How to Make a Lemon Tart, the Official Dessert of Spring

tart on table

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Every year around this time, my kitchen life goes through an identity crisis. It might sometimes be chilly outside, but I’ve already lost my appetite for roasted root vegetables and Dutch oven casseroles. Instead, I start stockpiling better olive oil and bottles of tasty vinegars because tender greens, heirloom tomatoes, snappy Kirby cucumbers, grilled asparagus, and corn salads are looming large on the horizon. But it isn’t just the savory part of my kitchen life that changes. It’s also the sweet.

I am not a great baker. But I’ve learned to make a few things well enough — recipes I use to mark the turn of the seasons. Every fall, when it feels natural to crave the smell and taste of aromatic spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, I make pumpkin donuts — and can barely wait until they are out of the oven. Now, as we slide into another season, my taste for them disappears.

Spring is the time of the year when I start to think about fruit crisps. My seasonal strategy is to keep a batch of crumble topping in the refrigerator and then on Sundays, after shopping for fruit at the green market, make individual crisps in ramekins so I can eat a cold one every morning for breakfast during the week. The fruit changes as the season progresses, but my favorite combination comes during that summer sweet spot when peaches, apricots, and blueberries are at their best. If I serve crisp for dessert, I always add lavender ice cream, a flavor I never even think about the rest of the year.

Another sure indication of the seasonal shift is my transition from baguette inhaler to croissant nibbler. From the fall until early spring, there is nothing I like better than one of those long skinny loaves as a delivery system for chunks of cold sweet butter, which I either buy from the Amish market or make myself with a method I learned from the guy who owns the motorcycle shop in my neighborhood.

But as soon as I get the seasonal signal of daylight saving time, I switch from baguette to croissant. Although the components are basically the same — bread and butter — there is something about the fluffiness of the croissant, the airiness of the layers that tastes like spring to me.

I’m not the only person who wakes up one morning and thinks pumpkin donuts are a dumb idea. I asked Suzanne Pollak, founder of the Academy of Domestic Pursuits, a contemporary cooking school in Charleston, South Carolina — and a great baker — about why our dessert appetite changes as the air shifts, and what to do about it.

One thing never changes, regardless of the season, she told me: “Anything chocolate: cake, truffles, brownies. Doesn’t matter. Chocolate is a proven mood elevator. It makes us feel good, and there’s no seasonal limit on that. ”

Chocolate may be seasonless, but our tendency to shake off fall and winter flavors is very real. “It happens instinctively, and I can feel my students’ interest change as soon as spring is in the air,” Pollak says. “And it isn’t just our taste that’s affected — it’s all five senses. When those first few days of spring come, we feel different — lighter, brighter, freer. The sky looks bigger, sunlight has more restorative power, and when that happens, we don’t want fruitcake or gingerbread. ”

And now, the what-to-bake part: “I’ve spent the last 40 years giving dinner parties and can tell you that the best way to satisfy spring dessert expectations is to pair something baked, like an open-faced lemon tart, with something fresh, like a side of berries or ripe peaches. That seasonal combination adds a little flourish at the end of the meal, and also gives people a choice. ”

The best way to serve a tart, Pollak says, is to bring it to the table the way it comes out of the oven — whole, uncut — a presentation style that adds a little drama and excitement to the dessert course. Bonus: “Cutting the tart and passing servings around the table gives a pause to the dinner and can reinvigorate a conversation, which is why we’re together in the first place.”

LEMON TART

This tart is elegant, simple, a gorgeous color and does not need embellishments. But if you love whipped cream (preferably hand-whipped), go ahead and pass a bowl around the table along with your berries. Most importantly, whatever you serve on the side, make sure to cut the tart in front of guests. It’s one of those little gestures that make a big impact.

My Spring and Summer Kitchen Essential

The Tool: The Microplane Zester

Why This Is My Favorite: The flat shredding surface of the tool has rounded edges that make it easy to balance the zester over a bowl.

Why You Need It: Spring and summer baking calls for the bright bounce you get from lemon zest. Modeled on a carpenter’s rasp used for shaping and smoothing wood, this zester is easy to hold so you can lightly zip off the rind (the yellow part, which holds the essential oil that gives you the lemon flavor) without any of the bitter pith ( the white part). The flat shredding surface of the tool has rounded edges that make it easy to balance the zester over a bowl.

Microplane® Rasp Grater White

williams-sonoma.com

$ 14.95

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