Mendocino Lemon Tart


Mendocino is a picturesque spot on the north California coast, where the cliffs drop steeply to the sea, and the mist rushing over the weather-worn trees reminds me of Japan. In a corner of the town is a charming rose-ringed Victorian house, my friend Margaret’s Café Beaujolais. It is there one can find extraordinary desserts, including this smooth and tangy lemon tart.

  • This is a simple, foolproof dessert, perfect for beginners. The rich, cookie-type crust is made in minutes in a food processor, then pressed into place by hand. The filling, a smooth lemon curd, requires nothing more than an arm to beat it. You may garnish the tart with plain or fancy nuts or whipped cream rosettes, all depending on your mood and the style of the occasion.
  • The recipe will make one 9-inch tart. The crust may be frozen. The lemon curd may be refrigerated for 2 weeks, or frozen for a longer period if you like, with no loss of flavor or texture. Frozen lemon curd should be defrosted in the refrigerator, then beaten 2–3 seconds in a food processor, or thoroughly with a wire whisk before using, before using.

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For the crust

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • medium-grated zest of 1 lemon (use box grater; do not grate any of the white pith)
  • ¼ pound room temperature sweet butter, cut into large cubes
  • pinch salt

For the lemon curd

  • 3 whole large eggs
  • 3 large yolks
  • medium-grated zest of 1 lemon (use box grater; do not grate any of the white pith)
  • ½ cup freshly squeezed, strained lemon juice
  • cup plus 2 teaspoons sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ pound room temperature sweet butter, cubed

To garnish

  • freshly toasted sliced almonds
  • or
  • Crystalline Walnut Halves
  • or
  • about ½ cup chilled heavy (whipping) cream, whipped to stiff peaks with powdered confectioners’ sugar and pure vanilla extract to taste


Making the dough

Add the flour, sugar, and lemon zest to the dry work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife. Process 5 seconds to mix. Distribute ½ of the butter cubes evenly on top of the flour mixture, turn on the machine, and drop the remaining cubes one by one through the feed tube. Process about 20–30 seconds, until well blended. The dough will look crumbly. It will not form a ball around the blade.

If you do not have a food processor, blend the ingredients in a mixer or by hand until crumbly and well combined.

Press the dough into a compact ball. At this point the dough may be refrigerated or frozen, wrapped in wax paper, then sealed airtight. The dough should be soft and at room temperature when you shape the crust.

Pressing the dough into the pan

Use a 9-inch removable-bottom tart pan.

Begin with a big wad of dough to form the wall and the outer rim of the base. Use your thumb to press the dough into the side of the pan, turning the pan as you go, removing most of the excess from the top, and pressing on a slight diagonal, so after one full turn you have the wall and the outer rim pressed into place. Go around again, if necessary, to even the dough. The wall should be evenly 3/16 of an inch thick, becoming slightly thicker where it slopes to meet the base, and should bulge ⅛ inch above the pan to allow for shrinkage during baking. Then use the flat of your fingers to press the remaining dough into the bottom of the pan, to form an even base 3/16 inch thick. The whole process will take 10 minutes or less once you get the hang of it.

Chill the crust in the freezer, loosely covered, for a full 30 minutes before baking. For longer freezing, seal airtight once firm, then bake directly from the freezer without defrosting.

Baking the crust

Bake the crust on the middle level of a preheated 375° oven for about 20 minutes, until pale golden, rotating the pan after 10 minutes to insure even browning.

Remove to a rack, then let the crust cool completely in the pan. Once cooled, it may be kept at room temperature several hours before filling.

Cooking and chilling the lemon curd

Beat the whole eggs and the egg yolks until combined.

In the top of a double boiler over very low heat, combine the grated zest, lemon juice, sugar, and salt. Add the beaten eggs, then whisk gently for 15 minutes, until the mixture is thick enough to coat a spoon. Add the butter, stir to melt, then remove the pot from the heat.

Strain the mixture through a sieve to remove the bits of zest and coagulated egg. Chill uncovered in the refrigerator for 4 hours, until thoroughly cold and thick. To hasten the process, you may chill the lemon curd in the freezer for 1–2 hours, but be diligent about stirring it up from the bottom every 15 minutes, so it does not begin to freeze.

Assembling the tart

Just before serving, remove the metal collar from the tart pan by centering it on your palm or the top of a large can. Leave the fragile crust on the metal base and put it on a doily-lined serving plate. Fill the shell evenly with lemon curd to come ⅛–3/16 inch below the top of the crust, then smooth the top lightly with a spatula. Garnish with a border of sliced toasted almonds, Crystalline Walnut Halves, or whipped cream rosettes pressed from a pastry bag fitted with a star tip.

Slice the tart at the table, or—Café Beaujolais-style—serve each slice on an individual doily-lined plate, with a fresh tea rose alongside.

Eat the tart promptly. It quickly wilts.