caustic confit

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When I first saw a recipe for a Lemon Confit Shortbread Tart in Wednesday’s New York Times, I was still too deep in my cooking-failure funk to consider trying my hand with it, although I did say out loud and to nobody in particular, “Well, doesn’t that look nice?” But when making weekend plans with my parents and my mother told me that she’d seen some lemon tart in the paper and really wanted to make it, I knew it was destiny, and secretly rejoiced that it would be someone else coughing up for nine lemons.

And what’s not to love? Shortbread, double-crusts, Mom’s ancient fluted tart pan and lemons, from pulp to pith and peel all sound sounded so irresistible. I have been absorbed with this “whole lemon” cooking concept since I made a sorbet last summer that involved exactly that, ground with sugar, and frozen with pureed fresh strawberries. It’s the best recipe to have graced my ice-cream maker to date.

Unfortunately, it turned out there was very, very much not to love. I first joked that I’d brought my bad cooking karma out to the ‘burbs with me, ruining everything, I’m actually confident enough to lay the blame where it belongs: this recipe is flawed. Sure, it warns you that the confit will be “intensely flavored” but then it also invokes the word “lemonade,” which makes it sound like this intensity will be manageable and lovable, like a day at the beach over summer vacation. And yet it’s so sour — the three-quarter cup of sugar such an ineffective balance for eight lemons and the vast majority of their peels — the result is borderline inedible and definitively cruel: face-scrunching, eyes-tearing, why-would-you-make-me-eat-this cruel. No doubt, this may have worked out slightly better with meyer lemons, but I can’t help but feel this tart has more to overcome than grocery store fruit.

The crust isn’t much better. Though it warns you that the shortbread-like tart dough will be crumbly when you roll it out, it says it’s okay because you can just press it back together. Well, that’s all good and well for the base, where you have the pan’s framework to give you structure but how exactly do you manage a crumbly dough as a tart lid over a soft, sticky and wet filling? With all the more reliable tart bases out there, why use this?

The final nail in the lemon tart’s coffin is the quarter-cup of sugar you are supposed to sprinkle over the top for the final ten minutes of baking. I wonder, do they have any idea how much sugar this is to spread over a 9-inch circle? We’re talking a quarter-inch deep here. Feeling like a kid playing in a sandbox, I brushed over half the sugar off before we sliced into it. You’d think all this raw, loose sugar would balance the acrid filling, but it’s on the wrong side of the crust to be of any value.

If were a better humble servant of this site, I’d make this again, immediately, the way I think it would work. I’m thinking a pate sucree with lemon zest and a thick, tart lemon curd with finely-diced candied lemon peel peppered throughout. The double crust can stay, and even the sugar on top, though far less, probably something more coarse and, oh, I’d give it enough time to adhere to the lid. But I’m exhausted, and somewhat crushed. The only person at our table of five who cleaned their plate was my awesome, knows-on-which-side-his-bread-is-buttered husband. Then again, he eats pickled watermelon so his sense of palatable versus pungent is already clearly whack. Nevertheless, he can stay. This tart, however, was headed straight for the garbage bin when we hopped a train back to the city.

Ah, well. Like my mom said, “At least we tried something new.”

Lemon Confit Shortbread Tart
New York Times 1/31/07

Time: At least 2 hours

3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 large egg
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon almond extract, or to taste
2 tablespoons lemon juice

8 lemons, preferably thin-skinned and seedless
3/4 cup sugar

1. For crust, combine flour, salt, butter and 1 cup of sugar in a bowl. Mix with your fingers until it forms flaky crumbs and lumps. Mix in egg, almond extract and lemon juice. Continue to mix until it clumps; at first it may seem very dry. Shape into a ball, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, up to 1 day ahead of baking.

2. For confit, slice off and discard ends of lemons. Slice 5 crosswise, peel and all, as thinly as possible. Remove any seeds and place in a bowl. Peel skin, including white pith, from remaining 3 lemons, then slice thinly crosswise, and add to bowl. Add 3/4 cup sugar and 2 tablespoons water. Toss and let sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes or up to 2 hours.

3. Place lemon slices and their juice in a saucepan, and bring to a boil. Cook down until lemons are candied and small amount of liquid in pan is sticky and syrupy, about 15 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and let cool.

4. To bake, preheat oven to 350°F. Divide dough in half and form each half into a ball. Roll one ball until large enough to fit into a 9-inch round tart pan. Dough will be crumbly (more shortbread than pie crust); if it falls apart, press it back together. Spoon confit over crust, spreading evenly. Roll out second ball of dough and place on top, sealing edges but making sure no crust overlaps the rim (or tart will be difficult to remove later).

5. Bake until edges of tart are lightly golden, about 35 minutes, then sprinkle top with remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Return to oven for about 10 more minutes; edges should be lightly golden and crust cooked through but not browned. Serve warm or cooled.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings.

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