Monday, July 24, 2017

Perfect pie crust, or Hong Kong custard tarts part 1

Chinese custard tarts are one of my favorite things ever. 

I love the creamy, delectably spotted ones from Macau that sit proudly in their puffy nests, and I love the shiny, eggy, golden ones from Hong Kong with their mirror-like tops and piecrust pastry. 

These two kinds of custard tart are, therefore, totally different, and pretty soon I’ll crack that Macanese custard tart code for you. 

Right now, though, we are going to dive into Hong Kong’s mini masterpieces. They are a whole lot easier than they look, but you will have to pay attention. This is pastry, after all.
Pastry cutter & wooden bowl

Dear reader, this is the first half of a recipe I have been searching for and never, ever finding. I made so many bad batches that my poor husband wondered how many eggs we'd plow through before I was finally happy. Well, I'm officially happy.

What happened was, that one day I’d finally had enough. I couldn't stand in long lines at my favorite Chinatown bakeries forever whenever I wanted a danta fix. I had too much writing (read: eating) to do. 

Furthermore, I decided that I wouldn’t wear a swimsuit this year if it meant that I could find that perfect mesh of flaky piecrust and delicate filling. 

Some sacrifices are worth making.

I tried all sorts of piecrusts in my odyssey… cookie-like, puff pastry, lots and lots of regular piecrusts… but none really hit that sweet spot. 
Tossing the flour, fat, and liquids

I knew it would in the end have to be nothing less than good old homemade piecrust, but I sort of dreaded that. I even resorted to frozen piecrust in a vain attempt to end-run the inevitable, but those store-bought things never worked out well or tasted right.

The thing is, I had always been rather afraid of the whole making-your-own-piecrust ordeal because the crust inevitably turned out leaden, no matter how hard I tried. 

Then a while ago I bought a copy of The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, and it rocked my little world. 

I used that beautiful book to understand the art behind making the perfect piecrust, although the ingredients below more or less follow the guide enshrined in Michel Roux's Pastry. However, as always, I’ve added more details (and made a few small tweaks) to the final recipe so that you can become as fearless as me when it comes to piecrust.

Clumped up and ready to smear
What I finally figured out was that I was not supposed to make pie dough. The name is what slipped me up, because I was always doing my best to make a doughy mass that I’d faithfully chill and try to roll out and always end up wanting to throw at the wall and that had the consistency of cardboard and was an utter waste of time.

The secret here is to not think of this as dough. And to not make it in a food processor.

Rather, what you are going to do is simply incorporate some good, chilled fats and an egg into unbleached all purpose flour, add just a sprinkling of ice water to encourage things to come together a bit, and then smear this mixture out into thin skids on the counter, which is what turns everything into flaky layers.

Again: Do this by hand, not in a food processor. You need nothing more than a pastry cutter and, in my case, a wooden bowl to keep things happily corralled. This way you can ensure that the bits of fat are cut into the right size, rather than mashed into oblivion. Larger pieces of cold fat will melt in the heat of the oven into airy layers between the flour before frying the flour into heavenly crispiness. The eggs are important, too, because they make the crusts a tad more solid and stable.
First smear

I've talked to a couple of bakers who do little else but make custard tarts for a living. Granted, most people didn't want to discuss their secrets, but a few kinds folks let slip the fact that the crusts they use come premade. That's where those little tiny Chinatown tart tins come in to play. I'm guessing that someone puts out millions of those ready-made crusts, freezes them, and then sells them to bakeries, restaurants, and dim sum parlors, because they generally taste the same no matter where you get them. In other words, these piecrusts do the job, but tend to be pretty generic.

You can therefore up your danta game considerably by making something homemade and ever-so-much-more delicious.

I've suggested that you use all-metal muffin tins here instead of those usual little aluminum tart tins favored by Chinatown bakeries. This will give you a bit of a deep-dish tart with more ratio of custard to crust, which in and of itself is a glorious thing. The heat the tins concentrate on the bottoms and sides will also give you crispier, crunchier crusts.
After two smears

You will need around 2 cups (about 500 ml) dried beans or an equivalent volume of pie weights for the occasion because the crust will swell up during the initial baking (aka blind baking), and so the beans or weights these will hold the fort down nicely. If you don't weigh down the raw crust, or if you don't blind bake the shells, you run the risk of having the bottom crust balloon and push all your custard out of the pan, which would be sad. As for me, I have an ancient mayo jar with shriveled garbanzos in it that follows me wherever I move, and it has pride of place on my pantry shelf.

Do note that while it is conceivable that you can use silicone muffin pans here, since they make removal of the tarts from the tin a whole lot easier; the down side is that the crust won't crisp up very well. Whatever tin you use, be sure and spray it with oil, as this helps prevent the crust from welding to the pan.

Try this recipe and see if you become a convert. Next week we’ll do the filling. But first I want you to master piecrust and never fear making a pie again.
Beans & parchment paper

If you are a purist and are wondering why you should be making these tarts with a Western-style crust, remember that Hong Kong-style custard tarts were most probably introduced to Guangzhou (aka Canton) by the Brits, and good old custard filling is definitely an Anglo-American delight, so I'm just carrying on this grand tradition of cultural and culinary cross-pollination...

Flaky piecrust
Sūpí  酥皮
Southern China by way of the Southern U.S. and France and other good eating-places

2½ cups (375 g) all-purpose flour (see Tip)
1½ teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt 
1½ sticks (¾ cup / 170 g) unsalted butter, chilled
1 large egg plus 1 large egg white, lightly beaten
1½ tablespoons ice water
Spray oil
1 large egg white beaten with 1 teaspoon water

Layers of fat = airiness
1. The crust: Start this recipe at least a couple of hours before you need it. Mix the flour, salt, and sugar in a wide work bowl. (I like to use my ancient wooden salad bowl for this.) Cut the fats into the flour using your pastry cutter until you have pieces no larger than ½ inch (1 cm) across), but don’t cut it too fine.

2. Use one hand to gently toss the flour as you sprinkle in the eggs to combine it, and then toss in the ice water, a teaspoon at a time. Curl your fingertips up as you do this so that you are gently mixing things up, rather than mashing them. (The second biggest cause of piecrust failure is overworking the dough or using the palm of your hand, which is way too hot for this work.) To test it, press a handful in your fist, and it should clump together. Only add a few tiny more dribbles of water if necessary. (The biggest cause of failure here is adding too much water. Don’t worry if there are some dry areas, as the next step will take care of that.)

Roll out between plastic
3. Dump the mixture out onto a clean, smooth work surface and have a pastry scraper ready. Pick up a small handful about the size of an egg and then use the heel of your hand to smear it away from you. This is where you start to form layers in the piecrust. Repeat this with the rest of the mixture. Then, use your pastry scraper to form this into a rough mass before repeating this step. You will find that everything will be pretty willing to stick together when you are finished. Form the piecrust into a raggedy disc and place it in a resealable bag; you'll have a little over 1½ pounds (720 g) of dough at this point. Refrigerate the piecrust for at least 2 hours so that the flour can absorb the water and expand, and the gluten has a chance to relax.

4. Spray your muffin tin with oil. Lightly dust your work area with some flour, place the dough in the center, and dust it with a bit more flour. Cut it into 12 even pieces and then roll them into balls. Working on one ball at a time, place a ball between two sheets of plastic wrap and use a Chinese rolling pin roll it out into a disc about 5 inches (13 cm) wide. Set the circle into a muffin tin cup and gently pat it to fit. Repeat with the rest of the balls. 

Pat into the muffin tins
5. Next, dip the end of your rolling pin in flour and gently tap the dough into each tin, pressing against the bottom edges, and then rolling the pin around any uneven parts on the sides. Freeze the muffin pans for at least 20 minutes, as this will help the crusts keep their shape.

6. Heat your oven to 425°F (200°C) and set an oven rack in the center. (Do not use the convection or fan setting for this recipe.) First you will blind bake the crusts, which will set their shape and ensure that they have enough time to crisp up during the final baking: lightly prick the bottom of each tart with a fork to help keep the bottoms from rising too much. Refrigerate the piecrusts until you are ready to bake them.

7. Completely cover each shell with a 5-inch (13 cm) square of parchment paper or foil so that they do not brown during this step. Also, be sure and fit the covering into the bottom corners of the tarts since this will keep their shape. Fill the shells with your pie weights or beans, again paying special attention to the corners. Pour boiling water into any empty depressions. Bake the shells for about 5 minutes, and then rotate the pan from front to back and bake 2 minutes more. The shells will be set at this point, but not yet browned.

8. Remove the beans and coverings from the shells. Prick (also called "dock") any bubbles that you see, and then coat the insides of the shells with the egg white mixture. Since the custard filling is very wet, this last step will create a nice, waterproof seal in the tarts and prevent the crusts from sogging up. 

Dock the shells
9. Return the shells to the oven until they just begin to color, about 3 minutes. You do not want to brown them at this point, so keep a careful eye on them and rotate the pan as needed. Remove the pan from the oven. (If you are going to bake the custard tarts immediately, reduce the oven to 275°F / 135°C and wait until it cools down to this temperature, since the custard requires a gentler heat than the crust in order to set up properly. If the oven is too hot, the custard will boil, which means that instead of that seductively satiny texture, it will be coarse and have bubbles running through it.)
Now you’re done and ready to fill the shells. You can freeze them at this point and then store them in a plastic container in the freezer so that they don’t break. You don’t have to defrost them before baking.


Use unbleached all-purpose flour here, as it has a higher protein content, which gives the raw crust more elasticity.


  1. I have just recently mastered pie crust after a lifetime of fear. This looks very manageable...waistlines are another story entirely!

    1. Ha, I totally agree. I've been making them and giving most of the successful ones to friends and neighbors... makes them happy, plus so far my jeans still fit!