For this week’s entry, I challenged myself to make my favourite French patisserie, tarte au citron, or lemon tart. Sweet and zesty, with buttery, melt in your mouth pastry – to me, it’s perfection.
I’d been contemplating making this for a while. Since my oozing clafoutis troubles, caused at least in part by using a loose-bottomed tin, I splashed out on a new quiche/tart dish. A friend lent me some French cookbooks, and with a baby shower to attend – it seemed like it was meant to be. My source recipe comes from a book called Cuisine de Bistrot, published by Marie Claire.
The wonderful wor(l)d of pâte
The French word pâte is extremely versatile. It can mean pastry, pasta (when used in the plural), dough, batter, mixture – to name but a few of its more general senses. As the Larousse explains, it can refer to a mix of flour, liquid, and other ingredients, which is shaped or kneaded. Or to a soft, gluey mixture of some sort – hence pâte à tartiner (spread – to add to your bread), and pâte à modeler (modelling clay, or playdoh). It can also refer to texture, for instance of a cheese, with fromage à pâte dure meaning hard cheese, and fromage à pâte molle, soft cheese. It also has many uses specific to particular industries.
Why do we say egg ‘yolk’?
In French, the word for yolk is quite simply jaune (yellow). As I translated this recipe, I wondered, why do we have to be complicated in English, and use a separate word? Why not just ‘egg yellow’? After all, we do say ‘egg white.’
As is often the case, it’s not quite so simple. Consulting the wonderful Online Etymology Dictionary, I found that ‘yolk’ does in fact come from an old English word meaning ‘the yellow part’ and derived for the old English word for yellow, geolu. The word ‘yellow’ was itself influenced by Dutch, German, Norse, and Swedish, among others.
Apparently in Middle English, ‘yellow’ was occasionally ‘used of a color closer to blue-gray or gray, of frogs or hazel eyes.’ I find this fascinating – how could it have been used to refer to what we think of today as 'yellow', 'grey' and others - which I consider quite different colours? Perhaps this was their version of that infamous blue and black, or white and gold dress debate.
In an undergraduate linguistics class I remember learning that different cultures ‘see’ colours differently. That is,
‘different cultures group individual colours differently and thus give them names according to how they categorise them. That means some cultures may have four basic colour words, while others may have ten or more.’
Source: the University of Melbourne.
In other words, some argue that languages affect our ability to recognise and describe colours. Some cultures don’t distinguish between purple and blue, and because they may have no word for ‘purple’, it could be hard to describe, and to draw the line between where blue might end, and purple begin. That said, this is also difficult for people of the same linguistic and cultural background – I frequently disagree with my partner about colours.
In sum, a deceptively simple four-letter word can provide a wealth of information, with insights into the history of a word, a country, and a culture. It can lead you to fall down a research rabbit hole...
Mostly, the cooking went well, though the pastry was a little overcooked and messy.
My recipe instructed me to blind bake the pastry case with baking beans for 15 minutes, before adding the lemon filling and returning to the oven. However, when I removed the baking beans and parchment, I saw that the pastry underneath was quite wet and ‘sweaty’. I thought that it was probably best to cook the pastry for a bit longer without the beans to remove that moisture before adding the filling, and I remembered having done so for other recipes in the past.
After the fact, looking at other (English) recipes, they all include this as a step. Perhaps for my source recipe, they assume this is a given, and that all cooks would know to do this. Or maybe this is an oversight, and the recipe could be improved.
Another mistake was forgetting that pastry shrinks a little, trimming the sides more than necessary.
And finally, the icing sugar is somewhat clumsily thrown over the tart rather than delicately dusted. As I've mentioned before, I'm not one for fiddly decorations - it's all about the taste for me.
Despite these potential areas of improvement, it definitely delivered on taste, and went down a treat.
I haven’t decided what I’ll be making next. Some have mentioned trying choux pastry, which I’ve never attempted before – so maybe I’ll give that a go!