11 April, 2009


Tarte au citron.

After a rich dessert and the closing infusion of chamomile, there is the walk "in the moonlight" (insert Patsy Cline riff here). I never understood what light could be at night--and the intense appeal of such a walk--until I came to the Cevennes mountains.
Where you live fundamentally shapes your notions about darkness. I still remember the utter blackness of a general power outage in Kinshasa, where when all the lights went out you were truly, completely unable to see; you couldn't even see the fingers you held right in front of your face. And the only sound was the swishing, scissoring sound of the palm tree fronds. I remember wondering whether my hand really was there or not. That was the only place where I ever encountered such complete, disquieting night, and this only on cloudy nights with power outage.

Where I live now there are no streetlights and I'm a good distance from any suggestion of light pollution caused by hamlet, village or city. Nights remain shockingly bright here, however. Everything casts its own clear, bright shadow. This is, of course, most pronounced when there is a full moon, as now. By the light of the full moon I can sit in my windowsill and read a book (please don't tell my eye doctor).

I leave my shutters open at night, so the moon casts its blue light onto the tiles of my bedroom floor. Six glowing parallelograms, one for each windowpane. This is another giveaway that I am not French: every single French person I know, city dweller or not, religiously closes their shutters at night; it is as much a night-time ritual as brushing one's teeth. They then find themselves in a darkness not far removed from my childhood Kinshasa nights. The French do have science on their side: people are said to have a better quality of sleep the less light there is, as light is a powerful stimulant (whether we consciously realize it or not).

But I can't bring myself to close the shutters. I like the impression of heightened awareness brought on by the blue-hued moonlight. You only have to take a walk once in such a light to understand. Preferably after a generous snowfall, and on a full stomach.

Perhaps it helps to be a confirmed "night-owl", but I don't think so.

Update: Would you like the recipe of above-mentioned rich dessert? This recipe was given to me by a friend; let me know how it turns out for you.

The recipe is awfully wordy, but I'm describing everything so that this could even be your "oh my god first time ever from scratch" tart. And yes, making the crust is worth the palaver, because it comes out nicely shortbread-ish. The filling takes all of a minute to put together. The only truly hard bit is remembering to get enough lemons and eggs...

Lemon Tart/Tarte au Citron

Make the pastry first, as it needs to rest in the refrigerator for an hour before being placed in the pan, which should be 23-26 cm wide.


125 g butter, softened and chopped roughly (about 1 stick)
125 g superfine sugar
250 g fine/cake flour
pinch of salt
finely grated zest of 1 organic lemon (no white pith)
2 eggs and 1 yolk

Toss chopped up butter and sugar into a bowl. Use a wooden spoon to mix the two together, smashing up the larger bits of butter. Once the sugar is fairly well incorporated into the butter, add all the remaining ingredients, except for the eggs. Combine using your hands, rubbing your fingers together and trying for a somewhat homogenous mixture. Now add the eggs, one at a time, and again with your hands, gently work the mixture until it becomes dough-like. Don't give up, just a few minutes more! If you need to, add a bit of flour if it seems too wet, or a few drops of cold water if it seems too crumbly. Flatten the dough into a disk (the flatter and rounder the easier it is later), wrap in plastic and allow to rest.

Preheat the oven to 350 F/180 C. Once it has had its nap, roll the dough out on a floured surface, pinching together the bits that start cracking. The dough'll need to be a good 5-6 cm larger than the tart pan you want to use. Gently loosen the dough from the rolling surface, sliding a very thin spatula or knife between the dough and the counter. You can partly roll it onto the rolling pin to make lifting it into the pan easier. Fit it evenly into the pan, pressing out any air bubbles. The tart needs to be half-baked, blind, which means filling the crust-filled pan with waxed paper or foil, then filling the paper/foil to the brim with dry beans, rice or other pie weights, which will keep the dough from rising. Slide this filled pan into the preheated oven and bake for about 15 minutes, or until the edges brown a bit. Take it out, remove the foil and beans, and put the crust back in the oven for just long enough to allow the crust to dry out without excessively browning or rising. Remove from the oven once again.


180 g superfine sugar
juice of 3 organic lemons
finely grated zest of 2 organic lemons (no white pith)
300 ml cream
4 eggs and 2/3 yolks (depending on how lavish you feel like being)

Whisk the sugar, lemon juice, zest and cream together in a bowl, dissolving the sugar. Add the eggs, whisking after each addition. Position the half-baked crust safely near the oven, and pour the very liquid filling into it. Open the oven door and very, very gently slide the wobbly tart in. Bake for about 25 to 35 minutes (depends on your oven). Mine was a bit browner than I would have liked, but I was distracted by the kids, who were decorating their Easter eggs. Once it seems lightly set (i.e. no longer so liquid) when you gently move the pan, take it out of the oven.

I served it at room temperature (but it can also be chilled), with a glass of Banyuls Ravaner, a fairly dry dessert wine from the coast, near the Spanish border.

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