The Classic No-Bake Tarte Citron + On Failure in the Kitchen
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
Since I began to learn how to cook, I have viewed the process of preparing food as something much more than just the mechanic task of feeding oneself. There is creativity and spirit in the kitchen, making the cooking or baking process lively, meditative, mindful, or educational. It may be a stretch, but I would venture to say that one’s relationship to cooking can tell you a lot about them. My love of it included finding joy in methodic creation paired with experimentation and risk, all tied together by putting my heart into good ingredients and making something delicious that brings a smile to everyones faces.
However, sometimes our relationships to cooking may also bring out the not-so-sunny sides of ourselves. When I first started to play with baking and fiddling with my own recipes, I realized something after burning my first pan of chocolate chip cookies. I do not deal well with failure.
Of course, we have heard the saying that there is no use crying over spilled milk, or a ruined dessert, in this case, but I am guilty of both. Flattened cakes, rock-hard shortbread, and curdled creams have the power to send me into a full-on melt-down and while I always feel slightly ridiculous about it, that sensation that something I worked so hard on is inedible is always a major disappointment.
Being a bit overly analytical, I often wonder if this issue that I have in the kitchen is allegorical to how I feel about failing in my professional choreographic work. It stems from the fear that what I have created and conceptualized, put my heart and sweat into, still may not be good enough. A labor of love that falls flat is not an easy thing to bear, especially something that may fail in the public eye. No one will know about a messed-up meal (unless I tell them, like I am now), but when that mistake reminds me of the prospect of messing up an entire dance piece, the whole thing feels a lot heavier.
However, those of us who put our hearts into cooking and baking, this is what we do. We tune into part of who we are in the safe space of the kitchen, allowed to just be our messy selves and let it all out. I am able to deal with my fear and meltdowns on a smaller scale and come out on the other end recognizing that it is never really that bad. Learning how to cook is learning how to fail and with each misstep, not only do I learn something new about the process, the chemistry of ingredients, or whatever else went wrong, but I also get a little bit better at dealing with defeat in general. Less melting-down, more shrugs and motivation to try again next time.
This tarte citron, when attempted for the first time, wasn’t even my failure and I felt frustrated in the moment. Marouan was trying to make it for our dessert and neither of us had any clue of the thickening magic that happens when you vigorously whip lemon juice with condensed milk, so we were left with a soupy filling dripping over the edges of a decent tart shell and I was left taking deep breaths and telling myself, “You’re just having a bad day, Ruby. It’s just dessert. Breathe.”
We tried again the next day adding in the yogurt, and yet still not grasping that it really needs to be whipped in order to be thickened. Failure number two, but this time I couldn’t do anything except laugh about it. How did we keep messing up something so simple? We finally realized on day three that pouring the lemon juice into the whipped mixture little by little is what thickens the filling to make that light and creamy custard. Third time is truly the charm.
Now, I know that the proper french way of pronouncing this kind of dessert is “Tarte au Citron.” However, if you see it on any menu here in Morocco it is usually simply referred to as a “Tarte Citron” and since this version is decidedly the Moroccan way of making it (nothing fancy and loose measurements), I am going with the way it is said here. If you order a tarte citron at a cafe or bakery in Morocco, this is more or less what you will get. A creamy, chilled lemon “custard” made up of sweetened condensed milk and sometimes yogurt (I like the tang the yogurt gives it), spread atop a layer of crushed cookies, and not just any cookies: Henry’s. Marouan was wondering what I could possibly write for this recipe since obviously you can’t make a tarte citron without Henry’s cookies. I assured him, however, that graham crackers or even speculoos cookies would have a very similar result, since Henry’s are lightly spiced and have that graham-ish quality to them.
This recipe is perhaps slightly uncharacteristic for me, made with less natural ingredients, but sometimes you just want something that can be easily whipped up and is always a crowd-pleaser. If you are similar to me and perhaps shy away from failure in the kitchen, I promise- we have tested this dessert enough by now to know that the recipe below works. You’ll end up with a creamy, lemony, delicious no-fail classic.
(Thank you to Marouan for the recipe + for always reminding me to never give up, even after multiple falls)
The Classic No-Bake Tarte Citron
Makes about 8-10 servings
- 160g (6oz) graham crackers or speculoos cookies
- 4 tbsp melted butter
- 1 tbsp milk
- 370g (13oz or 1 can) sweetened condensed milk
- 1/2 cup (100g) plain unsweetened yogurt
- 2 tsp lemon zest
- juice of 1 lemon (about 6 tbsp)
Prepare a rectangular tart pan, a loaf pan or a 8" round cake pan by lining it with parchment paper.
Crush the cookies either by hand or in a food processor until they are a fine powder. Blend or mix in the melted butter and milk until fully combined and when pinched, the dough holds together. Firmly + evenly press the cookie mixture into the base of the prepared pan, creating a little rim around the edges.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the sweetened condensed milk, yogurt + lemon zest with an electric mixer. While still mixing, add the lemon juice, one tablespoon at a time. This will thicken the mixture until you have a thick, creamy and custard-like filling. Pour this onto your prepared tart shell and spread smoothly with a spatula. Place the pan in the freezer to set for about 45 minutes to 1 hour before slicing + serving! Keeps in the freezer for about a week.