it isn't the yarn I'd choose for someone wary of the scratchy factor .

Once I found out he wouldn't wear the damn thing if I finished it, I stuffed the whole project into a Rubbermaid bin and hid it in the back of the closet I just cleaned out this weekend.

Here's a (lousy) picture of what the completed project should look like, except for the colors (where it is cream, I chose chocolate brown, where it is dark grey, I chose cream and there are little accent colors of green in there too).
The pattern is from the (now out of print it has been so damn long) Dale of Norway Pattern book #104. There is enough yarn to make a sweater for a biggish guy--I think this was sized in a Men's Medium since Norwegian sweater sizes are usually kind of out of whack on the large side (my mom once knit herself a Norwegian sweater that was supposed to be a Women's Medium and it would have fit a small elephant. And yes, her gauge was correct). That means there should be: 11 balls of the chocolate brown, 8 balls of the cream and 2 balls of the green.

That also means that there is plenty of yarn to make a number of the patterns in this book if you don't like the traditional one pictured above (though you may have to buy a couple of balls of an additional contrast color for some of them) including this:
or this:
or this:
Or you can just take the part I started and keep on knitting.

So anyone out there want the yarn and pattern book? I'd rather stay local since shipping it would be a hassle, but I'm happy to hear any enthusiasm for adoption of this poor abandoned yarn.