Not to be confused with the Portuguese or French versions, this silky dessert in a crisp crust is a British classic. But should the pastry be enriched with sugar – and should your custard be made with cream or milk?
Despite a rich history stretching back to Charlie Chaplin himself, the classic comedic custard pie is no laughing matter. Those thrown by Laurel, Hardy et al were, according to slapstick pioneer Mack Sennett, “full of a sort of paste and sticky stuff so that when they hit they didn’t splatter too much, but dripped nice and gooey”, while the favoured weapon of the Tiswas Phantom Flan Flinger seems to have, in fact, been coloured shaving foam (sorry, children of the 70s).
Instead, we’ll be looking at the custard tart, which has a far longer – and dare I say nobler – pedigree, dating back at least to the 14th century, when a doucet (possibly containing minced pork or bone marrow, but a sweet custard pie nonetheless), put in an appearance at the coronation banquet of Henry IV.
Not to be confused with the sweet, crisp Portuguese pastel de nata, or indeed the creme patissiere-filled flan nature favoured by the French, the similar tarts found in every high-street baker until relatively recently boasted a biscuity, shortcrust shell filled with a firm, distinctly eggy and only moderately sweet custard dusted with nutmeg. These days, like phone boxes and ready-salted Chipsticks, they’re harder to find – which is all the excuse I need to get the rolling pin out.
I reject any recipes calling for puff or flaky pastry on the grounds of their suspiciously foreign influence – shortcrust is the only thing good enough for my custard. (Also, Julian Baggini may know a lot about philosophy but I disagree with his claim that shortcrust is “less flavoursome” than puff and fails to “provide as much textural contrast with the smooth custard”.)
Jane Grigson opts for a plain version in English Food; the Leiths Baking Bible, Marcus Wareing and Justin Gellatly a rich, sweet shortcrust with sugar and eggs; and Constance Spry recommends a pate brisee with so much water that I have to start again, while cursing the entire French nation she credits the recipe to.
Wareing, who credits his recipe to his nan, baked custard tarts for the Queen’s 80th birthday banquet in 2006. He reckons that “crisp, melt-in-the-mouth pastry” is “the hallmark of this traditional English tart” – which seems to dictate a sweet pastry. Not only does sugar make pastry crisper, but it will also allow for a more subtly flavoured filling.
However, his very rich, buttery pastry is incredibly fragile; I find Gellatly’s slightly more robust stuff much easier to work with. His advice “to let your pastry case get a little browner than you think it should be at the blind-baking stage” also proves invaluable. Many a great custard tart has been felled by soggy pastry, and Spry, who mysteriously does not suggest blind baking, and Grigson – who blind bakes hers but neglects to mention putting it back in the oven for a couple of minutes without the baking beans – both let themselves down here. It’s vital, when dealing with a filling as liquid as this, to prepare your pastry defences with meticulous care and to invest in an insurance policy of beaten egg for good measure.
Wareing adds lemon zest to his pastry, which, lovely as it is, overpowers the flavour of the custard – Gary Rhodes’s grated nutmeg is a much more harmonious addition and allows for a double whammy of my favourite sweet spice.
The base of every good custard, the superlative Bird’s excepted. Rhodes, Gellatly and Wareing use yolks alone; Leiths whole eggs, and Grigson and Spry a mixture of the two. The more yolks, of course, the richer the colour and flavour of the result, but the proteins in egg whites will give the custard the firmer consistency I remember as the hallmark of the bakers’ tarts of my youth. A combination seems a wise compromise.
Spry, whose custard merits a single, damning “underwhelming” in my notes, uses only “creamy milk” and melted butter, thickened with a little flour (which must be the French influence). Leiths’ recipe, with its milk and single cream, is better, though still rather plain – but it’s Grigson, Gellatly and Wareing who take the custard crowns (if anyone would like to make me a custard crown, please feel free).
The richest version of all comes from Gellatly, who claims in his book Bread, Cake, Doughnut, Pudding, that he has received marriage proposals on the strength of it, and uses double cream. Rhodes and Wareing go for the slightly lighter whipping version, and Grigson a mixture of double and Channel Island milk (in heavy favour of the former, admittedly).
Now, I’m not saying I wouldn’t get down on one knee in front of Gellatly, married or not, in the hope he would keep me in custard for the rest of my natural life, but the delicate quiver of both his and Wareing’s decadently creamy tarts sets them far apart from the more robust traditional version. They’re more like a creme brulee in pastry, to be picked at with a silver fork rather than snaffled warm from a paper bag. That said, Spry’s spartan version wobbles rather too far to the eggy side: a mixture of whipping cream and Guernsey milk seems to offer the ideal formula for a custard that’s rich and smooth, but not overwhelmingly so.
Medieval tarts would seem rather plain for modern tastes; Grigson’s version, based on a doucet, uses a scant tablespoon of honey, or the even pricier sugar, while everyone else sticks in at least five times that. The exact amount depends on personal taste (use honey if you prefer, though it does have a stronger flavour), but I like custard tarts less sweet than pouring custard or indeed creme brulee, particularly with this sweet, crunchy pastry.
Grigson infuses her recipe with saffron, Gellatly and Leiths vanilla, and Spry orange flower water – all excellent possibilities for the curious, but this is one place where my favourite sweet spice, nutmeg, has no equal. Nothing goes better with eggs and it gives the tart a pleasingly freckled top, too.
As always with custard, low and slow is the way to go; Spry’s 200C gives a slightly scrambled texture, while Gellatly’s 120C is gloriously silky. This is not a dessert that can be rushed, either in the execution or the enjoyment. Prolong the delicious anticipation by allowing it to cool to room temperature for maximum eating pleasure.
For the pastry
225g plain flour
115g cold butter, grated
85g caster sugar
Nutmeg, to grate
3 egg yolks, beaten, plus 1 whole egg (for brushing)
For the custard
375g whipping cream
90g creamy milk
2 eggs, plus 2 yolks
60g caster sugar, or to taste
Rub together the flour and butter or whizz briefly in a food processor until you get coarse breadcrumbs. Mix in the sugar, a good pinch of salt and a generous grating of nutmeg then add the beaten yolks, a little at a time, until the pastry begins to come together; you may not need them all. Form into a ball, flatten then wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours, or overnight.
Get the pastry out of the fridge to soften slightly while you grease a 21-23cm tart tin well. Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface as thinly as possible and use to line the tin, being careful not to stretch it, and using a ball of excess pastry to ease it into the sides. Leave it overhanging the edges and prick the base with a fork. Put in the freezer for 45 minutes, or the fridge for 1.5 hours.
Heat the oven and a baking tray to 180C. Line the tart with foil and baking beans or rice, and bake for about 20-25 minutes until golden brown. Remove the beans and foil, patch up any holes with excess pastry and bake for another 10 minutes, then brush with the beaten whole egg and bake for another 2 minutes. Set aside to cool completely and turn down the oven to 120, leaving the tray in.
Put the cream and milk in a heavy-based pan and bring slowly to a simmer. Meanwhile, whisk together the eggs, yolks and sugar in a heatproof bowl. Pour the hot cream mixture into the bowl, whisking continuously, then add more sugar to taste. Strain into a jug.
Put the tart shell into the oven and carefully pour the custard into it (this makes it less likely to spill). Grate nutmeg over the top and bake for about 35-45 minutes until there is just the faintest wobble in the middle when shaken. Allow to cool completely before trimming the sides of the pastry and cutting.
What’s happened to the Great British custard tart – are they alive and well where you are? If not, are they missed or do you prefer more exotic versions?
This article was written by Felicity Cloake, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 30th September 2015 13.59 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010