My husband Nathan has a soft-spot for lemon tart, especially the River Café version, and cooks it beautifully. It is gorgeous – the buttery richness balanced by clean, intense citrus flavour and, yes, lemon tart does have a restrained, chic quality.
However, secretly, I've always preferred lemon meringue pie, in spite of it being a bit brash and outmoded. Perhaps it's because I'm a child of the 1970s and it reminds me so much of family meals and holidays; there was a restaurant where we were taken as a special treat in Albufeira on the Algarve that served a magnificent version, crowned by a three-inch high meringue. I have always wanted to emulate this and recently the opportunity arose. Over the Christmas holiday we were visiting family for dinner and offered to take along a pudding. So, once Nathan had completed his River Café tart I relieved him of the egg whites (all 12 of them) and, with the help of my new Kenwood Chef, attempted to gild the lily.
Crostata di limone (from The River Café Cook Book with my meringue topping)
350g plain flour
150g unsalted cold butter, cut into cubes
100g icing sugar
3 egg yolks
finely grated zest and juice of 7 lemons
350g caster sugar
6 whole eggs
9 egg yolks
300g unsalted butter, softened
8 egg whites
300g caster sugar
extra caster sugar for dusting
Preheat the oven to 160°C/gas 4
Firstly make the pastry. Pulse the flour, salt and butter in a food processor until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Add the sugar, then the egg yolks and pulse. The mixture will immediately combine and leave the sides of the bowl. Remove, wrap in clingfilm and chill for at least an hour. Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas 4. Press the pastry into 30cm loose-bottomed flan tin, bake blind and leave to cool.
Meanwhile make the filling. Put all the ingredients except the butter in a large saucepan over a very low heat, and whisk until the eggs have broken up and the sugar has dissolved. Add half the butter and continue to whisk. At this point the eggs will start to cook and the mixture will coat the back of a spoon. Add the remaining butter and continue whisking throughout the cooking process to prevent the mixture from curdling. Remove from the heat, place on a cold surface and continue to whisk until lukewarm. Raise the oven temperature to 200°C/gas 8. Spoon the lemon filling into the pastry base and bake for 5 minutes until set. Remove the tart from the oven and set aside.
Finally, whisk the egg whites until stiff. Continue whisking while gradually adding the sugar. The egg whites should now be stiff and glossy. Spread the meringue over the tart, taking it right to the edge to cover it completely. Dust with the remaining caster sugar. Return to the oven for about 15 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from the oven, allow to cool slightly, serve and wonder why it's been so long.
To further spoil yourself, pour over some chilled double cream and enjoy with a glass of suitably frothy Moscato d'Asti – refreshing and grapey. Lemon meringue pie may not be retro chic, but it's certainly retro glamour.
PS While we were finishing off the pie, we were watching the televised version of Nigel Slater's autobiography, Toast which made me feel even more proud of our efforts! It reinforced what a sense of occasion can be conjured up by this old classic.