I really didn't want to start this post with a 'when life gives you lemons' remark. However, these are no ordinary lemons. So I'll soften the cliché blow and alter the old adage thus:
"When Tesco unexpectedly offers you a four-pack of elusive and infamous Meyer lemons from California, the kind you read wonderful things about on American food blogs but had never expected to be able to try, you eagerly snap them up. Then, after a lengthy thought process about what possibly to do with this golden bounty, you end up making this tart."
Meyer lemons, as I have read many a time on said American food blogs, are a very different thing to the pale yellow, firm, mouth-puckeringly sour variety we are used to finding in supermarkets. They are thought to be a cross between a lemon and a mandarin or orange, which explains their colour - more marigold than yellow. Their skin is thinner than a normal lemon, and they have a much sweeter, more fragrant flavour than their regular cousins, which generally just offer a hit of tartness rather than any distinct flavour to speak of. I couldn't wait to try them.
It was difficult to know where to begin when coming up with a recipe for my little gold beauties, harmoniously nestled in their grey cardboard tray. As soon as I brought them into the kitchen, they spoke of sunshine, a radiant presence on the otherwise dark kitchen table, cast in flat winter light. I know I always talk about how generous mother nature is at this time of year, bestowing such colourful, flavoursome fruit on us when we need it most (champagne rhubarb, blood oranges, lychees, persimmon...), but it really is true, and this is another classic example.
(Of course, this argument would suggest that mother nature had anticipated the invention of air travel, knowing that we in the cold, grey UK would have access to the bounty of the Caribbean, Asia, or Peru, but let's not focus too much on that...)
After a quick google, I found a great article on the LA Times: 100 things to do with a Meyer lemon. Aside from some strange, non-culinary uses (put slices in your bath, anyone?), it was fascinating, and suddenly made me realise how useful and versatile the humble lemon can be. Frequently a back note in a recipe - a hit of acidity in a dressing, a subtle fragrance imparted to the cavity of a roast chicken - lemons rarely become the star.
I do have a couple of recipes that bring the lemon into prominence. One is an incredible roast chicken recipe from Ottolenghi, where chicken pieces are marinated in lemon juice, red onion, spices and olive oil before being roasted with thinly sliced lemons on top. The lemons soak up the fatty chickeny juices and turn crispy, meaning you can eat the whole thing. The combination of sharp, gooey roasted lemon with the deep savoury chicken skin is incredible. Another is a simple lemon drizzle cake that I found on the BBC Good Food website and which is devastatingly delicious. I also tuck lemon slices into a whole trout before baking it in a foil parcel, which is delicious, as is a hit of lemon juice and zest added to a sort of broccoli pesto sauce for pasta.
I didn't want to bake the lemons like this, though, for fear of losing their subtle fragrance and aroma. I wanted a recipe that would capture the pure essence of the Meyer lemon in all its glory, as simple and unadulterated as possible.
You can't get much more lemon-centric than a good lemon tart.
Shockingly, I've never actually baked this classic dessert before. I love a good lemon tart, indulgent yet refreshing after a meal, but for some reason I've always thought it would be tricky to make, and have steered clear. There are things that can go wrong: a soggy pastry bottom, a curdled lemon filling, an overbaked and rubbery lemon filling, too much sugar so it cloys or too little so it leaves your mouth numb. However, always keen to try new things in the kitchen, and convinced that a simple lemon tart would be the best way to showcase the Meyer lemons, I went with it.
I found the recipe on the excellent food site Food 52. It seemed very simple, perfectly in keeping with what I was after. The slightly unusual part is that instead of a pastry crust, it uses a shortbread mixture that is pressed into a tart tin to line it. This is good for three reasons: one, it dispenses with the faff of making pastry; two, no risk of a soggy bottom here; and three, it tastes damn delicious.
How could it not taste delicious? You beat softened butter and sugar with a wooden spoon until creamy and fluffy (good exercise for the biceps - means you can eat more of the finished product). You then beat in semolina and flour, to make pale golden crumbs that smell warm and buttery. It's exactly like making shortbread, but you press it into the tin in a hollow crust shape, rather than a solid round.
After pressing the shortbread crumbs into the tin, you make lemon curd. Not nearly as scary or difficult as it sounds. This was great fun to make: squeezing my precious lemons into a bowl along with an indecent number of golden egg yolks, a pile of sugar, and the zest of the fruit. Whisking this pale yellow liquid over a low heat until suddenly, like magic, it had transformed into the most lusciously thick, marigold, glossy lemon curd. It's a bit like making custard or crême patisserie - you're standing there for ages stirring, stirring, stirring, bored...and then suddenly it turns, thickens, becomes shiny and wonderful.
Then you whisk in cubes of butter, which is the fun part - watching it melting under the pressure of the whisk and turning the curd even thicker and glossier. Naturally, I had to taste-test some. It had the perfect balance of sweet and tart, with a lovely fragrant zestiness from the Meyer lemons. It inspired me to make my own lemon curd more often, to eat for breakfast.
The curd goes into the baked shortbread crust and into the oven for a very brief bake, to just set it while allowing it to still have a little quivering wobble. It comes out perfectly smooth, translucent, glorious yellow - the colour of sunshine, citrus, and fat, globular egg yolks.
Once I tasted this, I knew I'd never make another lemon tart recipe again. The shortbread base, short and buttery and slightly crispy with the addition of semolina, is ridiculously fabulous. Couple this buttery richness with a smooth, sticky, deeply sweet and tart lemon curd, and you just have the most glorious dessert. If you don't have Meyer lemons, I'm sure you could use normal lemons and just up the sugar content a little to make up for their sourness. This is a recipe that should be on everyone's list of regular desserts. It is honestly one of the best desserts I've ever made.
More than that, it provides a welcome burst of citrus sunshine during the depths of winter. Sitting there on my kitchen table while I faffed around taking photos, the mere sight of it cheered me up. It sat there, almost glowing, as if I'd just turned a light on. Its buttery, fresh citrus taste is a welcome presence after the dark, sticky, alcohol- and dried fruit-laden puddings of Christmas. It slices gloriously into a perfect wedges of sunshine, sweet gelatinous curd on its toasty biscuit base.
So now you have your answer. When life gives you Meyer lemons, you make this lemon tart. There's really no other option.
The Meyer lemon shortbread tart recipe can be found here, on the Food 52 site.
Incidentally, I've made this twice now. The first time I served it with a scoop of crème fraîche, which was lovely, but the second time I made my own Earl Grey ice cream to accompany it. As lemon and Earl Grey is such a classic combination, I'd recommend trying this out if you have the time to make your own ice cream - it really is a delicious pairing.