Lemon cream tart is an unexpected hero of holiday desserts

Photo: jaboo2foto (iStock)

Here is my most controversial food opinion: I don’t really love any of the traditional pies for after the traditional holiday meals.

This doesn’t mean I don’t love the pies at other times of year. A classic apple is a joy to eat and make, and I wait all year for the small window when heirloom Mutsu apples are in season. Sweet potato, when done well, is a decadent treat. I’m not a huge fan of pumpkin pie generally, but have recently found if I swap out roasted red kuri or hubbard squash, it gets much more interesting. I always found pecan pie a little on the cloying side until my husband’s family introduced me to their version. It uses half pecans and half hickory nuts, which brings just enough resiny bitterness to the pie that it balances out the sweetness.

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But the pie I personally make for Thanksgiving and other holiday meals isn’t even a pie. It’s a lemon cream tart. I don’t care if you think this is sacrilege; I am more than comfortable with my decision. (I also, depending on the size of the gathering and the preference of my guests, serve a pecan hickory pie and/or an apple pie. I am neither Scrooge nor the Grinch. I want everyone to have what they want.) I make the lemon tart because it is what I want and because it is the single most superior dessert for a meal that was 42 piles of carbs on a plate, a coma-inducing stack of turkey or ham or prime rib, and likely more than one glass of wine. Even if you wait until after the major cleanup before you serve dessert, you want something to awaken the palate, not deaden it. You want something light and bright and perky and acidic, something just sweet enough to count as dessert, but far from so sweet that it will set your teeth on edge. Any pie that makes you say “oof” when you try to lift it is going to land like a ton of bricks on top of your third helping of stuffing.

Lemon cream tart is the opposite of those pies. Think of it as pie’s elegant French cousin. The crust is barely sweet. The filling is super tart with just enough sugar for balance. The whipped cream topping is enriched with tart crème fraiche or sour cream, piled on not in huge clouds, but gently and subtly anointing the golden filling beneath. A slice is about half to a third the height of any traditional pie, and it needs no ice cream on the side to cut its sweetness.

Even better? Once the crust is properly blind baked, you’re done with the oven. The filling here is a light curd-style, cooked on the stovetop and whizzed up in the blender, then stored in the fridge till you are ready to assemble. The addition of a cultured product to the whipped cream also means it will hold for a day without slumping, so you can make all of the elements a day or two ahead, and assemble last-minute for a super easy and fresh tart.

Photo: Stacey Ballis
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You don’t even have to make it all from scratch if you don’t want to. There is no shame in a store-bought crust if you’re not a confident pastry-maker. These days I’ve been relying almost entirely on Ready-to-Roll crusts purchased frozen at my local Whole Foods. They’re made with European butter and come in disks so that I can roll to my own preferred size, shape, and thickness. But if you don’t have the bandwidth even for that, buy a pre-rolled crust and have at it. Don’t want to make your own lemon curd? Find a jarred brand that you love and use that. I cannot in good conscience recommend a store-bought whipped topping here, so even if you go all sorts of Sandra Lee on this recipe, at least make the whipped cream the “homemade” part of the “semi-homemade.”

I challenge you to make this tart this year and put it out with the usual suspects, and just see how it goes. In my house, it often is the only dessert that’s not left over.

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Photo: Stacey Ballis
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Lemon Cream Tart

Serves 10-12

To make the tart shell

  • 1 disk of dough from a single-crust recipe you like and are comfortable with (this is not the time to go all “new”) or one store-bought crust. Either a regular flaky pie crust or a more cookie-like pate sucre will work here, so don’t overthink: Use what you love and can accomplish.
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Heat your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Roll your dough to about 1/8-inch thickness or unroll your store-bought dough. Carefully use it to line a 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom, being sure to gently nudge the dough into the corners and press gently into the sides to form the fluted edges. Trim the edges even with the tart pan. (If you don’t have a tart pan, use a shallow pie plate.) Freeze the dough in the pan for at least 1 hour.

Remove the pan from the freezer and poke the dough all over with a fork about every inch and a half or so to prevent puffing. Be careful not to pierce all the way through—you don’t want the fork to touch the pan, just to make little dimples in the dough. Place the pan on a sheet pan. Line the tart pan with parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried rice or beans. Bake for 12 minutes, then remove the parchment and weights. Return the crust to the oven and bake another 3-8 minutes until golden brown and fully cooked. Cool in the pan on a wire rack and keep at room temperature until you’re ready to add the filling.

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For the lemon curd (adapted from Tartine Bakery’s Lemon Cream recipe)

This recipe is ingenious because it’s much lighter in texture than more traditional curds, in part because the butter is added slowly at the end in an emulsification process. This recipe makes slightly more than you might need for a single tart, so you’ll have enough if you’re using a pie dish instead of a tart pan (and it’s always better to have too much curd than too little). The extra will keep for up to a week in the fridge and is really good on biscuits or scones or toast or on a spoon right out of the jar, Nigella-style.

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  • 1/2 cup Meyer lemon juice (if you cannot find Meyer lemons, just use all regular lemon juice)
  • 1/4 cup plus 3 Tbsp. regular lemon juice
  • 4 large eggs
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
  • 2 pinches kosher salt or one pinch fine sea salt
  • 1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, cubed in 1-Tbsp. pieces

Create a double boiler by putting 2 inches of water in the bottom of a medium saucepan and placing a stainless-steel bowl on top. The water should not touch the bottom of the bowl. In the bowl, whisk the lemon juice, eggs and yolks, sugar, and salt until well combined, then turn the heat to medium-high. Cook, whisking constantly (but not vigorously), for 10-15 minutes, until the mixture is thick, slightly lightened, and the sugar is fully dissolved. You are shooting for about 180 degrees Fahrenheit on a thermometer. Look for the whisk to leave a trail in the curd that takes a second or two to reconnect. It should have the thickness of a slightly loose pudding.

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Remove the bowl from the double boiler. Set it aside at room temperature and let the curd cool to around 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Give it a stir every minute or so to prevent a skin from forming and to help release steam and heat. Pour into your blender. (You can use an immersion blender, but I prefer the lightness the regular blender provides.)

Turn the blender to medium-high, and while it’s running, add the butter one chunk at a time. Wait a few seconds after each addition for it to emulsify into the curd. You should end up with a pale-yellow curd the texture of thick pudding. Chill completely in the fridge with a piece of plastic wrap pressed onto the surface for at least 2 hours before filling your tart shell.

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For the whipped cream topping

  • 1 pint heavy whipping cream
  • 4 oz. crème fraiche or sour cream (I sometimes can find vanilla crème fraiche, and when I do, I use that!)
  • 2 tsp. granulated sugar or vanilla sugar

Place all the ingredients into the chilled bowl of your stand mixer or into a chilled stainless bowl. Whip at high speed to form medium stiff peaks. You want the cream on the firmer side so that it isn’t too floppy, but be careful not to beat it too stiff or you’ll risk making the world’s least appetizing butter. It you’re concerned about over-whipping, err on the side of getting it 90% there then finish by hand. Put into an airtight container and hold in the fridge until you’re ready to use, up to 24 hours.

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To assemble and serve

Right before serving, fill your cooled tart shell with the lemon curd, then pipe the whipped cream on. Piping can be easier sometimes than spooning because, depending on the thickness of your curd and the stiffness of your cream, spreading can get a little complicated. If you don’t have a piping bag, put your whipped cream in a Ziploc and cut off the corner. Pipe an even layer about 1 inch thick over the lemon curd, then gently smooth with a spatula.

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If you’re not going to serve the tart right away, store it in the fridge uncovered, for up to three hours. Try not to assemble the tart more than three hours in advance or you risk softening the crust.

Carefully remove the chilled tart from the tart pan to a serving platter and serve in thin slices. You just might win the whole festive season.

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