A crisp buttery crust with a smooth tangy lemon custard. That is all you need to recreate this utterly iconic French dessert: a Classic French Lemon Tart. A must to have in your baking repertoire as a French host(ess). This is a perfect dessert to transition from Winter to Spring. It’s bright and sunny, while still making the best of these citrusy winter fruits.
Unlike common perceptions, a classic French Lemon Tart (Tarte au Citron) does not traditionally feature a meringue top. Of course, you can find both versions in French bakeries (with or without meringues), and I would even say that you will find more meringue-topped lemon tarts nowadays, as they’re probably more eye-catching.
With that being said, the original French “Tarte au Citron” is meringue-less, and simply allows the bright yellow filling to shine on its own. And as with many French desserts, I like to say that making it isn’t very complex – but it has to be done right! A proper crust: buttery, crisp and not too crumbly. A proper filling: luscious and tangy, but not too sweet nor tart. I have had my fair share of too-sweet or too-tart lemon tarts in my life… enough to motivate me to create this lemon filling that to me, is the perfect balance of flavors.
Make sure you read the following cooking notes, and you’ll be set for success!
The crust: « pâte sucrée ».
You can use a store-bought pie crust if you wish; but as I always like to say that making your own crust from scratch will go a long way. The ideal crust for this lemon tart is what we call a “pâte sucrée”. A pâte sucrée is a sweet, crumbly French pastry (a little more crisp, and less sandy than a “pâte sablée”), which is usually used for tarts featuring cream or custards.
My version of it includes a small portion of almond flour, for sweet nutty notes that balance perfectly with the tangy lemon filling.
Because a pâte sucrée contains quite a lot of butter, it needs to be chilled twice for at least 2 hours before rolling-it out and at least 30 minutes once rolled out in the tart shell, before baking. Take into account these chilling times when you plan on making this lemon tart.
You can also prepare the dough the day before and keep it refrigerated for up to 24 hours.
The crust gets baked on it own, before being filled.
The filling: a lemon custard.
A custard is indeed the proper way to describe the filling. It holds its shape, but is far more soft than in the other lemon pies you might have encountered. Likewise, this filling is far more rich and luscious than its American cousin (it’s a French tart, after all), with a generous amount of butter in it too. With that, you’ll understand why you don’t need a meringue to complete it.
I like my filling quite bright and tangy, which requires the zest of 2 whole lemons. If you’re a bit more shy, you can use the zest of 1 or 1 ½ lemons.
Once filled, the tart simply gets baked again for 5 minutes for the custard to set and turn a deep beautiful yellow. You can then enjoy the tart slightly warm, or place it in the fridge for at least 2 hours and enjoy cold.
For the « pate sucrée » crust :
½ cup (125g) unsalted butter, cubed and at room temperature.
¾ cup (95g) powdered sugar
½ tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup + 1 ½ tbsp (40g) almond flour (ground almond)
1 large egg
1 ¾ cup + 1 tbsp (233g) all-purpose flour
½ tsp salt
For the lemon filling :
1 cup (250ml) lemon juice (about 6-7 lemons)
Zest of 2 lemons (organic lemons)
3/4 cup (150g) sugar
1/4 tsp salt
¾ cup (170g) unsalted butter, cubed.
4 large eggs + 4 large egg yolks
Make the « pâte sucrée » crust.
In large mixing bowl, combine the butter and powdered sugar until creamy and smooth. Add the vanilla extract, almond flour and egg, and mix until homogeneous. Add the all-purpose flour and salt, and mix until just incorporated and the dough comes together into a ball. Wrap in a plastic film and place in the fridge for 2 hours, minimum.
Pre-heat your oven to 350F (180C).
Take the pâte sucrée out of the fridge, place it between two large sheets of parchment paper and roll it out to a 12-inch circle. Unpeel the top sheet of parchment paper, transfer the crust to a 9-inch tart pan (trim the sides if needed) and poke the bottom of the crust all over with a fork. Chill it again for 30 minutes. Line the top of the crust with foil or parchment paper and place pie weights or dried beans to keep the pie crust from puffing when baking.
Bake the pâte sucrée for 20 minutes. Carefully remove the parchment paper filled with weights and bake for 10 more minutes, until the edges of the crust are golden.
Set the tart shell aside to cool (still in the dish). Leave your oven on at 350F/180C.
In the meantime, make the lemon filling.
Grab a fine-mesh strainer before you start and have it ready within arm’s reach.
In a medium saucepan (no heat yet), whisk together the lemon juice, lemon zest, sugar, salt, egg yolks and eggs. Add the cubed butter and turn the heat to medium. Whisk slowly until the butter is all melted. Continue whisking steadily for several minutes until the mixture thickens to a thin custard consistency.
Immediately pass the lemon filling through the fine mesh strainer, directly into the tart shell. Using an offset spatula (or back of a large spoon), smooth out the top of the filling. Bake the tart for 5 minutes, until the filling has slightly set and turned slightly deeper in color.
Set aside to cool for at least 30 minutes. Enjoy slightly warm or chilled.
- This recipe works for a 9 x1 1/8-inch (22.9 x 3.8 cm) tart pan. Ideally get one with a removable bottom.
If you try this Classic French Lemon Tart recipe let me know! Leave a comment or share a photo using #pardonyourfrench on Instagram. Bon Appétit!
The crust recipe is inspired by Pierre Herme’s (I have used this recipe for a long time, and made several tweaks to it along the way to suit my taste). Lemon filling recipe inspired by Cuisine Actuelle.