Sunday, January 29, 2006

Custard Tarts


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
85ml milk
45g white sugar
pinch salt
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.

30 comments:

Stephni said...

I am an Afrikaans speaking South African and we have a traditional dish called melktert or milktart. Essentially custard, made with milk not cream so it is not as rich, in a pastry shell covered with cinnamon. Usually made as a big pie with more custard filling than in the pies you've made. It is also often flavoured with almond essence.

It seems very similiar to the Portugese tarts. As a lot of our traditional cooking stems from the Cape Malay influence, and Malaysia was once occupied by Portugal it seems like that is were it originated! Now that my grandmother has passed away I am the one that provides milktart for the Sunday family lunches and I've been working on replicating her recipe. For years we bragged about hers being the best and I was very amused when I realised she used instant custard powder for the filling!

shuna fish lydon said...

This is a beautiful informative piece and I thank you for it. I love learning about the history of baking, especailly first thing in the morning.

Your blog is exceptional.

anna said...

Stephni, thanks for the information on melktert. I have to admire your grandmother's style! We can buy ready made custards here which are almost worthy of eating by themselves as a dessert.

Shuna, thank you for your comments. I really enjoy researching the background to dishes, and it is great to know that other people find it of interest too.

Ludovic Windsor said...

Great blog, I've added you to my Blogolist!

I'm also posting on food (and more) here:

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celia kusinera said...

Hi Anna, my antennae must have guided me to your blog because I was just thinking of a custard tart that I saw in several motorway pit stops in France. I was just wondering if you have a recipe or even just tips how to make it. It's a regular sized tart (pre-baked shell) with a filling very similar to creme caramel but a little bit firmer (maybe more milk than eggs?). But what intrigued me more is that the top is very dark brown (almost black). The taste is really gorgeous. And it's also very similar to something in the Philippines we call egg pie. The question is, how was it baked? In a baine-marie? Maybe not coz the base will get soggy. Somebody told me that the dark surface is from a thin film of eggwhites - don't know if it's true. It's been a puzzle to me for so long I was wondering if you have any clue to all this?
Btw, I have a picture of it here:

http://desarapen.blogspot.com/2005/06/swiss-food.html

It's in the foreground of the 1st picture. Thanks Anna. :)

anna said...

Hello Ludovic, glad you like the site. I used to work in Richmond, so I will be interested in checking out your Blog too.

Hi Celia,

I really wish I could help you! I have no idea why the top of the tart is so dark, unless it is simply that the tart is cooked until the top scorches - the Portuguese tarts have quite a dark top to them. The tart would not need to be cooked in a bain marie or similar, unless anyone else knows of a cooking method which uses this. The custard mixture will set within the tart case without drying out. I have had a good look through likely recipe books, and I can't find a recipe for a French egg/custard tart. I think that custard is something different in France to how we think of it in the UK, so perhaps the tart goes under a very different name? Sorry Celia you will have to try someone more knowledgeable! Let me know if you find a recipe! ;)

Pille said...

Hi Anna - I looked up my pasteis de nata recipe earlier today, and plan to make them coming weekend - what a coincidence to come across your story on the same day:)
I fell in love with those pastries in Portugal a few years ago (have tried the "original" ones in Belem as well), and made them couple of time since. Thanks for providing such a nice history of the pastries!

charity said...

The Chinese also have something similar; however, it's not as rich. It's a popular Hong Kong dim sum dish. I'm sure it originates from the Portuguese as Macau was their colony at one time. By the way, I love your history tidbits.

Jacqueline said...

I can't believe it - I am totally obsessed with these custard tarts (ate one only last week in a cafe after a trip to the Science Museum). . .

I also have a thing about 'creme patissiere' (can't spell it, sorry), partly because my mother died without imparting the recipe for her custard (which, needless to say I had spent my childhood helping her make) the ingredients of which were only three: egg yolks (she used to make meringue with the whites), sugar and milk; I have tried many times to make it, but each time experience some kind of culinary disaster :-(

this is but the second time I have checked out your blog (last time was one of your first posts last year) and here you are discussing my favourite edible items

your photos are wonderful, your recipes seem delicious, your writing perfect

what a brilliant blog! thanks

anna said...

Hello Pille, Charity and Jacqueline,

Thanks for your comments. It seems that custard tarts are quite a hit with food bloggers. It is interesting to hear how different countries and cultures have their own recipes for them. Maybe one fine day with lots of eggs in the house, it would be good to try some of them side by side. Or maybe I should go on a custard tart shopping/eating trip around London patisseries (hmm, that IS a good idea).

johanna said...

hi anna, back from austria, you're making me drool with another sweet i discovered while travelling portugal... i couldn't get enough of the delicious pasteis do nata and have been looking for a good recipe ever since!

Pedro said...

I was reading your post about pasteis de belem, they are realy good... I´m from Portugal and I have in evora a conventual pastry and everybody said that ours "pasteis de nata conventuais" are better then pasteis de belem, we also have "pao de rala", sweet brown bread distingued with a first price, and many others conventual cakes.
Do you think if it is possible to send some samples to any pastry in Englang that import and sell conventual pastry?
Thanks, your blog is great. :) sorry any mistake.

세라 said...

This looks like a great recipe. Actually, there's another website with the same recipe you might like to take a look at. I also how you write a bit about the history or each of your recipes. I hope to try them soon!

SusanVZ said...

I happened on your site when I entered 'custard tart' on Google. After watching the British comedy 'As Time Goes By' and hearing Lionel be teased about his fondness for custard tarts, I though I'd find out what they are. Your recipe sounds quite good and I'll probably try making them.
I also like reading the comments section and learning about the history and similarities between cultures. I only went abroad once and that was to Lisbon which had so many wonderful pastries and desserts that it was impossible to taste them all. I remember that a very small shop had rice puddings which were made special by the addition of cinnamon sprinkled on top in designs. They were so simple yet so attractive.
Also, when I went to Cape Cod and visited a Portuguese bakery, they made either a pastry or bread made with sweet potatoes. It was delicious and if anyone is willing to share that recipe, I'd be very grateful.
Thank you for such an interesting site.

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Seth Armstrong said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carol said...

I'm just glad I Googled and found this particular recipe. I like custard very much and have always been intrigued by Lionel Hardcastle's love of them. Are there no packaged custard tarts made in Britain?

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blogger bontang said...

I'm just glad I Googled and found this particular recipe. I like custard very much and have always been intrigued by Lionel Hardcastle's love of them. Are there no packaged custard tarts made in Britain?

iPad 3 said...

I love learning about the history of baking, especailly first thing in the morning.

Your blog is exceptiona

Kim Dotcom said...

I am an Asian speaking english and we have a traditional dish called melktert or milktart. Essentially custard, made with milk not cream so it is not as rich, in a pastry shell covered with cinnamon.

banksy canvas said...

What a great post, these look delicious. Thank you for sharing them with us!

canvas art said...

These sound great - custard tarts in Britain are so boring!

Carl said...

Everything is better with a strong cup of coffee!

Kate said...

What a great post, thanks for sharing this with us!

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