“Bureaucrats: they are dead at 30 and buried at 60. They are like custard pies; you can’t nail them to a wall.” —Frank Lloyd Wright
While I love highlighting a quote from a fellow Wisconsinite regarding custard pies, these lovely little tarts have a much longer history in the British Commonwealth than here in the U.S. Way back in 1399, they were featured at the coronation banquet of Henry IV, although back then they were called doucets.
From the time custard was invented, this magical, golden concoction of eggs, milk and sugar has been intimately tied to pastry crust, as the name is derived from the French crouste (for “crust”) and the Anglo-Norman crustarde, meaning “tart or pie with a crust.”
Paul Hollywood explains to Mary Berry in the Masterclass episode that features this recipe (Season 2, Episode 2 on Netflix) that when he first started working in his father’s bakery it was his job to make custard tarts every Saturday. So with this technical challenge being his recipe, I didn’t want to screw it up!
These tarts feature a simple, sweet short-crust pastry, with the addition of a small amount of ground almonds for a nutty flavor and added crunch. Like all pastry doughs, this one should be minimally handled and chilled before rolling so it’s not too soft.
If you know how to make a basic egg custard, you should have this recipe down pat. Paul explains in the Masterclass that this one contains extra egg yolks (seven total) to help it set and bake more quickly, since it is baking in a pastry, which will absorb some of the heat. Unlike a custard that you cook and thicken on the stovetop, this one just calls for warming the milk before adding it to the beaten egg yolks and sugar. The thickening will happen in the oven as it bakes.
Once the tart shells are formed (I took a cue from Ruby in this episode of The Great British Baking Show and put strips of parchment paper under each shell to make getting them out of the tin easier), pour in the custard until almost to the top. Be careful not to overfill or spill the custard outside the shell, as it will seep down between the pan and the pastry and make everything stick. Top with a sprinkling of freshly ground nutmeg, if you have some (otherwise use pre-ground) and bake.
You know they are done when the custard forms a slight dome on top. Paul says if the dome is too high they are overdone, but if that happens, pull the tarts out of the oven and place the muffin tin in a larger pan of cold water to stop the cooking process. Cool the tarts for 20 to 30 minutes before trying to remove them from the muffin tin. Mine stuck somewhat, so I was glad I had the strips of parchment in there, but some of my tarts look slightly deformed because of it.
Done right, the custard should come out smooth and creamy, and the crust should be nicely browned (no soggy bottoms!). They’re best eaten the day they are made, before the pastry softens from the moisture in the custard. Fortunately, I was able to share these with several friends, delivering them to doorsteps during this time of social distancing because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Stay home, stay healthy, and bake your heart out!
Here is a link to Paul’s recipe, but I’ve adapted it for American bakers below.
Paul Hollywood’s Egg Custard Tarts
For the pastry:
- 1¼ c. all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
- 5 T. ground almonds
- 9 T. cubed, unsalted butter, chilled
- ¼ c. superfine (baker’s) sugar
- 1 large egg
For the filling:
- To make the pastry, stir the flour and ground almonds together in a large bowl, then cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or your fingertips until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Then stir in the sugar. Add the egg and work it into the flour mixture with your fingers, forming a soft dough.
- Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface and shape it into a ball. Flatten it into a disk and wrap it in plastic wrap. Leave in the fridge to chill for 30 minutes. While dough is chilling, cut 24 six-inch strips of parchment paper and insert two in each section of a 12-cavity muffin tin, placing them crosswise to each other.
- When pastry has chilled, roll it out on a lightly floured work surface to about 1/8 inch thick. Using a 4½-inch fluted cutter, cut out 12 circles (rerolling the scraps if necessary), and insert them into the muffin tin, gently pressing the dough into the corners of each cavity. Crimp the edges if you wish.
- Preheat the oven to 400°F.
- For the custard filling, warm the milk in a saucepan on low heat, and beat the egg yolks and sugar together in a separate bowl until pale and creamy. Slowly pour the warm (not hot) milk into the egg yolk mixture and stir well. Transfer the mixture to a measuring cup or bowl with a spout, and fill each of the tart cases almost to the top, but be careful not to overfill or spill it outside the shell. If you do spill, try to mop it up with a paper towel.
- Sprinkle each tart with a small pinch of nutmeg.
- Carefully transfer the tarts to the preheated oven and bake them for about 25 minutes; you may need to turn the temperature down to 350°F for the final 10 minutes. Look for a slight dome on the custard, indicating that it is baked. If the custard domes too much, it has boiled and will sink back down, leaving a big dip. If this does happen, you can help rescue it by removing the muffin tin from the oven immediately and placing it in a large roasting pan of cold water on a cold surface.
- Cool the tarts in the muffin tin for 30 minutes before carefully removing them from the molds. The base of the tarts should be lightly browned, and the custard should be smooth and creamy without bubbles. They are best eaten the day they are made; store leftovers in the fridge.