Its nearing mid June, yet here on the Westcoast carefree warm summer days seem very far away. The garden is sluggish and I've only just worn my sandals for the first time. My yearning for extended warmth and blue skies has recently has me thinking about the French Riviera and magical days spent in that oh so cliched (for a reason!) part of the world. When I yearn for such memorable days, I usually aim to recreate them with the best way I know how - food! And so with a handful of lemons I whipped up this light, lemony Lemon Tart or Tarte Au Citron, and remembered fondly a day in Nice 3 years ago.
Nice, France is a city I can't wait to return to. Its a beautiful, vibrant city with an Italian feel due to the colourful painted buildings , Italiate architecture and an attitude all its own. The people there certainly will identify themselves as being proud Nicoise before French, a place worthy of such pride.
Nicoise cuisine is full of bright vegetables and interesting flavours derived from an up and down history of foreign domination. Socca, the chick pea flour pancake seen above is the famous street food of the city. To be eaten quickly, its cheap, and readily available throughout town and in simple cafes or on outdoor picnic tables. Commonly washed down with a tumbler of cheap local rose wine, I crave it regularly and have wished a stove top version made at home might suffice. Another thing to draw me back there of course is the Rose. We drink copius amounts of it we drink when in this parts of the world and no wine brings back memories of place more than this. Rose is abundant in the French Riviera, and cheaper, and as you can see by this photo I took of the rose section in the Monoprix, there's much more of it there than in my local liquor store. I weep for such selection.
I once took a cooking class in Nice from food fellow blogger, Rosa Jackson - cookbook author, teacher, blogger, guide book editor and fellow foodie extraordinaire. This proved to be one of my favourite travel memories and a day I hold dear. After wandering the vibrant Marche Cours Saleya ogling huge local Menton lemons, shiny Provencal strawberries, and baskets of wild thyme, we made our way through the narrow lanes of the Old Town stopping in quaint family run shops full of the best of everything. We gathered my favourite Cote de Provence wine, the best goat cheese and the freshest hen. Over the course of the next few hours a grand lunch would be prepared where we roasted, chopped, sauteed and baked everything needed for a proper French lunch. Of course ratatouille was enjoyed, in fact it was stuffed into squash blossoms and zucchinis and served with deeply flavoured Guinea fowl and braised white asparagus of the season.
The meal continued with a goat cheese that I count as 1 of the single greatest cheeses I have ever eaten, only available to her and a chef at the grand Louis XV in Monte Carlo and Rosa herself. Talk about connections! But what ended that lovely lunch eaten slowly with rose in hand and lovely company from Canada, Boston and Nice was a lemon tart that had me moaning inappropriately.
Lemon Tarts are my specialty and indeed close to my heart. I'm rarely impressed by many, as they are often too sweet, have bad pastry or worse yet not even made with real lemons. Yet even with this sort of malaise, I still keep my eyes and nose tuned to the possibility of a good one. This tart remains one of my favourites and I loved that I took home this technique and recipe from such a memorable experience. Each time I make it I think of that afternoon, that week, that beautiful place.
What sets this lemon tart apart from the classic is its addition of olive oil, not an uncommon ingredient in a part of the world with landscapes peppered with gnarled and regal olive trees. It has a pleasing, almost vegetal flavour as well as silky texture. A technique of whipping the filling as it cooks on the stovetop produces an ethereal, light lemon filling reminiscent of lemon mousse and of an old fashioned lemon chiffon pie.
Rosa's Lemon Tart with Olive Oil
Sweet Tart Crust
adapted from Baking with Dorie by Dorie Greenspan
1 1/4 cups AP flour
1/4 cup ground blanched almonds
1/2 cup icing sugar
1/4 tsp salt
9 Tbsp butter, cut into 1 cm cubes and very cold to almost frozen
1 egg yolk, stirred with 2 Tbsp ice water
In a food processor, place flour, almonds, sugar and salt. Blend for about 30 seconds to combine. Scatter in the butter cubes and pulse about 10 times until the largest pieces of butter are about the size of a pea. Pour in the egg yolk mixture and continue to pulse, about 3 seconds per pulse, JUST until the mixture no longer looks dry and small clumps begin to form.
Empty into a round 9 inch removable- bottom tart pan and begin to press the pastry into the tart shell with your fingers, evenly pressing it up the sides. You are aiming for about a 1/4 inch thickness.
You will have more pastry than you need for this size of pan, so remove excess from the edge and freeze for future, or in my case I get out my individual tart shells and fill them to freeze for another time. Another option is to roll and cut with cookie cutters, sprinkle with sugar and bake along with the tart, later sandwiching them with jam.
Freeze for 30 minutes or overnight. Preheat oven to 375F. Bake in the bottom third of the oven for 25 minutes until shell is golden brown. During the baking if the shell with puffs up in places, simply pierce it with a toothpick and it will deflate.
Remove from oven and patch any cracks with bits of the reserved dough, simply mashing it, gently into the hole, return to oven for pastry scraps to set. Set aside until filling is made.
Set oven to 350F.
adapted from a recipe by Rosa Jackson
160 g sugar
zest from 2 lemons
2 tsp cornstarch
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 egg yolks
2 pinches salt
4 tbsp unsalted butter
2 Tbsp light flavoured olive oil, like Nicoise or Ligurian olive oil
Rub together the lemon zest and sugar in a 2 litre saucepan until the oils have combined and the mixture looks slightly wet. Mix in the cornstarch. Add eggs and whisk together well. Whisk in juice and salt, place over medium heat and cook stirring constantly. As the mixture warms and starts to thicken a bit speed up your whisking, the faster you whisk the lighter the filling will become, which is the characteristic of this filling. Increase the heat if necessary, being sure to whisk constantly and vigorously.
Once the mixture coats the back of a spoon well it is done. Remove from the heat and whisk in the olive oil and butter quickly to cool mixture. Once completely mixed, pour into the cooled tart shell. Move the tart shell gently from side to side to get a nice level top, or pour in a concentric circle to form a slight decorative pattern in the filling. Refrigerate to set for about 1 hour. Will keep refrigerated for up to 3 days, if its around that long.
Heading to the French Riviera anytime soon?
Be sure to check out Rosa Jackson's market tours and cooking class in beautiful, vibrant Nice. Aimed at anyone with interest in learning a bit or a lot about Nicoise food, her tours provide an intimate and personal vacation experience. My time with Rosa still remains one of my favourite travel experiences. She combines the thrill of a fantastic French food market with a wander through old town Nice to gather ingredients and ends in her charming old town apartment kitchen. Cooking is informal and approachable and so much fun.