Lemon Chess Tart

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So winter finally showed up last week. I was out of town for the first big snowfall so I missed the annual tradition of soothingly watching the blizzard whilst tucked up on the couch and, instead, returned for the hellish aftermath that occurs, again annually, when everyone tries to go outside again and then collectively starts to complain. It’s tradition. Now everything is just wet and/or icy, the pristine white snow has turned into charcoal-colored sludge along the roads, and the only fashion decision I get to make is which pair of dirty, salt-encrusted boots go with which dirty, salt-encrusted coat. Glamour.

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It’s also right about this time of year when you can start to differentiate and categorize people by who is taking their Vitamin D and who’s not. Seriously, your attitude is showing. (I apologize for the inherent gloom, it’s just my nature). There is a teensy tiny (nearly microscopic) silver lining to January, however, and that is the arrival of good citrus. I really think it’s no coincidence that, just as I’m sure I could not feel any worse, a cheeringly zesty and bright blood orange falls right into my grocery cart. Talk about good timing.

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The good citrus, combined with good sense to not venture out too far into hazardous winter, has inspired some pretty magical winter baking sessions (honestly, what else is there to do?). You know what they say: when life gives you lemons, make this tart and stop speaking in clichés.

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I came across this recipe for Lemon Chess Pie in Recipes American Cooking: Southern Style from the Time Life Books “Foods of the World” series published in 1971. My copy is a little musty (I dug it out of a cardboard box in the basement) but nonetheless sentimental to me as I discovered my great grandmother and grandmother’s handwriting strewn throughout its pages. One of them, probably my grandmother, made little checks next to all the recipes she attempted, even adding little notes next to some. The note next to this recipe simply says “Delicious”.

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So, already grandmother-approved, I proceeded with confidence and adapted this pie recipe into a slightly more demure tart and threw in some meringue for good measure. I knew I wanted to riff off the chess title with a little checkerboard motif so I bought a great stencil off of Amazon and used some cocoa powder for good contrast. Side Note: Chess Pie, apparently, just refers to the combination of eggs, sugar, and butter to achieve a custard or “cheese” like consistency (or so says the internet). This lemon iteration is particularly wonderful, kind of like a classic lemon bar but with a bit more structure. All in all, a useful and tasty distraction from the bleak midwinter days.

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Lemon Chess Tart

Tart Dough

I used Ina Garten’s Tart Dough recipe which is a really wonderful and easy pat-in-the-pan shortbread dough. I made one slight change to the baking time: I blind baked at 350° for 20 minutes, then removed the parchment and pie weights, pricked the dough with a fork and found it only needed 10 more minutes in the oven.

Lemon Filling 

  • 5 egg yolks, at room temperature (reserve whites)
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cornmeal
  • 1 tablespoon heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon butter, at room temperature
  • 2 heaping teaspoons lemon zest
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350°. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together egg yolks and sugar until they are fully combined and mixture is thick. Add in cornmeal, cream, butter, lemon zest and lemon juice. Pour into pre-baked tart shell and bake 35 minutes, or until the center quivers only slightly when the pan is nudged. Remove and let cool.

Swiss Meringue

  • 1/4 cup egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup sugar

In a heat-safe mixing bowl (I just used the aluminum bowl from my stand mixer), stir egg whites and sugar to combine. Place bowl atop a double boiler on the stove and warm gently. It is ready when there is no grain left from the sugar when you pinch a bit of the mixture between your fingers. Return bowl to mixer and use the whisk attachment to beat the mixture until stiff peaks are formed (be patient, this takes several minutes). Use a piping bag or spoon to decorate the cooled lemon tart.

Note: I achieved the “checkerboard” pattern on this tart by using this stencil and sifting cocoa powder over the top.

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