FEW WRITERS have used food with such supreme skill to delineate the personalities of their fictional characters as the great modern French "novelist of love," Colette, who wrote, among so many books, "Gigi" and "Cheri." She was, in herself, as passionate about eating as she was about love and sex.
She remembered every detail of how she came to Paris still almost a schoolgirl, an earthy child of the French provincial land, in love with strong-smelling cheeses, the velvet of hot chocolate, the perfume of perfectly ripe fruit, the tang of freshly baked lemon tarts, and spicy bourgeois casseroles . . . With her hair in braids, she married the dishonorable Willy, who discovered her writing talent and locked her in her room for four or five hours each day, until she had filled about 20 pages. Her only demand was that she must have, at least in summer, a bowl of ripe strawberries in her room and a dish of honey in which to dip each one. Thus imprisoned, she completed her first series of immediately successful novels at the rate of one a year.
But she got no credit for them. Willy put his name, as the author, on each manuscript. Hardly surprisingly, Colette left Willy -- and, in turn, two later husbands -- and went through almost innumerable love affairs -- all of them framed and recorded for posterity with lyrical, sensuous, vivid descriptions of magnificent meals.
The heroine of the first series of novels, a sexy young lady of 16 named Claudine, is obviously modeled on Colette herself. When a young man in love with Claudine tells her she is like a Greek goddess and goes into raptures about the complexity of her soul, tough little Claudine gives him a look of icy, piercing detachment and says: "You are entirely wrong, M'sieur. lMy soul is simply full of white haricot beans and little strips of crackly bacon."
In her novel "Cheri," Colette writes of the lovers, a 23-year-old man and a 49-year-old woman, who do their loving, their quarreling, their admiring of each other's bodies, their eating and drinking in a huge brass bed in a rose-pink, sunlit bedroom. I feel sure that it must have been in such a setting that Colette enjoyed what is always said to be her favorite dessert -- a freshly baked, still-warm-from-the-oven, soft, tangy and velvety tarte au citron, a lemon tart of buttery-creamy-rich taste and texture.
I can imagine the cook silently bringing it in, cutting it into wedges on a side table, serving it on delicately thin china plates, and banding it to Colette and her partner in the enormous bed. The great American writer and gourmet, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, once said of this kind of pie: "I hope to be offered a piece of it on my deathbed, and then I shall refuse to die!"
When I was in Paris recently, I became involved in an extraordinary accident -- a meeting with "a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend" -- the result was that I suddenly and amazingly had in my hand what is alleged to be the original recipe for that favorite tarte au citron of Colette!
She always believed that the simplest recipes were the best -- in fact against the show-off complications of the high cuisine of the luxury circles of Paris -- and this lemon tart recipe certainly meets her specifications in terms of a perfectionist simplicity.
The secret is to magnify and uplift the lemon flavor and perfume by adding to it and underpinning it with a small amount of orange-flower water, an exotic North African flavoring available in the fancy-food sections of most department stores, or in specialty food shop, or in Middle Eastern and North African grocery stores.
I have slightly adapted this recipe to the modern American kitchen. If you want this tarte au citron to be a serious reminder of Colette -- of her victories as a woman, her self-conquest, her supreme skills as a gourmet, a lover and a writer -- you should shop for these ingredients with determination, prepare this recipe with dedication, serve the lemon tart still warm from the oven, and eat it with sensuous delight -- even if you don't own a huge brass bed and a pink bedroom. FRENCH TARTE AU CITRON IN HONOR OF COLETTE (4 to 6 servings) For the pie-shell pastry in a food processor: 1 3/4 level cups unsifted all-purpose unbleached flour Extra flour for sprinkling A couple of pinches coarse crystal or kosher salt 9 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled, cut in small pieces Small piece of softened butter for greasing pan 1 large egg yolk, chilled Up to 3 tablespoons orange-flower water, ice cold For the lemon cream filling: 4 large eggs, yolks and whites separated 14 tablespoons superfine sugar 2 large fresh lemons, with good skins, outer yellow rind peeled off and finely minced, juice squeezed 1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
Kitchen equipment: Food processor for pastry, pie plate, as noted above; beating bowl; mixing bowl; wooden spatulas and spoons; electric beater (or balloon wire whisk); zester or swivel-peeler for lemon rind; sharp mincing knife; juice squeezer; double boiler; aluminum foil; weights for pre-baking pie shell; silver knife or needle for testing lemon cream.
Average time required: About 40 minutes for food processor blending of pastry and resting it, plus about 30 minutes for preparing filling white pie-baking pie shell, plus about 25 minutes more for final baking, and about 10 minutes for cooling -- total about 1 3/4 hours, but pastry can be made ahead.
Blend the French pastry in a food processor:
With the steel blades in position, spread the flour evenly across the bottom of the workbowl of the food processor and sprinkle in the salt. Switch the motor on and off for a split-second to fluff up the flour and, in effect, sift flour and salt together. Now dot evenly around on top of the flour the small pieces of cold butter. Run the motor for 1 second, then check, then continue with 1-second bursts, checking in between each, until butter and flour are combined into the texture of niblet corn -- usually a total of about 3 to 6 seconds.
Separately, in a smallish bowl, lightly beat together the chilled egg yolk and the first 2 tablespoons of the ice-cold orange-flower water. Restart the motor and at once open the feed chimney in the lid and pour in the yolk-orange-water mixture. If this is not quite enough liquid, dribble in the third tablespoon of orange-flower water. Within a few seconds the dough will be formed and will knead itself a single ball, which will ride up on top of the whirling blades -- usually in 4 to 8 seconds. Take out the ball of dough, place it on a lightly floured pastry board, knead it by hand for no more than 1 minute. Then gather it into a thick dish, dust it lightly with flour wrap it in waxed paper or plastic, and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes, or longer, until you are ready to roll out the pie shell. Meanwhile, start mixing the filling.
Prepare the lemon cream while baking the pie shell:
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Put the 4 egg yolks into the mixing bowl and the 4 whites into the round-bottomed beating bowl. Beat into the yolks, either electrically or by hand, 7 tablespoons of the sugar, until the mixture is pale yellow and creamy smooth. Next lightly beat in the juice and minced rind of the 2 lemons, plus the 1 1/2 teaspoons of cornstarch. Let it all rest while you complete the pie shell.
Roll out the dough, butter and lightly flour the pie pan, line it with the pastry, thoroughly prick the bottom with a fork, line it with aluminum foil, and weigh it down with aluminum "beans," real beans rice, or any way that you prefer. Bake the shell until it is just set, but not yet beginning to color -- usually in about 15 to 20 minutes. Then remove the foil and let the shell cool slightly.
As soon as you have put the shell into the oven to bake, give the egg mixture a final beat and transfer it to the top of a double boiler in which the water in the lower half is at the point of gentlest simmering. As the egg mixture heats up, stir it continuously with a wooden spoon, meticulously scraping every corner of the bottom and side. Don't stop stirring, even for a moment. When the mixture shows clear signs of thickening -- so that it solidly coats the spoon -- lift the pan out of the double boiler and plunger it into a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking and thickening process. Keep stirring another couple of minutes. Then cover the pan (to prevent formation of skin) and hold it while you beat the whites.
As you beat -- preferably by hand, since the longer strokes enclose more air -- sprinkle in, one spoonful at a time, the remaining 7 tablespoons of sugar. When you have the requisite stiff peaks, fold the white and the yolk mixture together, as if you were making a souffle. First stir in a few spoonfuls of the whites into the yolks to lighten them. Then, large spoonfuls of the whites into the yolks to lighten them. Then large spoonfuls by large spoonful, lightly and quickly fold and incorporate the yolks into the whites.
Bake the tart and serve it:
Raise the temperature of your oven to 375 degrees. With spatula and spoon, lightly and evenly fill the tart shell. Smooth the filling, but do not press down on it or stir it, to avoid squeezing out the imprisoned air. Slide the tart into the exact center of the oven and let it bake until the top surface is handsomely browned and a bright silver knife plunged into the center of the lemon cream comes out dry -- usually in about 20 to 30 minutes. The filling normally will puff up like a souffle and then fall back down. The moment the tart is done, turn off the oven, leave the door slightly ajar, and let the tart cool slowly in the oven. When it is no longer hot, but still quite warm, with a lovely, just-baked lemon-orange perfume, serve it.