Sunday, January 29, 2006
My inspiration for this round of baking came from a trip to Portugal. I was lucky enough to spend five days in Lisbon over Christmas. One of the food highlights was getting my teeth into Portugal's pasteis de nata, something I had long anticipated! Pasteis de nata are sweet, creamy, cinnamon dusted custard tarts in flakey pastry cases. They are extremely delicious (as you may well imagine), and went down a treat when taken with a cup of bica (espresso strength coffee).
Click here for a link to the website of the famous bakery in Belem, Lisbon, who claim to still produce their custard tarts according to the original ancient recipe (first produced in the nearby Jeronimos monastery).
Many Portuguese pastries and sweets are based on the ingredients sugar and eggs, and some contain only these. The Moors were responsible for bringing sugar cane to Portugal (to keep them sweet whilst in occupation for 500 years). The nuns of post-Moorish Portugal are credited for blending sugar with egg yolks aplenty, and thereby inventing the myriad of golden doces conventvais (conventual sweets). Why so? Well, convents tended to be pretty well-off. They took the excess daughters of the wealthy (cheaper than marrying them off), and these women brought 'dowries' with them to the convent which included plenty of chickens. Lots of chicken = lots of eggs. The egg whites were possibly used either for clarifying wines, or for starching habits. The yolks were used up by making delicious sweets which were sold to raise further funds for the convent. For these nuns life was sweet.
As befits a country with many traditional foods based on eggs, milk and cream, custard tarts are a fixture of nearly all British cake shops and bakeries (sometimes very good, and sometimes a crime in the name of custard). Inspired by the scrumptiousness of Portuguese tarts I thought I would look into our own British version, and treat myself to a home-made tart or two.
Custard tarts have a long history in Britain, and were served at the Medieval table where they were know as doucets or darioles. Henry IV had a doucet at his coronation banquet in 1399. Doucets could include meat ingredients such as pork mince or beef marrow, but they were always filled with a sweet custard. The Medieval cook may have used almond milk instead of cow's milk. Almond milk was a rather expensive alternative, but suited the wealthy whom consumed it on 'fast' days, when rich dairy products were not permitted. Almond milk was an infusion of blanched, ground almonds and either syrup, water, or water and wine. There is a recipe for doucet in Jane Grigson's English Food
Incidentally the name 'custard' reveals something of its special relationship with pastry. The word is derived from both the old French for crust (crouste), and the Anglo-Norman 'crustarde', which meant a tart or pie with a crust. The egg and milk binding used for many a tart became interlinked with these words.
Traditional Foods of Britain, assigns East Anglia as the main region associated with the production of custard tarts. Laura Mason has linked a number of rich custard recipes with the Cambridge and Norfolk areas. A relative of the custard tart, Cambridge Burnt Cream (now more commonly know by the French name of Creme Brulee), is supposed to have originated at one of Cambridge's academic institutions. Lucky students. No wonder some of them take such a long time to graduate.
Other British sweets such as bread and butter pudding, also owe a debt to custard. What is bread and butter pudding but slices of bread baked in custard? Where would a trifle be without a layer of creamy cold custard? And let's not forget the joy of pouring warm custard over a slice of sweet and sharp apple pie?
I decided to try a Medieval(ish) recipe. I purchased from Oxfam one week after Christmas a pristine copy of Maggie Black's Medieval Cookbook - which just goes to show that if you give your unwanted Christmas presents to charity, they do end up with someone who wants them. I say Medieval-ish because tarts and pies at this time were generally baked in pastry coffins/cofyns/coffyns, which were hand-built pastry cases and free of a supporting metal tin. Ivor Day's amazing historic food site shows a good example of custard tarts in coffins, and other free-form pie cases. I was a bit concerned about combining free-flowing custard with a not very well formed free-form tart case, so I decided to stick to my new-fangled tart tins.
(Ingredients are approximately 2/3 of the quantities given in the book, as I wanted to make small individual tarts, not one large one. I have adapted the method for preparing small tarts.)
pinch of saffron strands ground in mortar, then soaked in 1 1/2 tablespoons of warm water
4 egg yolks
235ml double cream
45g white sugar
sweet shortcrust pastry
1. Pre-heat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas mark 6.
2. Roll out pastry and use to line small tins. I did a variety of sizes but all roughly 3-4 inches wide.
3. Prick, fill with baking beans and pop into oven for about 15 minutes to bake 'blind'. Keep an eye on so that the pastry doesn't colour and burn.
4. In the meantime mix up your custard. This recipe doesn't call for you to heat the custard whilst you mix it, all ingredients are whisked together cold. First beat the eggs yolks lightly, then add the cream, milk, sugar, saffron water and salt. Simple.
5. Take tart cases out of oven, tip/pick the baking beans out. Turn the oven down to 160C/325F/Gas mark 3.
6. Pour custard into tart cases and return to oven. I let mine bake for 25 minutes. You want the custard to be just set as it will continue to cook after the tart is removed from the oven.
When the tarts first came out of the oven they were a frightening sight. The custard mixture was quite frothy when it went into the cases, and the hot custard puffed up in the oven. Fortunately as the tarts cooled the custard settled, leaving a ripple effect and some attractive bubbles.
Thanks to the saffron and the yolks the custard was a beautifully cheerful golden-yellow colour.
Although the custard formed a fairly shallow layer in the tartlet case, and the custard was not as sweet as the Portuguese tarts, blimey, were these boys rich! As a treat with a cup of strong (bitter) coffee one tart was a delicious morsel. As part of a four-course Medieval banquet, well, I may have had to pass on the boar's head to keep room for a slice of doucet.