So, there was me thinking that profiteroles were hard to make… then I tried to make a lemon tart on one of the hottest days of the year… OH BOY OH BOY OH BOY! This was definitely by far the hardest bake I have attempted to date, but also one of the most rewarding as I had to persevere to get it right. This bake spanned both Saturday and Sunday of last weekend because it took me three attempts to get the pastry right. I’d never baked a tart nor tried making sweet, shortcrust pastry (pâte sucrée) before; it really was quite epic, and I definitely chose a silly time weather-wise to attempt it! I have, however, learnt so much from this experience and I think for my baking education, this post will be a really important one for reminding me of things to do and things not to do when baking future tarts.
I chose to bake “Gregg’s Tangy Lemon Tart”, a recipe I found on the BBC Good Food website. It had 104 five-star ratings, so I figured it must be a fairly decent recipe to try. There were, however, two big things going against me on Saturday; my inexperience at making sweet, shortcrust pastry and the heat. I tried to make the pastry twice, but both times were unsuccessful. I did, however, successfully make the filling (hooray!), which I kept in the fridge overnight in the hope that I would be successful at making the pastry correctly on Sunday (which I was – double hooray!!). I think it’s important to learn from things that go wrong, so before I outline how I made the tart successfully, first I will write a little bit about my first two unsuccessful attempts at making the pastry. If you’re not interested in reading about that, you can skip straight to the successful part!
Unsuccessful Pastry Attempt Number One
I think there were many reasons why my pastry did not work out the first two times. I changed several things for my third attempt, so it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the dealbreaker was, but I’d say the dryness of the pastry was probably the biggest issue. However, I think some or all of the following points played their part too.
I did not sieve the flour or the icing sugar, which may have contributed to my pastry problems. The recipe didn’t mention anything about this, so I didn’t bother; this may have been a mistake. Regarding the butter, my butter cubes were quite large and they were sitting out on the counter for a while before I used them. I think I thought that the softer the butter, the better, but in this case the butter needed to be cool. I then rubbed the butter into the flour and icing sugar with my fingers, possibly overworking it, as the resulting mixture was quite powdery as opposed to crumbly breadcrumbs. Also, keeping your fingers in the mixture too long just heats up the butter.
Dryness was a big issue. I didn’t mix my eggs together before I effectively dumped them into the ‘breadcrumbs’. I then started mixing the egg in with a spoon, but the mixture wasn’t coming together well, so I used my fingers, thus heating up the ingredients even more. The result was a splodgy-looking, dry dough. The dough was still too dry and crumbly, so being cautious I added 1/2 tbsp of water. Even though the recipe says to add 1-2 tbsp of water if the pastry is too dry, I was worried that I’d put in too much water because the dough initially went sticky. After a few minutes of handling the dough, it became less sticky, however this again was something I learnt should be avoided – overhandling the dough. I flattened the dough in preparation for chilling, and it was cracking at the edges already…
I chilled the dough for 2 hours and 15 minutes. The recipe said to chill for at least 30 minutes so I figured that the longer it was in the fridge the better (I was also busy taking photos of my filling that I was making, washing up and just generally faffing). On taking the dough out of the fridge, however, it was like a rock! So I carried on washing up until it was softer to roll. I don’t know whether this additional time in the fridge actually made things worse.
I then floured the work surface and started to roll the dough. It was very dry and almost instantly started to crack; and not just at the sides either! It was cracking at the sides, in the middle, everywhere!
This is the moment I started to feel disappointed; I knew things were not going to turn out well. It was clear I was not going to be able to transfer the dough to the tin without some help, so I called on my glamorous assistant Will to help. Well, despite our best efforts, it was impossible to lift and split into a thousand pieces during the process!
It was at this point that I started to carry out the postmortem. What did I do wrong? Maybe I didn’t mix the egg yolks into the flour and icing sugar properly? Maybe the dough was too dry and I didn’t add enough water (even though I added enough water for the dough to come together)? Maybe I chilled the dough too long (even though I left it to soften before I rolled it out)? Uff. It was now about 3pm in the afternoon and the heat was rising. The temperature had got up to about 25 degrees Celsius outside (and probably a lot more in our hot kitchen!). Feeling a bit dejected, but not one to be thwarted, I set about trying to make the pastry again…
Unsuccessful Pastry Attempt Number Two
Okay, so I tried to make the pastry again. This time I really wanted to mix the egg yolks into the dry ingredients better. So instead of using a spoon, I used my fingers from the outset and the dough looked better already. Unlike last time, it came together into a ball nicely without any water. But as I was worried dryness was a problem the last time round, I added 1 tbsp of water. This time the dough wasn’t sticky initially, it just felt moist. On flattening the dough, a few cracks appeared at the edges… like last time.
I put the dough into the fridge to chill, but in my haste, I realised I’d forgotten to flatten it out. So after 10 minutes in the fridge, I took it out, unwrapped it, flattened it out with my hands, rewrapped it and put it back in… All this extra handling mid-process probably didn’t help things. Due to this little incident, I added five minutes to the time and took the dough out of the fridge after 35 minutes. This time round, I wanted to see if chilling the dough for the minimum specified time might work better.
On taking the dough out of the fridge, it looked better than last time; it was yellower – so some hope remained. But upon rolling, the cracks started appearing again, this time mostly around the edges. Like last time, it was very hard to rotate the pastry between rollings, as it was sticking to the work surface so easily.
So I had the same problem again; Will and I tried to lift it off the surface to put it in the tin, but it was impossible; it just fell apart in our hands! I can’t tell you how dejected I felt! I don’t have a picture of what our attempt to transfer it into the tin looked like, because Will had already started to clear up the evidence, clearly sensing I was going to be upset. On turning around, I decided to vent my annoyance by throwing the pieces of dough at the tin… that felt better, momentarily at least!:
So I shed a tear; I was hot, exhausted and very disappointed! I had to call it a day. There was no way we were going to be having lemon tart that Saturday. I started to clear everything away and put the lemon filling that I had made away in the fridge, hoping that I may (somehow) be successful at the pastry the next day.
Poor Will didn’t have a very fun evening that night, as I was consumed by postmortem number two. Maybe the ingredients were too warm? Maybe my hands were too warm? Maybe I overrubbed the butter with the flour and icing sugar? Maybe I was undermixing the ingredients? Both times I hadn’t mixed the eggs together first before adding them to the dry ingredients, maybe that played a part? Was the outdoor high temperature making a difference? Maybe there was still too little liquid in the dough? After all, I hadn’t added the upper limit of water the recipe said you could add (2 tbsp). During both pastry attempts I was reluctant to add too much water, as I have ruined other types of pastry dough before by adding too much liquid. I think this was why I was scared to add too much water.
I was determined to work out what I did wrong and to find some tips for making this d**n sweet, shortcrust pastry! I spent hours googling articles and videos and made some notes on techniques I could try. I found some very useful articles and videos (links at the end of this post) which definitely helped me to think about where I was going wrong. I went to bed feeling tired, but with a tiny bit of hope that I could make it work third time lucky the next day.
Successful Pastry Day
I woke up on Sunday bright and early, but feeling apprehensive. Saturday had been a long, tough old day and I really wanted to nail the pastry. It was 19 degrees Celsius, and I wanted to get going before the afternoon heat set in.
Making the Pastry
Step 1: Gather the ingredients
First of all, I gathered together all of the ingredients to make the pastry. Today I was using a different plain flour to the one I used the day before; this one was pre-sieved, whereas the one I used the day before wasn’t. Also different to Saturday, I sieved the icing sugar and I also lightly beat the egg yolks together. As I was paranoid about heat and its effect on the pastry, once I had cut the butter into cubes I kept them in the fridge until I needed them. I also put the two eggs in the fridge for about 5 minutes, in case they were too warm at room temperature. I only left them in the fridge for a short amount of time in case somehow that ruined the pastry (total paranoia had set in!). I also put a mug of cold water, two knives and some greaseproof paper in the fridge (all will be explained!). I used half the pastry quantities outlined in the recipe, because I didn’t want to make extra pastry to freeze for another time. Here’s what I used:
- 250 g plain flour (pre-sieved), plus extra for dusting
- 70 g icing sugar (sifted)
- 125 g unsalted butter (cubed)
- 2 large egg yolks (lightly beaten)
Equipment-wise you need a 23 cm tart tin (I used one with a loose bottom) and baking beans. Throughout the whole process of making the pastry, I kept cooling my hands down under the cold tap, to prevent heat becoming an issue.
Step 2: Make the dough
First I mixed the plain flour and the icing sugar together using a wooden spoon.
Next I added the the chilled cubes of butter into the dry ingredients. The recipe says to rub the butter into the flour with your fingers until crumbly, but given the problems I had had the day before (e.g. with the external heat and heat from my fingers), I decided to cut the butter into the mixture using two chilled knives in a scissor-like movement (thanks to a very helpful video from Leiths School of Food and Wine). Using chilled knives instead of your fingers helps to prevent the butter from warming up and melting:
I did however finish off this process using my fingers for a very short amount of time, until I had achieved a breadcrumb-like consistency. I tried not to overrub the mixture, because apparently having pea-size clumps of fat in your pastry dough creates a desirable, flaky texture. I was much happier with how this pastry was looking – it was not overworked or powdery:
Next the recipe says to mix in the egg yolks, and that if the pastry is still too dry, you can add one to two tablespoons of water until it comes together. I personally think it would have been helpful for the recipe to specify what size eggs to use, as surely that makes a difference? Like the day before, I used two large egg yolks, but as a lack of liquid seemed to be one of the problems with my dough, I decided to lightly beat the two egg yolks together with two tablespoons of chilled water from the mug I had put in the fridge. Then, I drizzled two tablespoons of this combined egg yolk and water mixture into the dry ingredients, and used a chilled knife to stir it in. I made sure that I drizzled the mixture evenly around the bowl before stirring.
Stirring using the knife as quickly as possible, you start to create flakes of pastry. Then, you need to use the flat side of the knife to bring the flakes and crumbs together at the side of the bowl to create larger lumps of pastry. You need to add the egg yolk and water mixture and stir until no dry crumbs remain at the bottom of the bowl. Apparently adding too much liquid can make the pastry tough, so I wanted to avoid that. I was running out of egg yolk and water mixture, so I added another two tablespoons of chilled water to it. On reflection, I think one tablespoon of additional water would have been sufficient here. Then I added one tablespoon of this combined egg yolk and water mixture to the pastry, and continued to combine it together with the edge of the knife.
The pastry picked up into a sticky dough, so I stopped adding the egg yolk and water mixture. There was a bit of this mixture left over at the end, so I was a little concerned that maybe there wasn’t enough egg yolk but too much water in the dough for it to stay together properly…
Next I used my hand to bring the dough together, but ensuring to handle the dough as little as possible as overworking the dough can make it tough, plus my hands were hot due to the heat. I then flattened the dough into a disc about 10 cm in diameter and 1.5 cm deep and wrapped it in cling film. Happily, there were no cracks at the edges of the dough! My hopes were raised that this was going to turn out well 🙂
So now the recipe says to chill the pastry for at least 30 minutes. Apparently the purpose of chilling the dough is to let it ‘relax’ (I needed some of that), but to be honest it is a deep mystery to me as to how long would be an ideal amount of chilling time. On the one hand, some people advise the longer better and for at least two hours, but then others say don’t leave it in the fridge for too long or it will be a rock and crumble. So basically, this is a bit of a minefield and I am still clueless as to what is best!
After 30 minutes of chilling in the fridge, my dough was still pliable (which is a good thing), but I decided to leave it in a bit longer (but not too long…) – more on that later. It is at this point in the recipe that Gregg advises you to make the filling, while the pastry is chilling. So whilst I actually made the filling the day before, I’ll outline what I did here.
Making the Filling
Step 1: Gather the ingredients
To make the filling, I used the following:
- 5 large eggs
- 140 g caster sugar
- 150 ml double cream
- Juice of 2.5 lemons (125 ml lemon juice)
- 2 tbsp lemon zest (4 lemons used)
There were several comments on the BBC Good Food website saying the recipe wasn’t lemony enough, so I decided to use slightly more lemon juice than the 100 ml Gregg recommends, as specified above. Here are all the ingredients:
Zesting the lemons using the zester on this box grater was hard work! I must look into getting a better tool for zesting, perhaps a microplane like this? Note that I needed to zest four lemons (different from the recipe) to get the required two tablespoons of lemon zest.
I found two lemons made 100 ml of juice (as advised in the recipe), but I decided to juice an extra half a lemon to end up with 125 ml of juice, to make the tart more lemony. I must also look into getting a better juicer than my current one:
Step 2: Beat ingredients together
The next step is to beat all the ingredients together, except for the zest. I used my electric hand mixer to do this.
Step 3: Sieve the mixture
Next, sieve the mixture, to get read of any lumpy bits. It’s surprising how much gunk there is!:
Step 4: Stir in the zest
Next I stirred in the zest with the rest of the mixture, and voila, the filling is ready. I set this aside while I carried on with the rest of the recipe:
Making the Pastry Case
Step 1: Take dough out of fridge
So the recipe says to chill the dough for at least 30 minutes. I took my dough out after 1 hour and 15 minutes in the fridge. I figured this fulfilled the minimum requirement, but also added a bit of extra bonus time (but not too much…). I then left the dough for 5 minutes to allow it to rise to room temperature.
Step 2: Lightly flour the surface
Before doing anything, I ran my hands under the cold water tap, to ensure they weren’t too warm before I handled the flour and dough. Next, I lay a large piece of greaseproof paper down on the surface and put four stones at each corner to stop the paper curling up. Then I lightly floured (I wonder how much a light flouring actually is?!?) the greaseproof paper and my rolling pin. The recipe doesn’t say to use greaseproof paper, but I had so many problems with the pastry sticking to the surface the day before, that I didn’t want to risk it.
Step 3: Ridge the dough
I read about this technique after my two previous failed attempts at making the pastry. Ridging the dough involves pressing down on the dough with your rolling pin, effectively creating ridges. Apparently pastry doesn’t like to be rolled, so by ridging the dough first, you are making it easier to roll. I ridged the dough until it was about twice its original size, rotating it 90 degrees after each completed side.
Step 4: Roll the dough
I then rolled the dough, using about three to four short strokes per side, turning the dough 90 degrees clockwise after each side. I did this until the pastry was about 3 mm deep – you can use a £1 coin to guide you. Again, this was a new rolling technique that I’d read about after my last two failed attempts. When I tried making the pastry the day before, I didn’t do any ridging and went straight into the rolling. When I rolled, I did one long roll across the pastry, which I know understand to be a bit of a no no. As you can see below, the pastry was looking good, and it was really nice to handle. I didn’t have any cracks this time, and I was amazed by how easy it was to keep rotating it. I think this was definitely due to a better dough and using the greaseproof paper on the surface.
Step 5: Lift the pastry into the 23 cm tart tin
Okay, so this is the part where everything went very wrong the last two times. I don’t believe it was a coincidence that Will decided to pop down to the supermarket before I started this part. I don’t think he wanted to witness any more disasters or be involved in the lifting! When we tried lifting the previous pastries, they were so stuck to the surface and crumbly, we could barely get our fingers underneath them to move them. But happily today, I was even able to use a fancy technique (well I thought it was fancy!) to lift the pastry.
I lightly floured the rolling pin, and then starting with the side of the pastry furthest away from me, I rolled the pastry loosely over the rolling pin. Then, starting with the side of the tin closest to me, I unrolled the pastry from the rolling pin loosely over it. To my immense astonishment and absolute delight, it did not break!! HURRAH! It was perhaps not positioned as centrally as it could have been, but I was just overjoyed to have a) made a pastry that didn’t disintegrate into a million pieces and b) been able to lift the pastry into the tin, using a rolling pin no less!
Step 6: Tidy up the pastry case
With the pastry safely in the tin, now I just needed to tidy it up. I tore some excess dough from the overhanging side, made a small ball and used it to press down gently on the bottom and the sides of the tin.
Next, I trimmed off the excess pastry by rolling the rolling pin over the tin, starting at the side closest to me and finishing at the side furthest away. I then pressed my finger into each groove to mould the pastry to the tin, and also pushed the pastry just above the rim of each groove (I think I read that this helps to prevent shrinkage).
The final step in preparing the pastry case is to ‘stab a few holes in the bottom with a fork’, which I duly did, with gusto. (After I had finished making this tart, however, I read Mary Berry’s recipe and she said to ‘lightly prick, not quite all the way through’… I definitely stabbed all the way through… it didn’t seem to cause a problem for me, but I wonder why the difference in techniques?). Also, I didn’t grease the tin before putting the pastry in it, as this recipe didn’t say to do so. However, Mary Berry does recommend greasing the tin, so I was a little concerned about this point, and whether my tart would end up being stuck to the tin…
Step 7: Chill pastry case
The next step is to chill the pastry case in the fridge for 30 minutes. The recipe didn’t say to do this, but I’d read in Mary Berry’s recipe to cover the pastry case loosely in cling film when you put it back in the fridge, so that it doesn’t dry out. Well, I figured this would be a sensible thing to do, but stupid old me forgot that the bottom of the tin was loose, so when I picked it up, I ended up pushing the bottom up and tearing one side of the pastry!!
I managed to avert a minor breakdown, and stayed calm. I used the small ball of dough I had used earlier to patch it back together and redo the bottom and edges. This was surprisingly and reassuringly simple to do, and seemed to fix the problem (although I was convinced I would have a leaky tart at the end!). I had read somewhere that brushing the pastry with egg white would seal any holes, but I was nervous to try this in case it affected the bake or flavour in any way, but it could be a useful tip for the future.
I then ‘carefully’ put a piece of cling film loosely over the pastry case, and put it in the fridge to chill. I had read somewhere else that you can chill the pastry for 2 hours, as a longer time in the fridge helps with the baking, but I think there is also the danger of the pastry drying out. I left mine to chill in the fridge for about 40 minutes in the end.
Baking the Tart
Step 1: Heat oven
I heated the fan oven to 140 degrees Celsius, and put a baking tray on the middle shelf. I also put my oven thermometer on the tray, as I really wanted to make sure the temperature was right throughout the bake. I find our oven to be quite hot, and so my bakes tend to come out more baked than I like.
Step 2: Make cartouche
The next step is to line the tart with foil and fill with rice or dried beans. Some people have problems with the foil sticking to their pastry, so I decided to make a cartouche out of baking parchment, as this is less likely to stick. To do this, you just fold a piece of parchment over several times, and then scrunch it into a ball. This helps to mould the cartouche into the tin. I had bought ceramic baking beans especially for this bake, so I was excited to try them. Make sure the beans go right to the edges, as this is the area that needs the most support during the bake.
Step 3: Bake pastry case
Next I baked the pastry case for 10 minutes (otherwise known as ‘baking blind’). Even though I had set our fan oven for 140 degrees Celsius, I found that the temperature was fluctuating, so I kept having to nudge the dial up and down to keep it at around 140. After 10 minutes, I took the pastry out of the oven and removed the cartouche and baking beans:
The pastry bottom looked a little soggy, but I wasn’t overly concerned as the next step was to bake the pastry for another 20 minutes until biscuity. I noticed that the bottom was lifting slightly towards the beginning of this second part of baking, but it soon flattened down as the baking continued. Again, the temperature kept fluctuating, so I was continually monitoring and making adjustments to keep the temperature at 140 degrees Celsius. Once the 20 minutes were over, I removed the pastry to check it was baked; I was satisfied that it looked biscuity enough. The sides had receded down a bit and it looked a little messier than when it went in, but overall I was happy with it:
Step 4: Add filling and bake tart
As I had made the filling the day before, I gave the lemon mixture a bit of a stir before I poured it into a jug. The next step was to pour the lemon mixture into the pastry case and bake again for 30 to 35 minutes until just set. So I poured the mixture into the pastry case, leaving about a 1 cm gap at the top. I couldn’t pour all the liquid in and was left with about 100 ml of lemon mixture. Now, this recipe doesn’t mention anything about leaving the pastry case to cool before you pour in the mixture, so I didn’t do this. However, Mary Berry says to pour the liquid into the ‘cooled’ baked pastry case. I wonder if that’s why the lemon mixture went a funny white colour on top, possibly due to the heat?
I then had a rather perilous journey of transporting the tart on the baking tray from my work surface to the middle shelf of the oven, without spilling any of the liquid over the pastry edges. Apparently it’s not great if you spill the mixture between the pastry and the tin. I managed okay, but to be honest, it would have been much easier to do as Mary Berry suggests, which is to pour the mixture into the pastry case whilst it is on the oven shelf. You would also avoid letting out all the heat from your oven, as you tentatively make this hazardous journey – my oven went down to 110 degrees Celsius during the process!
So I set the timer for 35 minutes. The recipe says to bake for 30 to 35 minutes until just set, so I don’t know why I set the timer for the maximum time (I think I was very tired by this point). In hindsight, I should have set it for the minimum time, especially as my oven is on the hotter side. I was, however, very hungry at this point, as it was well past my normal lunch time; so what happened is that I sat down to eat my lunch in the last 10 minutes of the bake and effectively took my eye off the ball. This was a very silly thing to do, especially after having paid such close attention to every other stage of the bake! I took the tart out after 35 minutes, and of course, it had singed a little on top! The pastry had also shrunk down a little at the edges – maybe by 3 mm; I think this could have been rectified by putting more of the baking beans up the sides to prevent shrinkage.
I left the tart to cool, and then removed it from the tin, simply by pushing the bottom up – this was really easy to do! So, voila, here it is!
Despite the burnt bit, I was pretty pleased with how it turned out! I would have preferred it not to have burnt, but as a first attempt, and after all the trials and tribulations of trying to make the pastry, I was content. And anyway, the burnt bit just gave me a good excuse to get creative with strategically decorating the top with some lemon slices!
I do love to take arty farty pictures of my bakes (much to Will’s annoyance – he just wants to eat them straight away), so here are some more pictures:
This tart is delicious! Will and I polished it off in two days between ourselves! It was an epic bake with three attempts to get the pastry right, but I’m glad I persevered. I’m not convinced I made the pastry in the optimum way, in terms of adding the egg and water together before mixing it into the dry ingredients, so I’ll try to read up a little more on that. But I did learn a lot in general about making sweet, shortcrust pastry, and how using too little liquid prevents the ingredients from binding together and forming enough gluten. Regarding the lemon mixture, I do wonder whether I should have taken it out of the fridge earlier to let it warm up to room temperature, as well as letting the tart cool down before pouring the mixture in, as I think the mixture may have curdled a bit.
Anyway, I was pleased with the vibrant yellow colour (apart from the burnt bit obviously!) and it was lemony but not too lemony. I’m glad I put the extra lemon juice in. The tart was smooth and set well (but probably set a bit too well as there was no wobble, and Mary Berry says there should be a wobble!), but it definitely didn’t taste tough or too baked. Another thing I was really pleased about was that there was no soggy bottom and the crust was nice and crisp. I thoroughly recommend baking this tart, but it wasn’t easy and it’s definitely not something to do on a hot day! I think I’ll bake something simpler next time! 🙂
In case you might find them useful, here are some links to some helpful videos and articles that I referred to during this bake:
- How to Make Shortcrust Pastry By Hand – Leiths School of Food and Wine
- How to Line a Tart Tin with Shortcrust Pastry
- Pastry Troubleshooting Guide
- Leith’s Guide to Making Perfect Shortcrust Pastry
- What to Do When Pastry is Too Crumbly (Fix in 5 Simple Steps)
- Mary Berry’s Lemon Tart
- How to Make Sweet Shortcrust Pastry – Jamie Oliver