Traveling back to Spain every year is an aspect of what living in North America entails for me and my family. Keeping connected with our family, our culture and our roots is very important to us no matter how long we may live or may have lived on this side of the Atlantic. I keep up with the politics, both national, local, and European, as well as with friends and family, something that technology has helped with in great measure. However, there are aspects of the Spanish life and culture that I haven’t followed so closely, among them, how the education system has changed, or not. So to set this post for Lemon Meringue Tart in time and place, I will talk about how things used to be, how I remember them, when I was a young student in Onteniente —because this lemon meringue tart, tarta de limón y merengue, evoques those days.
For all of my elementary, middle, and high school education, I attended Pureza de María, a preparatory boarding girls school ran by a congregation of nuns (I’ve talked about it before). The school was established January 2, 1901, but didn’t move to its current site until 1951. The new site was the Balneario de Nuestra Señora de la Salud, loosely translated to The Thermal Baths of Our Lady of Health, what nowadays we would call a spa resort. When sporting a suntan was a sign of low class, the balneario was a popular tourist destination for the Valencian high bourgeoisie, who not only stayed, but also built mansions and planted vineyards in the surrounding lands, from Onteniente to Fontanares, and mingled and socialized at the balneario. A car ride around the area will gift your eyes with the sight of these vineyards and homes full of history, most of them still the property of the families that built them, and many of them run by their latest generations as historical bed and breakfasts, or as rural homes, where they not only make award winning wines, but also gourmet olive oils and jams (for more on the Balneario de la Salud, as it was popularly known, click here, and for more on the school, Pureza de María, click here).
The school grounds, needless to say, were gorgeous, the school nestled in a pine tree forest, on the edge of a gully where, many meters below, the town river run. The nuns, usually strict, were also very smart women, all of them with university degrees, who taught us subjects like science, chemistry, literature, and of course, religion. Our school day started at 9 AM and ended at 5:30 PM, with a two hour break between 1:30 and 3:30 during which we had lunch, played in the different areas of these wonderful grounds, and also participated in extracurricular activities (twice a week during these two hours, I attended English classes, since the curriculum included only French and Latin as foreign languages). We also had a 30 minute break in the morning, between 11:00 and 11:30, 15 minutes for recess and 15 minutes for praying the rosary.
The school cafeteria, the former balneario dining room, was an almost grandiose room, in the style of the early 20th century chic hotels, with a large fireplace on one end, a long wall of French doors on one side, and with supporting columns and the remaining walls covered half way up in Valencian tile. Friends sat together at the round tables, which seated six. What grand memories I have from those lunches, timeless and not rushed, like Spaniards like to eat, lingering over hushed confidences.
The architecture and decor and the friendships established there are my good memories of this dining room. The bad one, the food. Yes, as smart and cultivated as the nuns were, cooking was not their forte. In fact, they should have been banned from cooking. For years my sisters and I, and all the other students, endured the terrible food that was served. Finally, when I started high school, and after years of lobbying, my sisters and I were allowed to go home for lunch. This event, of course, required much adjusting from my mom, who complied. Not only her day changed completely by having to prepare a two course meal in the middle of the day, every day, but she went one step further, and also made dessert, something reserved usually for weekends. Some of these desserts became staples at our house, like the lemon crepes, the apple tart, or the lemon meringue tart I’m sharing today. I honestly don’t know if it’s a typical Spanish dessert, but it is certainly one I grew up eating often at home, and therefore deserves a place in this blog.
The recipe that follows will yield enough dough for two crusts, so if you only make one tart, you can refrigerate half of the dough and make another pie or tart later. You can also freeze it. I like this option, that way I always have a portion of dough available when I want to make a tart or pie in the spur of the moment.
I miss the school days, and I miss my school friends all year until I see them in the summer. But my mom’s lemon meringue tart reminds me of those days, and of a happy childhood.
LEMON MERINGUE TART
Tarta de Limón y Merengue
For the crust:
2 cups flour
8 Tbs butter, diced and chilled
6 to 8 Tbs ice cold water
1/2 tsp salt
For the filling:
4 egg yolks
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 tsp finely grated lemon zest
3/4 cup fresh lemon juice (approx. 4 lemons)
1 cup milk
2 Tbs butter
For the meringue:
4 egg whites
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp cornstarch or cream of tartar
Make the crust:
In a large bowl, blend the flour and salt.
Add the butter. Using your fingertips or a pastry blender, incorporate the butter into the flour mixture until it becomes crumbly. Make a well in the center and add 3 or 4 tablespoons of ice water. Incorporate with your fingertips until a dough forms (keep adding more water as needed for a dough that holds together).
Divide the dough in half and shape into 1-inch thick discs. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
On a lightly floured work surface, gently roll out one of the disks of dough into a circle about 1/8-inch thick and about 1 1/2 inch wider than the diameter of the tart pan. Ease the dough round into a tart pan with a removable bottom. Rolling the rolling pin over the pan will easily trim the overhanging dough, or you can use your fingers. Prick the bottom with a fork, cover the pan with plastic wrap and freeze for about 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven at 350ºF. Line the frozen pie with parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dry beans. Bake for about 18 minutes. Remove the weights and the parchment paper and bake for about 10 minutes longer, or until the edges become lightly golden. Remove the tart from the oven and let cool.
Make the filling:
In a medium saucepan, whisk the egg yolks and the sugar until the mixture is lighter in color and well combined. Whisk in the cornstarch. Add the lemon juice, the lemon zest and the milk. Cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring constantly until it thickens and comes to a low boil. Stir in the butter. Remove the pan from the heat source and let cool at room temperature, stirring occasionally.
Make the meringue:
In a very clean and dry bowl, beat the egg whites until the mixture turns frothy (you can do this by hand, but I like to use a stand up mixer). Continue beating while slowly adding the sugar, one tablespoon at a time, and the cornstarch. Beat until the whites are stiff and glossy (you’ll know when they’re ready when they stick to the whisk without dripping).
Assembling the pie:
Pour the lemon filling over the pie crust and tap gently on the counter to level it.
Using a rubber or an offset spatula, pour and spread the meringue over the lemon filling (I like to pile it high and don’t let the meringue touch the crust: as it bakes in the oven, it eventually will). Swirl the meringue to your liking with the tip of the spatula.
Bake the pie at 350ºF for about 20 minutes, protecting the edge of the crust with foil if necessary to prevent browning. At the 15 minute mark, check for doneness. The meringue should start to look slightly golden. At this point I like to turn on the broiler for about 1 minute, to further achieve the golden effect on the meringue (but I don’t take my eyes off the oven, as browning happens fast!)
Refrigerate for at least 3 hours before slicing.
(*) Photos of Balneario Virgen de la Salud from Loclar