Ever since they started to appear in cafés about 20 years ago, I’ve loved these things. Crunchy pastry on the outside, gooey custard on the inside, and an exotic whiff of burnt caramel and spice. On top of that, they’re the perfect size to go with a coffee: not minuscule like a macaron, nor overly hard work like chocolate mud cake. (Although there are times when a slab of cake is The Solution.)
So, they shouldn’t be too hard to make? Just pastry and custard, innit? Bung it in the oven and Bob’s yer uncle? Alas, no. I won’t even describe the first few attempts, but I am stunned at the number of recipes out there that simply don’t work, or quite possibly, can’t work. The more I read, the more attempts I made, the more obsessed I became.
Here’s the problem. We have two seemingly irreconcilable requirements, viz. cooking the pastry but not curdling the custard. If you set the oven at 150ºC, then you get a lovely baked custard, encased in raw pastry, but set the oven at 200ºC, and you get Scrambled Egg Tarts. My very experienced friends recommended blind baking, but this seemed excessive.
So, after a lot of reading and experimentation, here’s what needs to be done.
- The custard needs to be stabilised by the addition of corn flour.
- The pastry cases need to be very thin, and rested, and cold.
- The custard needs to be cold before the cases are filled.
- The oven needs to be very hot, so the thin pastry cases cook before the custard gets hot enough to curdle.
- Oh, and rolling the pastry out and cutting circles? Don’t even think about it.
This may look detailed and complex, but it’s much easier than it sounds. I use…
- 500mL milk (just ordinary semi-skimmed)
- 125g sugar (you may want more)
- 6 egg yolks
- 3 tablespoons cornflour (this was enough to stabilise without any gelatinous overtones)
- 375g ready rolled puff pastry (see below for quantity)
- half a cinnamon stick
- half a vanilla pod
- the outermost peel of half a lemon (unwaxed, so it won’t taste of paraffin)
Let’s start with the custard.
- Put the milk and sugar in a small saucepan, together with the vanilla, cinnamon, and lemon peel. Gently heat, stirring from time to time.
- In a bowl, combine the egg yolks and cornflour with a whisk until smooth. This will initially be a struggle.
- When the milk is almost at the boil, fish out the cinnamon etc, and pour a couple of tablespoons of the hot milk into the yolk/cornflour mix and whisk like crazy. Slowly add the rest of the milk, whisking all the time.
- Return the combined mixture to the saucepan, and heat gently, stirring all the time – I use a flat ended spoon, so I can work the bottom of the saucepan, making sure nothing sticks.
- The mixture will come to the boil, and thicken quite abruptly. Remove from heat at this point, but keep on stirring for another half a minute. This helps reduces the temperature.
- Decant into a bowl and allow to cool. I pour it through a coarse sieve to catch any remaining bits of peel, cinnamon, and stray lumps.
- Remember, for this to work, the custard needs to be cold: not tepid, not lukewarm, but cold. Put it in the fridge, if your fridge doesn’t mind having hot things shoved in it.
The Pastry Cases
The moulds in my muffin tin are quite deep, and around 100mL in capacity. For this, a 375g sheet of ready rolled puff pastry was about right. If your muffin tin has smaller moulds, then you may want to reduce the amount of pastry.
Now, you can make your own puff pastry if you want. I don’t want to know. Either way, you’ll have a single sheet in front of you, about the size of a piece of A4.
- So, roll it up, fairly tightly. Some people suggest rolling along the short axis, and others on the long axis. I think that the roll should be along the long axis, so when you chop up the rolled tube, your segments are longer than they’re wide. You end up with a cylinder of pastry, a little like a jam roly-poly.
- Slice this into twelve little discs of pastry.
- Take each disc, and squeeze the middle between your thumb and forefinger, until they’re almost touching. Now, gently squeeze the pastry between your thumb on one side, and your index and middle finger on the other, gradually turning the pastry, as though you were making a tiny pizza. The pastry disc becomes concave. When it looks like it’s about the size of the muffin mould, lower it in and keep gently pressing until the pastry comes up the sides. As is usual with pastry, push it, rather than pull it.
- Now, into the fridge for half an hour to rest.
Putting it all Together
Finally, you have cold custard and rested pastry cases. It seems like a long time since you started this, but actually you’ve only put in about 20 minutes’ work.
- I get my fan forced oven going at 250ºC – if you have a gas oven then you may need to get it hotter than that.
- Spoon the cold custard into the pastry cases, filling them about three quarters of the way to the top.
- Pop them in the oven for ten minutes – watch them like a hawk!
- Once the pastry edges are golden and puffed they’re done, so retrieve them, and let them cool. I turn them out onto a cooling rack.
Well, I’m not about to join the nuns of Belém, but the taste test got fairly positive results.
I think some serious creativity could be unleashed with different combinations of ingredients for infusion.
A good alternate recipe can be found here, based on an unseen recipe by the ineffably smug Bill Granger. An excellent, but more laborious recipe by Duncan Markham can be found here, in The Age, complete with some background history.