Monday, August 28, 2017

Life just got a whole lot better: homemade Macanese custard tarts, part 2

I have yet to find anyone who does not adore these creamy little tarts from Macau. For, when made right, they are simply divine.

But the problem – a theme I keep on returning to again and again here – is that very few bakeries or dim sum teahouses go to the relatively minimal effort required to make these the old-fashioned way, and even fewer use excellent ingredients.

So, of course, that is where you and I step in. If you can get your hands on organic milk and cream, as well as the best possible eggs and the finest quality puff pastry you can find, no restaurant will be able to hold a candle to your creations. That’s a promise.

You can, of course, make Chinese puff pastry from scratch, and you will at that point be making the food of the gods. You should then serve them to your friends, wear your crown with pride, and retire with a totally satisfied look in your face. But frozen puff pastry will do in a pinch or if you seriously need to have a batch of these immediately. Trust me, I know that feeling.
Creamy filling & wafer thin crust

A couple things about this recipe that make me want to pat myself on the back: 

First, the filling is little more than baked pastry cream. It took me quite a while to suss that out, but there you have it. These are, therefore, not genuine custard tarts per se, but rather baked pastry cream tarts. Isn't that an excellent idea? Baked pastry cream?!

Second, a slight dusting of sugar on the custard helps get the caramelization going, so that you have those gorgeous leopard spots appearing before the piecrust gets incinerated. (You will not believe how much piecrust I've carbonized while figuring this out.) 

Third, I had a Eureka! moment one morning around 3:00 am when I realized that the way to make the puff pastry crust behave was to set it on its side  I had discard countless batches where the crust billowed up in the hot oven and pushed all the custard out, and nothing (absolutely nothing) was working. And then my lizard brain figured out that setting the crust on its side allowed the hot air in the dough an escape route, the crusts stayed put, and the filling remained solidly in place. 

Silky pastry cream filling

Fourth, finding the correct place in the oven to cook these took some figuring out. Just a couple inches from the top element gives the custard the chance to brown, while the crusts have relatively gentle heat on the bottom.

And finally, getting the oven hot enough was a chore. Most ovens got up to a maximum of 
500°F (260°C). But with a convection oven, that same setting will get boosted up a bit so that you almost have the heat of a bakery oven. At least, this is how it seemed to me.

Anyway, enough with the boasting. 

I’ve had these tarts all over the place, and very, very, very few bakeries or teahouses manage to pull this creation off well. Again, I don’t understand why. It’s really not that hard at all once you get the ratios right. But instead of trying to parse this out, it seems like too many producers depend too much on packaged mixes. You can tell by the smell of vanillin, rather than vanilla; the taste of custard powder, rather than honest eggs, milk, and sugar; the pasty texture that speaks of ennui and cheap dough, rather than a seductive little come-hither disguised as a dessert.

Chef Yang with his tarts
Like the Hong Kong-style custard tarts we made a couple of weeks ago, it took me a long time to figure this one out, but I’m at long last satisfied. You wouldn’t believe how many versions I’ve worked on… evaporated milk, all milk, half-and-half, sweetened condensed milk, or cream… but none were exactly right. But now? Now we have the opportunity to delight in perfect custardy clouds against a shatter of crispy puff pastry whenever we want. (Thanks goes to Chef Power Yang 謝少希 of the Ritz-Carlton in Chengdu for slipping me his suggestions at the end of one of his marvelous breakfast, for he helped me crack the danta code.)

A bit about the history: I had long believed the common knowledge that these were riffs on Portugal's pasteis de nata, and now I realize that this was almost right. From what I've read, these were actually the 80's brainchild of a British industrial pharmacist-turned-baker, Andrew Stow. Stow also happened to be a showman of the first order who styled himself as "Lord Stow," and so his famed bakery on the southern Macanese island of Coloane is still called Lord Stow's Bakery. 
Bakery-type tarts

But enough of history. Let's get down to the serious business of making something heavenly to eat. 

Here is my recipe for Macanese-style custard tarts with all the guesswork taken out. And so enjoy. Your reputation as a great Chinese cook is about to become written in stone.

Macanese-style custard tarts
Púshì dàntá 葡式蛋塔
Makes 12

4 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 cups (500 ml) whole milk
 cup (160 ml) heavy cream
¼ cup sugar
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Around 4 tablespoons sugar for dusting the tartlets

Divide the dough (Step 4a)
1 recipe for southern-style puff pastry, or a (1 pound / 450 g, or thereabouts) box good quality frozen puff pastry, completely defrosted yet cold
Flavorless oil (like canola), as needed

1. You can start this recipe up to 3 days ahead of time, and then easily assemble and bake the tartlets an hour or two before serving.

2. Prepare an ice bath first: Fill a medium work bowl with around 20 ice cubes and around 2 cups (500 ml) water and set this near the stove. Use a whisk to combine the yolks, milk, cream, sugar, and cornstarch in a heavy-bottomed, 4-cup (1 liter) saucepan. (Be sure to add the cornstarch to the cold liquids so that it combines, rather than turns into lumps.) Heat the mixture gently on your smallest burner, as this way the custard will have time to set up without burning. Whisk the custard often as it heats, being sure to scrape the bottom of the pan every time. The custard will thicken as it approaches the boiling point. Keep an eye on the bubbles around the edge of the pan, as they will tell you how hot the pot is getting.
Rolled up frozen pastry (Step 4b)
You do NOT want the custard to boil. 
And so, when you start to notice those bubbles, stir the custard a bit more constantly. 

3. Remove it from the heat as soon as it is thick enough to coat the inside of the pan, as well as the whisk. Set a sieve over a bowl and scrape the custard into the sieve. Stir in the vanilla into the smooth custard; you will have about 2½ cups (590 ml) custard. Place the bowl in the ice bath and stir the custard to release the heat – replace the ice bath as needed. Cover the container and chill it for at least an hour and up to 3 days.

4a. If you are using homemade southern-style puff pastry, make sure you have divided it into 16 even pieces as directed in last week's recipe and keep the pastry covered with a tea towel or plastic wrap to help it stay moist

4b. If you are using frozen puff pastry, defrost it according to package directions and then gently unfold each of the sheets before rolling each sheet up from one of the long sides so that it looks like a rolled-up carpet. Cut each carpet crosswise into 8 even pieces and keep the pastry covered and chilled if you are not immediately working on it. 

Cut end up on the homemade dough (Step 5)

5. Spray 1 standard-sized, all-metal cupcake tray with oil. Lightly oil a clean, smooth work surface. Set a slice of the rolled-up dough in front of you with the cut end up so you can see the spiral. 

6. Lightly oil your hand and gently squish it down into a disc. Use a Chinese rolling pin to roll this out into a 5-inch (13 cm) circle. Repeat with the rest of the dough. 

7. Set these circles in the oiled cupcake tray and pat them into place, paying special attention to the bottom edges; the crust should rise about ¼ inch (5 mm) above the top of the muffin tin – this extra space gives the custard room to expand in the hot ovenFreeze the trays to help set the tartlets' shape. Do not defrost them before you bake them.
Rolled-out circle (Step 6)

8. Set an oven rack about 4 inches (10 cm) from the top of the oven, and heat the oven on the convection setting to as high as it will go, usually 500°F (260°C). If you don't have a convection oven, simply set your oven as high as it will go, but not all the way up to broil. Divide the custard among the pieshells. Sprinkle about 1 teaspoon of sugar over the custard in each tartlet, as this will help with the caramelization.

9. Bake the tartlets for about 30 minutes, rotating the trays top to bottom and back to front around halfway through the cooking time. (The crust will look alarmingly overcooked at the 15 minute mark, but have courage and keep on baking. They'll be fine.) Starting at the 30 minute mark, check them every minute or so from then on. Total cooking time will be about 30 to 40 minutes, depending upon your oven. Do note that the custard will stop bubbling furiously when the tartlets are ready. If the custard is still bubbling in the center, though, it's not yet set. Remove the tartlets from the oven and cool them for around 20 minutes before serving. They will be molten when they come out of the oven, so don't burn your mouth by eating them too soon.
Pieshells in the tin (Step 7)

10. Remove the tartlets from the trays and serve them while they are still warm or at least at room temperature. (These are really easy to remove from the tins after they have cooled down a bit, especially if you spray the tins with oil and use homemade puff pastry.)


You can fill and bake as many of these tarts at a time as you want.

Leftovers may be refrigerated in a resealable container. Warm these up in a 400°F (200°C) oven on a baking sheet until heated through, or at least until the chill has been taken off. 


  1. Okay, I'm sold. But it has to cool off before I can even think of pastry. The filling doesn't scare me one bit. The pastry...well, hey, you got me making my own bao!

    1. Heh! Sorry for taking so long to get back to you, as I was out of the country. Hope you like these as much as I do!

  2. So much for me to soak up about the Chinese cuisine!!