We interrupt your regularly scheduled chocolate programming to bring you this story from my early days in culinary school. For the most part, I really enjoyed culinary school. However, there were a few points when I felt like throwing my hands up, chucking a copper bowl across the kitchen and leaving. This was, quite possibly, the worst of those times.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…
The Lemon Meringue Tart From Hell
This is not the Lemon Meringue Tart from Hell. This is what the lemon tart was supposed to look like. Mine (the one from Hell) did not look like this.
French lemon tart is, naturally, more complicated than your average lemon tart. It’s a four-component dessert: sweet dough, almond cream, lemon custard, Italian meringue. It happened to be the focus of the fourth lesson in culinary school, and my first opportunity to show that I could put the pieces together to make something lovely.
Well, as you might have guessed, it was anything but.
First. Sweet dough.
Oh, sweet dough. There’s something lovely and methodical about making pastry: the need for cold hands, the reverence for butter, the balance of structure and tenderness. I think it’s therapeutic; others think it’s terrifying. In any case, this part of the class went fine. I had visions of the beautiful pastry shop that I would open. People would come from miles to visit and lie prostrate at my feet when they tasted my creations.
Second. Almond cream.
Sometimes called frangipane cream, almond cream is a fluffy, butter-based almond filling. It’s sort of airy and melty and is really delicious with pears and apples. The lemon tart called for a delicate spiral of almond cream to be piped on top of the sweet dough, the two layers baked until they were golden brown.
Piping? Erm, okay. Despite my hours of practice at home (covering the kitchen table with tinfoil and piping rosettes out of cheap margarine does not make you popular with roommates), I was still pretty sketchy with a piping bag. The spiral, if it had a face, would have had a face that only its mother could love. No matter, I thought. There will be a layer of lemon custard to cover this up, and I’m sure that everything will taste great.
The sweet dough and almond cream went into the oven, and I turned my attention to the lemon custard.
Third. Lemon custard.
I love lemon custard. If it’s lemony with a pudding-like consistency, I’m all over it.
I made my lemon custard and it turned out well. I checked on the oven, only to find that my already sad-looking tart had turned into a volcanic pimple. Suddenly, Chef’s voice sounded in my head: “If you do not fill ze pan wit ze pastry prop-air-ly, you will ‘ave hair underzneeth it and it will expand.” Shoot. I took it out, pressed it down with a large spatula, and popped it back in. Whew.
When the now-deflated tart was done, I took it out and put it in the freezer to cool it down. I was running out of time, and I still had to make Italian meringue.
Fourth. Italian meringue.
Italian meringue is a mixture of egg whites and sugar syrup. To make Italian meringue, whisk egg whites to a soft peak. A little bit of cream of tartar will help keep the egg whites from separating. Meanwhile, prepare a mixture of sugar and water and heat it until it’s 120°C. Then, stream the sugar syrup into the egg whites and whisk until they’re shiny, glossy and hold their shape.
It all sounds so simple, except that we weren’t allowed to use any machines. Suddenly, this very simple procedure is the world’s best workout. And how to figure out that the sugar syrup was at the correct temperature? Oh, that’s simple. You put your fingers in a bowl of ice water, pop them into the bubbling sugar mixture to get a little bit, and then put your fingers back in the ice water. Uh huh.
Several burnt fingers later, red-faced and exhausted, I felt as lame as my Italian meringue looked. It was gloopy and gloppy and certainly did not hold its shape. However, I didn’t have the time or the strength to start again, so I went with it. Visions of the cute pastry shop were getting dim.
Putting it all together (or, where it goes horribly wrong)
I took the almond cream base out of the freezer, but it clearly hadn’t been in there long enough. It was still slightly warm, but I didn’t have time to wait. I filled it with lemon custard and felt a wave of horror sweep over me. “If ze cream is too ‘ot, you will melt ze lemon custard,” I heard in the back of my head. Yup. Ze lemon custard was turning to liquid at the edges where it met the still-warm tart shell and almond cream. I put it back in the freezer for a harrowing five minutes, and pulled it back out. It looked okay. I pushed ahead.
I was supposed to pipe the Italian meringue on top of the lemon custard, creating a pattern of delicate petals. One look at my gloopy, gloppy meringue and I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I spread it onto the custard and tried to make it look pretty. It did not look pretty.
Finally, I put it back in the oven to caramelize the meringue. Suddenly, I heard another tidbit in my brain: “If you do not cover ze custard wiz ze meringue compl-ait-lay, ze ‘eat of ze oven will melt it. And you will FAIL.”
I watched in horror as the lemon custard began to bubble out from beneath the meringue, threatening to escape the tart and tarnish my academic record. I pulled it out of the oven in a panic. Just then, Chef walked by. “Chef, what do I do?” I wailed. He shrugged and said “Ah, you are done. Iz nussing you can do.”
I unmolded my sad, lame, un-caramelized tart and presented it to Chef. He looked at me, confused. “Why you present zis? Zis is not fin-aished.” I sputtered something about him telling me that it was done, and he shook his head. “You cannot serve zis. Zis is not fin-aished. You use ze torch.”
He handed me a blowtorch and proceeded to grade someone else’s pristine, gorgeous, artfully presented tart. In the time it took him to do that, I lit my meringue on fire.
Adding insult to injury
I passed, but just barely. The last one out of the classroom, I packed up my things, put my sad, burnt tart into a Tupperware container and trudged down every single step from the second-floor classroom to the basement locker room.
On the last step, I tripped. And, just like in the movies, my life went into slow motion as the Tupperware container slipped from my hands and tumbled, ever-so-slowly, to the ground. There was a distinct ka-chunk as the container hit the floor, followed by a softer, squishier psshhhhhhh as the momentum of the fall propelled the tart into one corner of the container.
I stopped. I stared. And, just before I burst into tears, two raucous friends from the cuisine program came running down the stairs. I told them my story, presented them with the tart and then sat with them in the student lounge as we dug into the decrepit tart with plastic spoons.
It tasted just fine.