Meringue tart of spring fruits

Yield: 8 generous servings

It seems that in California there are fresh berries of all kinds available all year round. But it is at this moment in spring when the locally grown varieties of strawberries truly come into their own. Red, sweet, tart and luscious (there is no other word for them!), the Gaviota, Seascape, Chandler, Camarosa and Albion varieties overflow farmers’ market stalls every day of the week. (Ask the vendor for a taste before you buy as looks can be deceiving and the berries’ flavor fades rather quickly if the fruit has been refrigerated.) Highly perfumed, however, the best of them can take a leading role in this flourless dessert. A few sweet blueberries, tart blackberries and some cubes of barely cooked red rhubarb are scattered between the strawberries. A tart lemon curd underpins all this berry goodness. Plan to bake the meringue shell first, allowing it to dry out in a low oven until crisp but not browned. The curd may be made as much as several days in advance and kept until ready to assemble the tart on the day it is served.

Here’s how:

 For the meringue tart shell:

6 egg whites from large eggs, at room temperature

Pinch of cream of tartar

1-1/2 (approximately 10 ounces) granulated sugar

1 t. vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 225 degrees F. Make sure that the oven rack is halfway up from the bottom of the oven.

Prepare a 12 inch diameter tart pan with a removable bottom by spraying the bottom and sides well with aerosolized pan release spray. (Alternatively, you can spread the mixture in a rough round onto a Silpat –silicone mat–or well-greased sheet of parchment paper set onto the back of a baking pan.)

In the bowl of an electric mixer outfitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until frothy. At this point, with the machine running, add the sugar gradually, beaten at medium speed until all of the sugar has been added. Continue beating until the mixture reaches soft peaks. Check for stiffness and beat a bit longer until the mixture reaches stiff peaks and is still shiny.

Using a spatula, spread the mixture into the prepared pan, or onto the Silpat or parchment-lined sheet pan, leaving the center slightly thinner than the sides, to form a rough tart shell shape. Bake in preheated oven until dry, crisp, but not browned. This may take as long as one and half hours but baking time is approximate as all ovens are different. Keep your eye on how the meringue shell is baking and reduce the oven heat (and baking time), rotating the baking pan as needed to ensure even drying.

Once crisp, but still white, remove from the oven and allow to cool. If baking the meringue in a tart pan, cool five minutes or so, and then remove the meringue from the pan carefully, placing it onto a flat serving platter or other flat serving surface. Store at room temperature. Now make the curd.

For the Lemon Curd:

4 whole large eggs (approximately 6 to 7 ounces)

2.3 c. (approximately 5 ounces) granulated sugar

4 ounces (1/2 c.) freshly squeezed lemon juice, sieved

6 ounces unsalted butter, cut into 6 equal pieces

Set a stainless steel or other nonreactive bowl over a pot of simmering water. The water should not touch the bottom of the bowl. Whisk the eggs, sugar and lemon juice together over the heat until thickened to the consistency of a light mayonnaise. Remove from the heat, pass the mixture through a  fine-meshed sieve into a clean bowl.  Then, with a clean whisk, add the butter, piece by piece, whisking each piece into the mixture until the butter is absorbed before adding the next piece. Scrape the curd into a clean container, cover, and refrigerate until ready to assemble the tart.

For the fruit used to top the tart:

2 overflowing pints fresh strawberries, hulled; halved if the berries are large, left whole if they are small or medium sized

1/2 pint fresh blueberries

1/2 pint fresh blackberries

1 stalk fresh rhubarb, weighing about 8 ounces, cut into 1/2 inch cubes and then lightly cooked with approximately 1/3 cup of granulated sugar,  until just tender (don’t overcook), drained and then cooled

To assemble the tart:

Using a spoon or spatula, spread an even layer of the Lemon Curd over the meringue shell, up to about 3/4 to 1 inch of the edge. Decoratively place the fruits over the curd, as desired and serve. The tart may be kept, refrigerated, for one day. Beyond that, the berries will exude their juices and the curd and meringue shell will begin to soften a bit. (It’s still good but the difference between the textures of the elements tend to blur).

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