Monday, July 31, 2017

Hong Kong custard tarts, part 2

Here now is my lovely Hong Kong-style custard tart recipe. What amazes me is that it is such a simple, seemingly no-brainer sort of recipe, and yet it took me ages to get right.

Just about every recipe I referred to told me to fill the raw pie shells with the custard and bake on high heat. Failure after failure made me realize this is sheer nonsense. The
se glassy little gems require slow, gentle heat to nudge them into a perfect state of doneness. You don't want bubbles, you don't want browning, and you don't want puffing – just smooth, creamy, super-enticing custard.

However, the crusts have to be cooked at a high temperature in order to garner that right amount of crispness, so what to do? I settled on blind baking them (meaning just the piecrust without the filling) to set their shapes and give the crusts a head start.
Fill the partially baked shells

Since these are baked in muffin tins rather than the usual shallow aluminum ones you find in Chinese bakeries and dim sum teahouses, they are a tad bit heftier in size, but still amazingly light. In other words, you have a nice, deep-dish hand pie going on. And that is yet another reason why I so love this recipe of mine.

I also like the freeform crust edges. These look homemade, and they taste like they were created with love. Definitely not in the least generic or bakery-issue in appearance, they still embody the traditional loveliness of the beloved classic Cantonese teatime snack known as danta. The browned edges possess a wonderful crunch, and as the tart cools, the exterior crisps up and offers even more contrast to the eggy center.

Speaking of which, the eggs I've used here are of great quality, and that is why these don't taste overtly eggy and give off the sulphuric fumes you get from cheap eggs. Instead, they taste fresh and pure. I’ve come to be addicted to pasture-raised eggs, which have a true egg flavor, harder shells, and bright orange yolks. Have I mentioned how delicious they are, too? Let me repeat that anyway. Hunt these down. They are life-changers. 

Whatever you do, be sure and strain the eggs after they have been beaten with the sugar water, as this ensures a smooth texture. 

This recipe calls for a traditional ingredient, evaporated milk. I've made these with whipping cream on occasion, and they are delicious too, but in a different way. The filling somehow isn't as yellow, but the texture is truly lovely. Either way, these are terrific.
Ready for the oven
Custard tarts are wonderful the day they are made. Nevertheless, if you do find yourself with leftovers, be sure to refrigerate them, since they are, after all, basically just eggs and milk. 

One thing I have to tell you is that these are utterly stupendous the next day:

Heat the chilled tarts (just place the tarts directly on the oven rack without the muffin tin) in a toaster oven at 400°F (200°C) for around 5 minutes to warm them through and crisp up the crust. If you have a convection setting, use it this time around because it really gives the crust a whole lot of crunch. Because the custard is very cold when it goes on the oven, it will be just the right amount of hot at the end of 5 minutes. 

Don't you want to have a tea party right about now?

Hong Kong-style custard tarts
Găngshì dàntá 港式蛋撻
Hong Kong
Makes 18 custard tarts 
10 tablespoons (100 g) sugar
1 cup (235 ml) boiling water
Perfect crust & custard
4 whole large eggs
2 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla
Pinch of salt
1 cup (235 ml) evaporated milk or heavy cream, or half evaporated and half cream
18 tart shells from last week's piecrust recipe, frozen or fresh
Boiling water, as needed

1. Stir the sugar into the boiling water and then let the sugar water cool down to room temperature.

2. Use a whisk to beat the eggs and yolks in a work bowl until they are barely frothy. Beat in the cooled sugar water, which will help break up the whites and make the mixture smooth. Pour this egg mixture through a sieve into another 4-cup (1 l) measuring cup and discard any solids in the sieve. Stir in the vanilla, salt, and evaporated milk or cream. 

3. Heat your oven to 275°F (135°C) and set 2 racks in the center. (Do not use the convection or fan setting.) Divide the filling among the tart shell. Pour half an inch of boiling water into any unused muffin cups so that the muffin tin does not scorch the tarts close to those areas.

4. Bake the tarts for around 20 minutes, and then rotate the pan from front to back. Note how done they are at that point, for the edges should be set with the centers still looking liquid. Bake another 5 to 10 minutes (note: each oven is different, so check them every minute or so if they seem to be setting up quickly) until the crusts are edged with gold and the filling is no longer wobbly in the center. When done, there will be a very slight puffing up around the edges of the custard, but no big bubbles – that puffing is telling you that the custard is on the verge of boiling, so keep your eyes peeled. Again, you need to watch these carefully toward the end of the cooking time, adjust the temperature as needed, and remove the tarts the moment they look perfect. You don’t want to overcook them – no browning on the eggs, no puffy centers – as this will lead to bubbles in the custard. 
A simple solution to sticking

5. Cool the tarts down before serving, if you can wait, since the piecrust will crisp up by then. 


Before you fill the shells, gently twist them in their tins so that any welded-on parts get dislodged.

To remove the tarts from the muffin tin, run a thin blade around the edge between the crust and the tin, and then slip a fork underneath the tart. I like to do this when they are warm and the crust is still a bit flexible. Also, I'm usually super anxious to eat one at that point, so perhaps I'm just looking for excuses.

If you worry that the piecrust will stick to your muffin tins, try this: Place a strip of parchment paper or foil in the oiled tins before you line them with piecrust.
Plum custard tarts

If you happen to have leftover custard, pour them into oiled custard cups (the name had to come from somewhere, right?) and bake them with the tarts. 

Again, remember that your oven will most definitely work differently than mine. A custard tart is one of the most finicky things to bake, and the major causes of failure are the baking time and the temperature. Just a few extra minutes too long in the oven will ruin the whole shebang. And it's not just our ovens that are different, for the temperature of the raw eggs and milk will also affect the timing. So, be sure to keep track of the exact times things get done and make notes for next time.

Always err on the side of undercooking. If you take the tarts out and all or a few still look a little runny in the centers, return these to the oven for a few minutes – no harm will have been done, and you will end up eating perfect custard tarts.

Variation on a theme...
Custard tarts with plums

It's high summer as I write this, so of course I have plums hanging around the kitchen, and they always seem to suggest that I come up with something fun for them to do. And, just to make them happy, I found out by playing around with them that they are absolutely incredible when tucked away in these tarts. 
Spoon cooked fruit into the shells

Plums (or plumcots or black apricots or any of those hybrids) are perfect here because of their tart centers and skins. And they are stunning, too.

Part of the allure is, of course, the flavor. But you have to admit that they also add pizazz just by dint of their color. 

Count on about half a plum per tart. Pit them, but leave their skins on. Cut the fruit into large dice and microwave for around 1 minute, which should barely cook them through and turn them into a nice puddle.

Spoon the cooked, unsweetened fruit into the bottom of each tart shell before pouring on the custard. These tarts might then require a few more minutes of cooking, so keep an eye on them.

As the seasons change, use other slightly (or very) tart fruits here, like strawberries and rhubarb. Anything with good color, great flavor, and a slightly puckery contrast to the custard will be perfect. Just be sure to cook the fruit first and make them jammy, as otherwise it will either not cook through or will release lots of liquid that will ruin your lovely tarts.