Leo Tolstoy's Lemon Tart

LEMONS FROM HEAVEN 

This week two lemon tarts, starting with the favourite of great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. Even though Tolstoy is not strictly speaking a Jewish grandmother, this story was too delicious not to follow up.

I stumbled on an online Russian magazine about a cookbook, plus App of course, gathering up the recipes of Tolstoy – or more properly his wife, the Countess Sofia, who cooked for him long after he became a vegetarian ascetic who would no longer sleep with her, since he disapproved of sex as well as rich food.

                            The Tolstoys gather at Yasnaya Polyana, the family estate 200 km south of Moscow

                          The Tolstoys gather at Yasnaya Polyana, the family estate 200 km south of Moscow

This lemon pie was on the table at every Tolstoy family gathering, named Anke pie, after their family doctor who first made it for them, Dr Anke. 

“Ever since I can remember, all festive occasions, big holidays and name days were always and invariably celebrated with Anke Pie. Without it, a meal wouldn't have been a meal, and a feast wouldn't have been a feast,” Tolstoy’s son, Ilya wrote in his memoir.

The article included a recipe! I had to try it out.

Full disclosure: I was a Moscow correspondent, living in Russia for 3 years. Also Anna Karenina is one of my favourite novels. 

But the recipe isn't that much of a recipe. It’s basically a list of ingredients. And not all the ingredients make sense.

"One pound of flour, half a pound of butter, a quarter pound of crushed sugar, three yolks, one shot of water. Butter should be straight from the cellar, cold. The stuffing: Grate a quarter pound of butter, grate two boiled eggs with  butter; half a pound of crushed sugar, grate the zest of two lemons and add the juice of three lemons. Boil until it grows thick as honey."

Grating boiled eggs into butter? Hard boiled eggs? And would you cook that some more? For desert??? An Australian friend found another version which said what you had to do was mix raw egg yolks into butter.

Ah, a translation issue! I remember those. Okay… now we’re back on track.

It’s still a bit of a detective story though, because quantities are different, including most important of all *** the Russian pound is actually only 400 g ***

The other thing that's confusing is the pictures posted by Russian cooks who made the Anke pie, at a 2014 a Moscow food and literature event.

                                    Anke pie? Impostor pic

                                   Anke pie? Impostor pic

That's no pie! It looks more like a sponge, while the recipe reads like a lemon curd tart. Say something  like those Portuguese tarts. Hmmm. I convinced myself that the real pie had been airbrushed out of the story/history, for reasons known only in Russia, and decided to keep going. 

QUANTITIES

Sofia Tolstoy was making enough pastry for 2 pies, or for a top as well. The recipe below is for half the quantity ie enough for one tart base.

I've altered other quantities from the recipe above too, to take account of what happened when I made the tart, which was that the filling was very sour and didn't really set. Juice and zest of one lemon per egg seems to be about right. The quantities below will work!

Tolstoy Lemon tart (Dr Anke’s pie)

Serves 8 

Pastry

For a 9’’ / 23 cm tart tin, 1” / 2.5 cm deep, with removable base

  • 225 g / 1 ¾ cups flour
  • 120 g cold butter - as Sofia Tolstoy says "straight from the cellar"
  •  50 g / ¼ cup sugar - caster sugar or powdered sugar are also good
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 50 ml cold water
  • ¾ teaspoon salt

METHOD

  1. Mix flour, sugar, salt and butter in a food processor till it turns into crumbs. Add egg yolks, mix quickly, then and water 1 tablespoon at a time, till it just comes together as dough. Do not overmix. Gather into a disc, one inch thick, cover in cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for at least an hour (can also be overnight).
  2. Roll out the dough. Press into tart tin with removable base. Cut any dough which hangs over with a straight edged knife. It helps to put it in the freezer for 10 minutes to set.
  3. Cover pastry with a piece of baking paper, and fill with beans or rice. (Keeping beans in a jar which you re-use for this purpose is a good way to do it.)
  4. Heat oven to 180 degrees, bake for 20 minutes, then remove the baking paper and the beans, prick the tart all over with a fork. If there are any holes in the pastry, fill them in with any left over dough and bake for a further 20-25 minutes, till lightly browned. This is it, you are not baking this again, so it has to be ready!
  5. Allow to cool to room temperature before you fill it. 

Filling

  • 200 g/ 1 cup sugar
  • Zest of 2 lemons
  • 100 g / just under 1/2 cup butter
  • 2 eggs
  • Juice 2 large lemons

Note: if you want to make a kosher version, to eat at the end of a meat meal, simply substitute a dairy free margarine for the butter. It also works well. 

METHOD

1. Grate the lemon rind into the sugar and leave for 30 minutes so it will release its oils and flavour the sugar. Do this step first, so it can sit and "steep" while you are making the dough.

2. In a mixer, beat the butter till soft;  add the lemon infused sugar, beat again. Mix in the eggs one at a time. Add the lemon juice, a little at at a time, beating till it’s all is absorbed. Don't panic if it looks curdled. It will become smooth as it cooks.

3. Cook in a non-reactive pot on top of a double boiler "until the mixture becomes as dense as honey", as Sofia Tolstoy puts it. It's cooked when your finger leaves a clear path through the mix on the back of a spoon.

4. Pile into cooled pastry shell. No need to cook further. Leave to set at room temperature.

Today’s cooks, such as Ina Garten, stress that it’s important to keep the temperature low. You do not want it to boil. But when I did that, it didn’t coagulate – perhaps because there was too much lemon juice? So my advice is to turn the heat up as high as you can, taking care that it doesn't boil.

MISS AMERICAN PIE

Baking the Russian tart reminded me of an American recipe I've had for a long time, but have never made. Same ingredients, different format. You chuck the whole lemon, peel and all, along with eggs, sugar and butter, into a food processor, whizz and bake. 

Lazy Mary – as she calls herself -  does it all in one hit. And the result is good. In fact, so good it’s become a bit of an American legend. Mary and her husband own a winery in the Napa Valley, where she is also the cook. 

“I have never taken credit for this recipe, only for tweaking it a bit to make it my own. Versions of this simple, quick dessert have circulated around the Napa Valley (and probably lands afar) for years. It’s a great dessert to make at the last minute.”

She's right. It's a wonderful, easy  tart where you don't taste the peel, but you know there's something extra hiding in there in all that gooey lemony goodness. There won't be any left over and you will make it again and again!

Lazy Mary's Lemon Tart

PASTRY

Use Sofia Tolstoy’s pastry recipe, above, for this too.

Remember: you are only partially baking it this time. You will also bake it further once your pour the filling in.

When you are ready to bake the pastry ie when you take it out of the freezer, at the end of step 2, you should prick it with a fork, and blind bake under baking paper with beans for 20- 25 minutes. Then let it cool, pour in the filling and return it to the oven to bake some more.

FILLING

  • 1 large lemon, chopped. Try to avoid lemons with thick pith, it might make the tart bitter.  Lazy Mary is so lazy, she doesn't even remove the pips, but I did!
  • 225 g / 1 1/4 cups sugar.  If your lemons are not too sour eg Meyer lemons, you could use less. 1 cup or even ¾ cup.
  • 120g / 1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • To serve: powdered sugar

METHOD

  1. Chop the lemons, and remove seeds. Put into a food processor with all the other ingredients and beat on a high speed for 2 minutes. It will appear curdled at first but it will smoothe out.
  2. Pour into cooled pie shell. If you have too much, like I did, and it goes over the top, it sticks and becomes very hard to remove from the tin. So pour just beneath the rim.
  3.  Bake 30 minutes in a one inch deep tin, and 40 minutes if your tin is deeper. It’s ready when the the top is golden and the filling is set, and no longer slides around in the centre when you touch it.
  4. Cool in tin

This is a REALLY delicious tart, with a great consistency.

SYDNEY TEST KITCHEN

In Sydney, Miyuki, cooking with her daughter Katy, opted to try out the Tolstoy. They used gluten free flour for the pastry, adding xantham gum to stabilise it. Miyuki warns that GF pastry is less flexible and harder to roll out into an elegant disc and lift in, so she piled it into the tin and flattened it there. 

Miyuki used her thermomix to make the lemon curd. Hers was also a little runny, which is why we’ve changed the proportions to those in the recipe above, using the juice and zest of 1 lemon per egg. If for some reason it’s not lemony enough, add some more grated zest, rather than more juice.

Then careful, precise Miyuki made a second batch -  just to be sure. 

This time she used the microwave instead of double boiling. She did it in 10 goes, of 30 seconds each, removing the mix to stir it a little before returning it again.  It quickly turned into a thick curd.

Important but obvious point. The type of lemon you use makes a difference! In her first batch, Miyuki used a lemon from their tree, and the curd was very flavourful. The second tart, made with store bought lemons, was paler in colour and not so deeply lemony. Still there were no complaints from Miyuki's family, who devoured both versions, and drank a toast to Tolstoy. 

"So we ended up eating two whole lemon pies between 4 people. . . in like 14 hours?! My husband loved it, everyone fought for it and it's going to be our new favourite desert recipe."

melbourne test kitchen 

In Melbourne Amanda also made the Tolstoy tart, also gluten free, mixing her own GF flour! She combined  brown rice flour, corn flour, almond meal and xantham gum. Once she'd made the dough, she refrigerated it overnight. 

Amanda also simplified the lemon curd, throwing all the ingredients into a pot, not a double boiler, and mixing them together there.  She heated it straight over the flame, slowly, until it thickened. "There will be small bubbles. Stir occasionally, remove from heat and allow to cool slightly before pouring into base."

"It probably needed to set for a little longer, but the kids were dying to try a piece and they'd been so patient that I sliced it up :-) And now we have dessert for tomorrow night. Massive success!!!"

JERUSALEM VERDICT 

I took Tolstoy's tart to farewell BBQ for Australian friends who are leaving Jerusalem, and it didn't last long! I thought I’d overcooked the pastry but that was everyone's favourite bit. 

I felt it needed another layer. Perhaps a pastry layer, baked separately and placed on top? Though I do think this would be hard to cut and serve.  Perhaps fruit and cream? Red berries and crème fraiche?

I suppose you could use a piping bag to write “Tolstoy” in chocolate on top. Well, only Miyuki and the very dexterous Katy managed that!

A final note, I want to pay tribute to Sir Nicholas Winton, who died this week aged 106.

The English stockbroker went to Prague in 1938 and began a project to save Jewish children. It was a huge venture. He had to organise visas, transport and homes that would take them in the UK. He had to negotiate with HMG and the Gestapo. And distraught parents of course. There are heartbreaking photos of the tiny children clutching dolls, waving to their parents for the last time at a Prague railway station, and then sitting in a room in London with nametags round their necks, waiting to be taken to foster homes. And they were the lucky ones. 

Winton's trains were still moving children to the UK when the War began on 1 September 1939. The last train with 250 children on it was halted by the Nazis, and those children were never seen again.

Nicholas Winton saved 669 Jewish children, and then like a true hero, didn’t talk about if for 50 years. Even to his wife. The story only emerged when she found a scrapbook with all the documents and photos in the attic.

After she made her husband’s heroism public, the BBC put together a tribute programme. There's an extraordinary moment where the presenter asks anyone who owes their life to Nicholas Winton to stand up. Slowly every single person in the audience stands to thank him, people in their 60’s and 70’s by then. It's an unforgettable TV moment, and it's impossible to sit through it dry-eyed, despite the very English modesty and reserve of all the participants. 

May this wonderful man rest in peace. 

                           Nicholas Winton with one of the children he saved, Prague 1938

                         Nicholas Winton with one of the children he saved, Prague 1938