Tarte au Citron - iconic French lemon pie. A revelation that less is more

Since time immemorial the English and French have been at war over cookery skills and recipes. The Emperor Napoléon certainly inspired poulet marengo though apparently Field Marshall, Arthur Wellesley hadn't even a nodding acquaintance with beef Wellington. I had a French friend who over three days taught me to make taboulet, an incredibly easy couscous salad. I can't imagine what she would have thought about my offering to share a tarte au citron recipe. 

In general though, my French friends and neighbours here in Normandie allow that the British do make good cakes and puddings and they have even adopted a few and given them as seal of approval, a definite article. Le crumble is a firm favourite and my own version of syllabub has even found its way onto the menu of a local organic restaurant. Similarly many foreigners rightfully rave about French pâtisserie and films like the 2006 Marie-Antoinette have 'cake' as a high ranking keyword. After the cupcake became the last word in sensuality and excess, I wasn't surprised that the French were quick to follow on and bring forth the macaron as a metaphor for luxurious elegance. However, if you look at the time-line of 20th-21st century trendy edibles, in New York the apotheosis of the macaron actually preceded that of the cupcake, except of course here, where it was 'invented' in 1830. It's the love of the exotic again.

Amongst all French pastries, the most seemingly simple and delicious and also often the most horridly generic and synthetic, is the iconic tarte au citron. In no other French tart and purely because of its few ingredients, does the quality and simplicity of the raw organic materials shine through. For this reason and despite its ubiquitous nature, a good tarte au citron, can be the centrepiece to any afternoon tea or the crowning glory of an elegant dinner party.

The lure of the exotic and the outsider's view. Cake (and soap) have ever
 been a cause of envious desire and rivalry between the French and English
(film still thanks to 1.bp.blogspot.com)

The oft quoted 'let them eat cake', comes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, (1765-67) Volume 6, (Qu’ils mangent de la brioche) and was attributed to 'a great princess'. This could hardly describe Marie Antoinette, an introverted and tongue-tied child, even in her native language at the time the first volumes of this autobiographical work were being written. The French Revolution smacked little of bread dough but a great deal of war debt added to and aggravated by the monetary support of the American Revolution by the French queen.


Enough pastry to line a small tart dish (I'm using a 22cm or 8½" circular dish with an internal depth of 30mm or 1".)

150g (5oz) flour (either plain or gluten free) I have made both
80g (2½oz) butter
3 dessert spoons of sugar
1 small egg
the zest of 1 lemon
dessert plain chocolate

For the filling:
5 small or three large lemons (I substituted a couple of limes for 2 of the lemons  in the tart above)
4 bantam eggs or 2 large eggs
80g (2½oz) of butter
160g (5oz) of sugar

Temperature: Preheat oven to 200°C or 400°F


Make the pastry shell:
Rub together the butter and sugar until it resembles fine breadcrumbs, add the sugar and lemon zest.
Mix in the beaten egg and enough water to make a smooth dough. Roll out the paste with a floured pin onto a floured board.

Line the dish with the pasty. I fold it over the edges to keep it in place but some people prefer to line it with baking paper and fill it with beans (this is to hold its shape whilst baking).

Bake the tart blind (i.e. with no filling) for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the edges are beginning to brown. If you are making this for yourself then don't worry about how rustic it looks but if you want to show it off, then trim the uneven border to make an elegant edge to the tarte. Normally this would be cut level with the filling.

Leave to cool.

When cool coat the base with chocolate which has been melted in a bain marie  aka a glass jug heated in a pan of hot water. Leave some chocolate to write on the tart. This method of double lining the tart is really useful for the gluten-free version too as it makes up for the possibility of cracks and the crumbly nature of the pastry. I found this astuce or tip on the blog 'La Cuisine de Mercotte' who incidentally is also proactive in the continuing popularity of the macaron.

For the filling:

Add the juice and zest of the fruit, the butter and the sugar into a pan and heat gently until the butter melts.

Add the beaten egg and then keep stirring until the mix coats the back of the spoon. It is very easy for me to gauge this because I make so much ice-cream but if you are at all worried then put the mixture into a glass bowl and use the bain marie method as with the chocolate.

Leave to cool slightly and then pour into the pastry shell.

Once a skin has formed on the tart, use a spoon to carefully write Citron on the top of the tart.

And there you have it, simple, delicious and fit for a Queen.

I hope you have found this an interesting article and that you will take pleasure in making and eating this delicious iconic tart.

If you've enjoyed this post then please feel free to share it, ask questions and/or comment.

Hope to see you here again for another recipe from an old farmhouse in Normandie,


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© 2016 Sue Cross

 Image of macarons above left thanks to: parisdesignagenda.com


  1. I'm bookmarking this one! But reading through the recipe I was slightly confused. Is there an egg missing from the list of the ingredients for the pastry?

    1. Hi Wendy,
      Thanks so much for pointing that out! Yes an egg is optional in pastry but I always put one in because I have a good supply of eggs even in the Winter, thanks to my flock. It also obviously gives a much richer flavour to the pastry. Hope everything is going well and all the very best, Sue