Thursday, 7 June 2012
Where do I begin? I have so many stories to share.
It might be simplest if we start with the short, factual version. I'm sure the outline will be fleshed out in the next few posts. What do you want to hear about?
When I left you, over six weeks ago, I was still in Switzerland. When I flew back to the UK a few days later, I packed up my flat in London, saw friends and went to some meetings. Mum joined me and we went to see family in Devon for a few days. I moved from the flat to my house in Oxford. Two days later, I graduated from university (Oxford has a big delay between exams and the ceremony). The next day, we flew to America. Three weeks of travel and delicious food later, I flew back to England - to go to an awards ceremony, have more meetings, and organize my house. On Monday I flew back to California.
In a stroke of wonderful luck, we've rented an incredible house in Berkeley. Through the kitchen windows you can see the citrus plants just outside, laden with oranges or lemons. The gravel below the huge pots is strewn with fallen fruit, just waiting to be swept into a pile.
There are six chickens in a run tucked beside the vegetable patch. To me, this means fresh eggs with gorgeous orange yolks for baking. To mum, this is a very welcome return to chicken keeping.
To make the most of this unexpected windfall, I decided to use the eggs and lemons to make a bright curd and some shiny Swiss meringue.
I also made some very thin and crispy tart cases to contrast with the silky softness of the fillings. I made these on my first day here - in the midst of the jet lag and confusion, a fiddly task settled my mind.
We're staying in this house for the remaining three weeks of our trip. It feels good to have a solid base (especially one with a very well stocked kitchen).
Though I've cooked a few little things, I essentially haven't made or photographed food for six weeks. I feel rusty - my fingers ached as I rubbed in, my arms complained about whisking, I couldn't get the colours to look right on camera. Whatever the results, it feels wonderful to properly dig my hands into flour again.
I made a full recipe of the lemon curd so we had some for spreading on bread, stirring into greek yogurt and just eating on a spoon. A half recipe should be around the right amount to fill the tarts. The meringue is absolutely delightful - thick, strong (you can give your tarts silly hair if you so desire) and full of flavour from the brown sugar.
Watch out if you don't have a blow torch and decide to toast the meringue under the grill - I managed to incinerate the tips on one tart. Though, actually, I rather liked the touch of smoke.
EDIT 12/6/12: As you might have noticed, I've changed some of of the photos on this post - of the lemons and chickens - because I really didn't like them and once I had my shiny new camera, I decided to re-shoot. Now the others are annoying me!
Lemon & Brown Sugar Meringue Tartlets
(Lemon curd adapted from David Lebovitz, meringue adapted from Ottolenghi's The Cookbook)
For the pastry:
60g plain flour
1 tsp caster sugar
zest of 1/2 a small lemon
pinch of fine sea salt
30g cold unsalted butter, cubed
approx 1.5 tbsp cold water
For the lemon curd:
125ml lemon juice (6 tiny lemons)
rind of 1 small lemon
100g caster sugar
2 egg yolks (approx 40g)
2 whole eggs (approx 100g)
pinch of fine sea salt
85g unsalted butter
For the meringue:
2 egg whites (approx 60g)
65g caster sugar
35g brown sugar
Place the flour, sugar, zest and salt into a mixing bowl. Stir with a whisk or fork to combine and loosen any lumps of flour. Add the butter and rub it in until it looks like wet sand. Sprinkle the water over and start to work in with a plastic pastry scraper or knife. Bring together with your hands then squish the ball once or twice upon the surface with the base of your hand to fully combine the mixture. Form into a flat disc and wrap in cling film. Chill for at least 30 minutes in the fridge - it should be firm but not hard to the touch.
While the pastry chills, make the curd. Place a medium saucepan onto the stove and fill with a few inches of water. Turn the heat up to medium. Prepare a bowl with a sieve over it and place it near the stove. Whisk the lemon juice, rind, sugar, yolks, whole eggs and salt together in a medium sized bowl (which fits on top of the saucepan without touching the water). Place it over the water and add the pieces of butter, whisking constantly. Once the butter had melted, turn the heat up to medium-high and keep whisking until the mixture thickens considerably - you should be able to leave whisk marks/small peaks on the surface. As soon as it's ready, scrape it into the sieve and press it through into the bowl (this catches the lemon rind, the chalaza and any small lumps) and cool. Leave the saucepan on the side - you'll need it later for the meringue.
I find it easier to divide the pastry and roll each circle out individually when doing a small number like this. So chop the pastry into 6, making each piece into a disc - each piece should weigh approx 20g - and place them back in the fridge. Preheat the oven to 180C. Lightly dust the surface and your rolling pin with flour. Take one piece and roll it out, turning it 1/4 between each roll. When very thin and about the right size, place into the case (the ones here are 3.5 inches across the top). Press down into the corners and then into the sides. Put back in the fridge to chill without trimming.
Repeat for the others, then take the first out again. Press the sides in and up, then trim by sliding a sharp knife along the edge of the tin. Line with paper and fill right up to the top with baking beans or rice. Put back in the fridge and repeat with the others. Bake for 20 minutes or until the pastry is nearly cooked through. Remove the beans and paper and bake for a further 5-10 minutes until golden and crisp. Remove to cool on a wire rack.
Have a stand mixer fitted with a bowl and whisk ready. Wipe the bottom of another clean, medium sized mixing bowl with one of the juiced lemon rinds (this helps remove any little bits of grease which can spoil your meringue). Place the egg whites, caster sugar and brown sugar into the bowl and whisk together. Place the bowl over the water. Keep lightly whisking as it warms up and the sugar dissolves - you want the mixture to be smooth and hot to the touch. Test by rubbing a little of the mixture between two fingers. When you can no longer feel any grains, take it off the heat and quickly scrape it into the stand mixer bowl. Turn up to high and whisk for approximately 4 minutes until very stiff, golden and shiny. It should still feel warm - turn the mixer down to medium and whip until cool to the touch.
Transfer half of the meringue to a plastic piping bag (or a plastic ziplock bag). Take your pastry cases and fill with 1-2 tbsp of lemon curd. Snip off the end of the bag and pipe on top of the curd with the meringue. When you've run out of meringue (it should be enough for three) re-fill the bag and finish the other three. If you have a blow torch, toast the meringue in steady sweeps. If not, preheat the grill and place them underneath until browned - this only takes a very short time, so don't leave them. You can also leave them without toasting the meringue.
(Makes six tarts with leftover lemon curd)