- Food & Drink
A custard tart is a noble thing. A silken puddle of sunshine in a pastry case. Justin Gellatly, creator of St John’s revered custard doughnuts and now baker of delicious things in his own pastry palace, Bread Ahead, has a beautiful looking custard tart in his book Bread, Cake, Doughnut, Pudding. Canary yellow and freckled with nutmeg, it glows on the page.
When I was invited to pick a recipe from the book to bake, it was the one I kept coming back to. I thought about asking them to send me the ingredients for the doughnuts. The famous, holy doughnuts. But I would also have had to ask them for a stand mixer, a deep fat fryer and a kitchen with more than half a metre’s workspace. There are limits to a PR’s generosity.
Plus, the doughnuts looked a bit tricky and time consuming, whereas a custard tart – how much effort could that be? Make pastry. Bake pastry. Make custard. Combine with pastry. Eat. Easy enough stuff, especially for a woman with hands so cold there’s some doubt as to whether or not blood actually flows into them.
Skim reading is always my undoing.
I carted the box back from Justin’s bakery after a quick tour of the ovens, flour towers and sacred doughnut fryer. Inside was a scandalous quantity of eggs, cream and butter. Enough to horrify a doctor and delight me. I slung it all in the fridge and sat down to read the recipe properly, thinking I’d bake the tart tomorrow and take it into work. Which is when I realised it was going to take a few days.
Stage 1 was making the pastry. I love doing this and would happily spend hours rubbing butter and flour together with my frozen White Walker fingertips. But this pastry involved less fine, sandy breadcrumbs and more creaming of butter and sugar and generally stirring things together. It also needed a little water adding, but then flour is the sort of foodstuff that pretends to be an inert powder when it’s actually a melodramatic, attention-seeking grain crush that swings from insisting it’s not at all thirsty to demanding great wallops of water to work.
I ended up with quite a lot of pastry. More pastry than I expected. It’s possible the recipe said I’d make more pastry than I’d need – I don’t have the book with me to check. But I was surprised by the rugby ball wodge of shortcrust in my bowl (really should’ve read that recipe in detail). Anyway, I bundled it into the fridge – in theory for 1-2 hours, in reality for 24 hours while I got on with other things, like sleeping and tweeting about my lunch.
The next night I rolled out the pastry, which was a delight to handle, lined my tart tin and put it into the fridge for another 24 hours. There’s something to be said for doing 15 minutes work a day over a few days (both in baking, and also in life generally). Much less stressful than kneeling by my oven promising St Honaratus whatever cakey sacrifice he wants just as long as the sponges are ready in time for the coffee klatch or tea party I breezily claimed I could bake for when I knew full well I’d barely have time to get the oven warm.
I did have half the weight of pastry leftover, so that went into the freezer.
Day 3 and my oven was coaxed into life to blind bake the base, which took twice as long as the recipe said it would. This is consistently the case. I am quite unlucky with ovens. They either go into a cold sulk halfway through the process or suddenly become over enthusiastic and turn into an inferno, so it could just be me and ovens that means blind baking always takes so long. Or that someone once said it takes 20-30 minutes to blind bake a pastry case, so now everyone gives that timing, when it actually takes much longer (unless you’re not afraid of a soggy bottom).
The recipe, having suggested a leisurely approach to baking the thing, now recommended eating it within 2 hours. I left it to cool over night, then took into work where it vanished within 5 minutes. I take a lot of cakes into work. Most of them generate 1 or 2 thank you emails. This tart lit up my inbox.
‘Holy SHIT’ was the first to-the-point missive. A more refined: ‘Holy heck, that was amazing!’ came afterwards. More messages, mostly beginning ‘Wow’ or ‘Amazing’, followed. I’d never been so popular.
I made the tart again a few weeks later, using the leftover pastry and reducing the amount of cream in the custard by about 100ml because I’d had filling leftover the first time (which I may have just eaten raw because it tasted so damn nice). I did cool the pastry case the second time before filling it, and it baked a lot faster, although that may have been my oven being uncharacteristically enthusiastic.
The book itself is beautiful and the custard tart is a classic. As a way of winning people over, I don’t think it can be beaten.