Key Lime Pie: WWFD (What Would the French Do?)

Key Lime Pie: WWFD (What Would the French Do)? (Jan. 30)

I really thought I’d be spending my January developing vegan and sustainable baking recipes, but that’s on hold for the moment. Because all I have time to make right now is tarts!! Our Intermediate Pastry final exam is in March, for which we’ll be graded on developing and baking an original, “modern” tart. While March and its promise of warmer weather and early blooms feels (very) far off, our dossier for the tart – a glorified, 8-page book report – is due in a week. 

What’s a modern tart, you ask? I was asking that question too, until I finally watched the characteristically lo-fi video Le Cordon Bleu put together to explain it. According to the Le Cordon Bleu chefs, a “modern tart” is distinguished from a classic tart essentially by its complexity.

I’m familiar with classic tarts, because we made our fair share of them last fall in Basic Pastry, like the caramel-appley Tarte Tatin, or the Lemon Meringue Tart – the more elegant and acidic cousin of lemon meringue pie. 

Lemon Meringue Tart was the star of my very Parisian Thanksgiving.

While a classic tart typically has three main components – a crust, a filling, and a topping – a modern tart has a minimum of five, and often sports a layer of cake stuffed right in the middle of the tart, lending structural support more than anything else. The inclusion of a cake layer kind of makes the whole thing part-tart, part-entremet, that hard-to-define French dessert that I think of as a fancy cake made in a mould, with more moussey stuff than actual cake. 

So that’s our charge for this next level of the pastry diploma: to invent a 5-6-part modern tart with an original combination of flavors and textures. And I’ve gotta outline, diagram, and submit the full recipe for mine in a week. Gulp.

Some of our options for each of the tart components. It goes: Crust, Filling, Cake, Filling, (Optional Third Filling), Glaze, Topping.

Our tarts are supposed to communicate something about what home is for us – and I’m excited to see what that means for the student body of nearly 100 countries. For my tart, the latent Floridian in me has been fixated on making citrus the star. And I’m finally getting somewhere, but it’s taken me 5 attempts to get, well, anywhere.

My first attempt was an all-citrus tart that featured a kumquat curd, a clementine cake, a lime mousse, and a lemon meringue. The result would have been simply bland and not actively bad, had I strained the pulp out of the lime purée before adding it to the mousse. But I did not strain out the pulp, and the bitterness was jaw-clenching. I will absolutely never make that mistake again. Yikes. But the kumquat curd? A revelation. Book-marking that for my future bakery.

The bitter flavor wasn't helped by the fact that this all-citrus tart looks like a literal alien egg.

My second attempt wasn’t as lip puckering, but it wasn’t much better: I attempted a coffee-caramel-orange tart whose flavors simply did not go. As a brave taste-testing friend put it: “None of the individual components are bad. It just tastes like a bunch of different tarts.”

In its defense, the coffee mousse on its own was stunning.
As was the caramel. I kept a little bowl of it in the fridge for a week until I'd eaten it all.

Thoroughly humbled after my inventions gone awry, for my third and fourth tart attempts, I ventured back to safer waters and decided to make a version of my favorite American pie (and the only pie really worth mentioning, IMO): Key Lime. 

Every time I go to Pensacola, Florida, I take myself on a little Key Lime Pie tour.
It's a quality control measure on behalf of the citizens of Pensacola.
They are welcome.

To interpret it as a five-part tart, I layered a coconut biscuit de savoie cake layer (basically just a yellow cake with whipped egg whites) over a coconut crémeux, and topped that with a hefty layer of meringue-y lime chiboust. It was a delicious, tart, overtly limey creation, but to me it didn’t scream Key Lime Pie. It wasn’t sweet enough, or rich enough. It’s flavor didn’t remind me of something that would pass a sniff test at a Florida panhandle diner. And I realized I wanted it to. 

Attempts number 3 and 4.
Pay no attention to the fleck of clementine rind on my wrist.

So for my next attempt, panhandle diner flavor was the bar.

Could I deconstruct Key Lime Pie – no sweetened condensed milk, no cream cheese, and no actual Key Limes – and rebuild its flavor and texture using French ingredients? 

So I downed a couple Nespresso’s from my flatmate’s machine, sketched and crossed out a dozen ideas in my pastry notebook, and said a prayer to my oven and Saint Honoré, the patron saint of pastry.

The idea that finally got me somewhere.

I tried my wackiest idea, but the one I had a hunch might work.

After having tested lime in a chiboust and in a mousse, and finding that made the tart too acidic, this time I wanted to isolate and downplay the lime. I’d try it in a thin, punchy, tart layer, and dedicate the rest of the tart components to building sweet creaminess: through a white chocolate ganache, and a mousse of salted honey. 

Saint-Honoré must have been looking down on me, because for some reason, despite inventing two new recipes, this worked. It’s f***ing fantastic, and it tastes just like a Key Lime Pie would, if a fancy French chef made it. So I guess that makes me a fancy French chef?!  

Here are the components in what I’m provisionally calling Key Lime Pie, Revisitée (unless you can think of a better name for my book report, in which case, pls leave a comment).

There are still things I want to tweak over the next few weeks. As you might be able to tell from the fact that the tart looks like it’s been sitting on a counter too long in 90-degree Florida weather, I need to adjust the gelatin levels in several components. No one likes a tart with bad posture. I also need to double check the salt levels in the salted honey mousse, and I may also add some Florida kitsch and dye the lime gelée green. 

Once I have it nailed, I’ll share the recipe – and take better photos. Until then, would someone back in America please have a slice of real Key Lime Pie for me? Thanks. Bisous!

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