04 November 2009

The Pastry Queen

When I had a bookstore in D. C. I was often referred to as "The Queen" by friend and most probably, foe, alike. I was once asked by the New York Times to comment on fashion and being Southern I focused on hair. I told them, "The three most important things to Southern women are God, Family and Hair; almost NEVER in that order."

So it is no wonder I love a cookbook that features something called Texas Big Hairs Lemon-Lime Meringue Tarts written by a pastry queen. These tarts are the signature recipe of Rebecca Rather and are featured in her book aptly entitled, The Pastry Queen. As a child I was not particularly fond of meringue. My mother made lemon meringue pie and, like Rather, couldn't resist seeing how high she could get her meringue to stand-up. This meant that the meringue was at least 4 times as tall as the pie itself. I could never find a way to get through the meringue to get to the lemon, so I would carefully remove the meringue in one giant piece and set it to the side, much like one removes a crown.

Now that I am grown-up, I see the remarkable ability it takes to produce those towering meringues and would give anything for one more of my mother's pies.

Rather's book is chocked full of treats for both the eye and the stomach. It is one of those books you want to have, even though you may never cook a single recipe. But do yourself a favor and cook away.

Texas Big Hairs Lemon-Lime Meringue Tarts


1 ½ cups pecans or sliced almonds
1 cup unsalted butter
1 cup powdered sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt

Lemon-Lime Curd

10 extra-large egg yolks (reserve the egg whites for the meringue)
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
Zest of 2 lemons
2 tablespoon unsalted butter


10 extra-large egg whites, at room temperature
3 cups sugar

To make the crust:

Preheat the oven to 350F. Arrange the pecans on a baking sheet in a single layer and toast them in the oven for 7-9 minutes, until golden brown and aromatic. (If using almond slices, toast for 5-7 minutes). Coarsely chop your nuts.

With your fingers, butter eight 4 3/8 inch, 1 cup capacity disposable foil tartlet pans using about 2 tablespoons softened unsalted butter total.

Using a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl on medium-high speed until fluffy. Add the vanilla, then gradually add the flour and salt and combine on low speed until incorporated. Add the nuts and mix on low speed just until they are incorporated. Form the dough into a ball-it will be sticky-and cover it with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350F. Remove the dough from the refrigerator, divide into 8 equal portions and press into the prepared pans, making sure it comes up to the top edge of the pans. If the dough sticks to your hands, dust them with flour as often as necessary.

Bake the crust about 20 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from the oven and cool for at least 30 minutes before filling with lemon-lime curd.

To make the curd:
Whisk the egg yolks, sugar, lemon juice, lime juice and zest in the top of a double boiler. Add the butter to the egg yolk mixture and whisk until melted and smooth. Cook about 40 minutes, stirring about every 15 minutes. The curd should be thick, resembling the consistency of loose custard. Transfer the warm mixture to a bowl and cover it with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap onto the surface of the curd, sealing it and leaving no air between the wrap and the curd. Refrigerate the curd for at least 4 hours and up to 3 days. For express cooling, freeze it for at least 1 hour.

Making the meringue:
Set a large, perfectly clean metal bowl over a pot of simmering water. Pour in the egg white and sugar. Heat the egg whites and sugar while whisking constantly until the sugar melts and there are no visible grains in the meringue. Take a little meringue mixture and rub it between your fingers to make sure all sugar grains have melted. Remove the meringue from over the simmering water and whip it with a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment on low speed for 5 minutes; increase the speed to high and beat 5 minutes longer, until the meringue is stiff and shiny.

Position an oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat the broiler. To assemble the tarts, spoon the chilled lemon-lime curd into the crusts, filling them about three-quarters of the way to the top. Pile the meringue on top of the curd. Style the meringue with your fingers by plucking at it to tease the meringue into jagged spikes. Set the tarts on the middle rack of the oven and broil until the meringue topping turns golden brown, about 1 minute. Watch the tarts closely, as they can turn from browned to burnt in a matter of seconds.

What did Keats say, "a thing of beauty is a joy forever." Or at least until you devourer it!

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