The egg custard tart, a tale in 3 (or more) parts

Ever since a trip to Hong Kong 10 years ago, I’ve been meaning to make egg custard tarts.  Each year I am reminded of the idea in the immediate lead up to the Lunar New Year.  Inevitably, I miss the “holiday deadline,” vow to do better the next year and then forget until early January of the year following when I am once again reminded that its once again too late (heaven forbid I consider making these treats any other time of the year).

This year I was ahead of the game for a couple of reasons.  First, the Lunar New Year falls late in 2021 (not until February 12th) giving me a little extra time after the rush of the holiday baking season to rebuild my baking fortitude.  Second, 2021 is the year of the ox, my own Chinese zodiac sign.  So, I find myself a little more motivated than if it was, say, just the year of the rooster.  [As an aside my Western astrological sign is taurus, the bull (well, sometimes I’m a Gemini, but I identify more as a taurus).  What do you get when doubled up on bovine astrology?  One stubborn human.  Also, likes salads.]

But, back to the tarts.  During my visit to Hong Kong, I remember hearing about the egg custard tart rivalry between Hong Kong and Macau.  As such, I thought it would be fun to make both types.

And then I started to do the research.

What I thought was a friendly pastry duel born of colonization has turned out to be a mystery as philosophically deep as the chicken and egg question.  Though in this case, the question is, which came first, the dan tat (Hong Kong/ Chinese style)?  Or the po tat (Macau style)? OR the pasteis de data?

I’m still not completely sure.  All I know is that at this writing, I’ve tried three different versions.

But, I’ve got to start somewhere or another 10 years will pass, so let us begin with the least technically difficult of the three: the Hong Kong style egg custard tart.

Made with a short crust (think slightly sweet pie dough), the tiny tart has origins in the English custard tart.  Hong Kong was colonized by England in the early 1840s and while it’s presumed that the influence of European style pastry came along with colonization, legend has it that the Hong Kong style egg custard tart specifically was born of competition between department stores some time between he 1920s-1940s.  While the contemporary recipes I’ve found use butter, lard or shortening was used in the early 21st century due to dairy shortages (and likely, the cheaper price point).

After World War II, the bite sized pastries became popular in the casual tea restaurants and by all accounts, have been a run away hit ever since.  In addition to the short crust,  this version uses evaporated milk (again, I’m guessing due to shortages with fresh dairy) and an interesting method whereby you make a sugar syrup to add to the custard.

Baked in tiny fluted tins (muffin tins will do just fine in a pinch), the Hong Kong tarts are associated more with breakfast and dim sum than dessert.

With a ratio of pastry to custard that about even, they’re best served warm and are a perfect pairing with milk tea (so I’ve read).

You could easily make the dough a day or two before (pop it in the fridge) and have these warm, light tarts ready just in time for brunch.

Next week, what I thought was the Macau tart but might really just be a version of the pasteis de nata…which is really the Macau tart.  Maybe.

Hong Kong Style Egg Custard Tarts

makes 12,  3 inch tarts

Ingredients

For short crust shell

  • 1/2 C (1 stick) of very soft unsalted butter
  • 1/3 C confectioner’s sugar
  • 1 egg at room temp
  • 1 1/2 C sifted flour

For custard

  • 1/4 C sugar
  • 1/2 C hot water
  • 1 egg + 3 egg yolks
  • 1/3 C evaporated milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Directions

  1. To make the dough, whip the butter using a hand mixer until light and fluffy.
  2. Sift-in confectioner’s sugar.  Beat to combine.  Add-in egg, beat to combine.
  3. With beaters on low, add in first 1/2 cup of flour.  Mix until just combined.  Add in second 1/2 cup and repeat.  When ready to add 3rd 1/2 cup, set aside mixer and fold in final 1/2 cup by hand.  Fold dough until it comes together.
  4. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface.  Knead a couple of times to bring dough together and form into a disk.  Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill in fridge of at least an hour.  This step can be done a couple of days in advance.  Just be sure to pull out dough when you begin making the custard.
  5. To make custard, place oven rack in center of oven and preheat oven to 400 degrees
  6. In a smallish bowl, stir sugar into hot water.  Stir until sugar is completely dissolved and then set aside the syrup until cooled completely.
  7. Roll your dough to about 1/8inch thickness.  If you are using tart pans,  measure diameter (traditional seems to be about 2.75 inches, or 7 centimeters).  Either draw a template or find a cutter (I used a mug) with a 3 1/2 inch (9 cm) diameter. Working gently and trying not to stretch your dough, fit each dough disk into the individual tart tins.  Level-off the top with your fingers or a knife.  Gather scraps and roll-out again until you get 12 tart shells.  Put shells in fridge while you finish the custard.
  8. Whisk egg and yolks one at a time into cooled sugar syrup.  Whisk in milk and vanilla.  Strain custard mixture into a 2 cup measuring cup if you have it (easier to pour into tarts).
  9. Remove tarts from fridge.  Please on a baking sheet.  Fill each tart shell to about 90%.
  10. Bake in preheated oven for 24 minutes.  Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake for another 8 minutes, or until the centers don’t jiggle (mine needed a couple of extra minutes).
  11. Let cool for 10-15 minutes and tarts will easily slide right out of the tins.  Best enjoyed warm.  [note, while this is probably true, I found them to be incredibly satisfying right out of the fridge the next morning].

To reheat, pop into a preheated to 350 degree oven for about 7 minutes.

 

 

 

 

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