I kid you nata
Custard tarts, those irresistable little morsels, are trickier than you might imagine to make yourself. The sublime Portuguese pastel de nata is hard to beat, but this variation on a trusted St John recipe manages to do just that ...
Ah, the glories of custard tarts. They are quite irresistible, aren’t they? One age-old rule applies, however: that they be good. This, I have learned, is easier said than done.
I used to rather like the nurserystyle recipe culled from The Constance Spry Cookery Book, but the clipped tones of that beatified writer seem to have haunted the recipe through the decades, until it became a cowed and saddened version of a once-promising wonder. It is curious that some recipes, like some wines, do not age well.
The Portuguese pastel de nata are so wonderful that it is almost pointless trying to replicate, let alone better them. That never stopped me trying, although my failed attempts eventually did. Quite simply, they were never as good! Even Fabrico Proprio: The Design of Portuguese Semi-Industrial Confectionery, an extraordinary book I acquired on a visit to Leila’s Shop in London’s East End – which has a nata adorning the cover, no less – could not aid this cook in crossing the winning line.
But on British soil, the custard tart taken to giddy heights by Fergus Henderson at St John left every other at the starting post, staring after this champion so endowed with eggs and cream within a crust so dark that all other pretenders were left far behind.
Sadly, a lunch at St John is a very rare treat for a Soho cook. I do not get to scoff this almighty wonder often enough. I have a great fondness for it and sigh mightily when passing by – though an occasional, more portable, madeira cake from their bakery calms the passions very well en route.
Still, there are times only a custard tart will do. Particularly when pondering a treat on a blustery day, when one is feeling listless and the day without is of intemperate humour, stymying thoughts of doing very much at all ... then making a tray of custard tarts is rather a pleasing prospect. They may well serve as a pudding with much charm, as long as they are kept out of reach of outstretched arms. Or just a lovely afternoon treat.
Care is required when rolling pastry, not so thick as to set the custard into bounciness, but not so thin as to be fragile, cracking and bursting its banks, weeping scented tears of custard while in the oven (hardly a great shame, but a pity nonetheless).
The custard? Ah, it is a delicious mixture of eggs, cream and sugar, c’est tout. And, as it is always the best and ever at hand, here is the recipe from Fergus Henderson’s St John Cookbook. I love them best unadorned with just a sprinkling of nutmeg atop, but should a bowl of bramley apple compote just happen to be at hand then spoon it on with some cream … That recipe? Ah, a story for another day.
The very custard tarts
I confess to using quite another pastry, but the original St John filling remains my go-to. The pastry is best made the day before, time willing. You will need two patty tins – enough for 20 tarts.
Makes 20 little tarts
500g plain flour 100g icing sugar A pinch of salt 300g unsalted butter 1 whole egg 2 egg yolks 1-2 tbsp ice-cold water
For the custard
1 vanilla pod 800ml double cream 9 egg yolks 100g caster sugar 1 whole nutmeg
1 Sift the flour, icing sugar and salt into a bowl. Cut the cold butter into small pieces and tip into the flour. Deftly and swiftly rub together into a fine crumb. 2 Crack the egg into a bowl, add the yolks and mix with a fork. Add this into the flour and butter with a pinch of salt and the ice-cold water. Knead into a dough and shape into a roll. Slice in half. Shape each piece into a disc. Wrap each disc in clingfilm and refrigerate.
3 Cut one disc into four pieces. Roll out one quarter until only slightly thicker than a pound coin. Use a cutter to make little pastry discs to line your tart trays. This is a pleasant task requiring a modest amount of patience and is best performed unrushed if at all possible. Refrigerate the whole tray and repeat with the remaining pastry. You should have enough for 20 little tarts. (The scraps are rather good for making little jammy turnovers – just a thought).
4 Make little discs of silicon paper and line each tart case with them. Fill with rice, beans or some such weighty matter. Bake at 180C/350F/gas 4 until the pastry is golden brown; even a little darker – say 15-20 minutes. Remove the trays from the oven. With much patience, remove the paper discs filled with rice and/or beans. Return the trays to the oven for a few minutes to ensure the bottom is well baked.
5 For the custard, split the vanilla pod lengthways. Scrape the seeds into a heavy-bottomed saucepan, toss in the pod, and add the double cream. Gently bring slowly to a simmer, stirring often.
6 Put the yolks in a large bowl. Add the sugar. Stir well, then pour on the infused cream. Remove the vanilla pod. Let the custard settle for a minute, then spoon away any froth on the surface. Decant into a small jug.
7 Put one tray of tarts in the oven for a minute. Pulling the shelf out carefully, fill each tart from the jug, replenishing as needed. Once all the tarts are filled, bake them until set, for 15-20 minutes, or until only the wibbliest wobble disturbs the surfaces when agitated. Remove from the oven and sit the tin upon a cooling rack and repeat with the next tray.
8 Once all the tarts are cooked, scrape the nutmeg generously over the tarts in a fairly even shower. Once the tarts have cooled – after 10-15 minutes, or maybe longer – gently start to loosen each tart from the tin and sit upon a tray. Once all are done, sit all upon a handsome board or tray or plate, then boil the kettle …