There’s something so hopeful about spring, isn’t there? Everything feels a little brighter, as if around any corner the world is going to burst into bloom. Today reached a balmy 76 degrees in New York City—definitive pantless weather as I like to call it—and I threw on a short gray t-shirt dress with my white Converse sneakers this morning, wearing just a light sweater for warmth and bounded out the door.
Of course, the entire world isn’t all sunshine and iced coffee weather yet. I called my little sister on my walk back from breakfast and she informed me that Portland, Maine had a light dusting of snow; she was planning a sledding playdate that afternoon with her little one.
But whether you’re here or there or somewhere in between in terms of spring, you can at least usher it into your kitchen (by which I mean YOUR MOUTH) with the brightest, sunniest-looking dessert I can think of: lemon meringue tart.
Before we dive in, let me level with you here. I typically find lemon desserts really unbalanced: either far too tart or far too sweet. It’s hard to find ones that really let the fruit shine with the just right amount of sweetness to play a supporting role to, but not overshadow, the citrus.
My favorite lemon dessert is perhaps one of the simplest: homemade lemon curd folded into freshly whipped cream and just barely frozen so it thickens like a semifreddo. I could eat this every day, and I love it—it reminds me of another lemon dessert I had a brief (yet feverish) dalliance with in college.
I worked one summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college in Holderness, New Hampshire on Squam Lake. I was a backcountry caretaker, which meant spending my days outside in the summer sunshine. With two others, I was responsible for overseeing the dozen campsites sprinkled on two tiny islands out on the lake. Between the three of us, we’d rotate nights out on the islands, talking to campers and teaching them about Leave No Trace camping. We’d motor out each day in a little Boston Whaler, weighted down with freshly chopped firewood (I developing serious axe-wielding skills that summer) for the campsites. During the day, we’d do anything from basic maintenance on the boat docks to building and brushing the miles of trails that we were responsible for keeping neat and walkable, most of which traversed a ring around the lake, making up parts of the Belknap Woods and Chamberlin Reynolds Memorial Forest.
I loved every second of the summer: the hot, sweaty, exhausted feeling I’d have after a long day of hiking to paint trail blazes. The smell of campfire and wood smoke that clung to my hair and clothes each night. The particular sleek sensation of my skin against cool lake water when I’d dive in naked to skinny-dip each night as soon as it grew dark.
And I loved my boss: a bearded, incredibly tall guy named Brett. He was quiet and reserved, but had the most infectious smile that would break out over his face when he laughed. Sometimes we’d have to work out on the lake all day—diving and monitoring for invasive plants or checking loon habitats—which meant piling our gear onto a big pontoon boat. Brett would drive and we’d lie on the back in the sun, tanning our faces and cracking jokes.
Whenever we took the boat out, Brett would drive over to the marina at lunchtime and pull up at the dock just below the Holderness General Store. We’d clamber out and run up into the cool shaded parking lot to sit at the picnic tables and wait for lunch. We’d order giant sandwiches and bags of chips and cold seltzer water.
Brett would always get a piece of fudge from the candy counter, and I’d always cajole someone into splitting a pint of lemon gelato with me. This was the General Store’s homemade gelato—packed into a white paper pint—and it was exceptional. It was creamy and sweet, like vanilla ice cream met a glass of tart lemonade and had a delicious dessert baby. The lemon was quiet—just a whisper against all that cream—and you kept needing one more bite…and one more…and one more…in order to get more of that bright zing of citrus.
What both of these desserts taught me is that it isn’t just sugar that you need to balance and bring out the best part of lemon. You need something creamy, too. This could be whipped cream, perhaps, or something like mascarpone or ricotta.
But when I came across an unusual lemon tart recipe in the New York Times awhile ago, courtesy of the Alabama chef Dolester Miles, I recognized the brilliance of other ingredient too: white chocolate.
This seems like a weird addition to a classic lemon curd filling, but here’s why it works. It doesn’t alter the lemon curd technique, since you start off in the usual way (heating sugar and eggs and butter and lemon juice until thickened). It’s not until you remove the curd from the heat that you stir in the white chocolate.
It adds a barely discernible sweetness, thickens the filling a bit, and gives the curd a subtle creaminess. You can’t put your finger on why it’s so much better than other lemon curds, but it is.
The rest of the recipe is relatively straightforward—although, I tweaked a classic tart crust by adding a little bit of lime zest and unsweetened coconut. I like the tropical vibe and nuttiness they both give to each bite; you’ll pulse the coconut with the flour and sugar until finely ground, so it doesn’t add much texture
As to the meringue, you can get fancy with piping as I did, or you can use spoon it over the filling and cover it entirely. It’s up to you! The recipe doesn’t make very much meringue since it’s only piped onto part of the tart, so if you want to cover the surface, you should double or triple the recipe for the meringue.
Lemon Meringue Tart
Makes six 4” tarts or one 9 1/2” tart
For the crust
1 1/4 cups (150g) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
2/3 cup (76g) confectioners’ sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup (113g) cold unsalted butter, cut in pats
2 egg yolks
zest of one lime
For the filling
2 egg yolks (reserve the whites for the meringue)
3/4 cups (148g) granulated sugar
zest from 2 lemons
3/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
10 tablespoons (141g) unsalted butter, cut into pats
1/2 cup (127g) chopped white chocolate
For the meringue topping
2 egg whites (from above)
1/4 cup (56g) granulated sugar
To make the crust: Combine the flour, coconut, sugar, and salt in a food processor and pulse until the ingredients are finely ground and well-combined.
Add the butter and pulse a few times, then add the egg yolks and lime zest and pulse until the dough just pulls together into a ball. Press the dough into a disc, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and chill for at least 1 hour.
When the dough has chilled, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface to 1/8” thick. Cut circles of the dough out—I used six small 4” tart pans but you can also use one large 9 1/2” tart pan—you’ll want to use tart pans with removable bottoms in either case.
Carefully transfer the dough to your prepared pans, press it gently into the pan with your fingertips, then trim the edges. Prick the dough all over with a fork. Freeze the prepared crusts in the pan(s) for at least 20 minutes—this helps to prevent shrinkage.
Place the tart pan(s) on a baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool while you make the filling. Don’t turn off the oven yet!
To make the filling: Whisk together the eggs, egg yolks, sugar, lemon zest, and lemon juice in a medium heavy saucepan. Cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture is hot (about 3 minutes). Add the butter and continue to cook for about 8 to 10 minutes, or until the mixture thickens considerably and coats the back of a spoon.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the white chocolate, stirring until melted and smooth.
Pour the warm filling into your tart pan (or divide it evenly among all six if you’re using small tart pans); return the filled tarts to the oven and bake for just 5 minutes to set the filling. Remove from the oven and set aside while you make the meringue.
To make the meringue: Place the sugar and egg whites in a double boiler (or just a heatproof bowl set over—but not touching—a pan of simmering water), and cook until the sugar dissolves.
Immediately (carefully!) pour the hot mixture into the bowl of a stand mixture fitted with the whisk attachment and beat at high speed until glossy and white.
Spoon the mixture into a piping bag, or a Ziplock bag with one corner snipped off, and pipe it decoratively onto the surface of your tart. Sometimes I like to do big dollops or dots all over the surface, which is very pretty, or you can do swoopy lines as I did here. You can also just cover the entire surface and smooth the meringue with a spoon!
Using a kitchen torch, carefully brown the top of the meringue. You can also do this under your broiler, but I always have a hard time controlling the amount of browning in that case. Perhaps you are more graceful than I am!