There are two types of people in the world: those who love custard and those who don’t. The custard lovers are good people — decent, nurturing and kind. The others … well, enough said.
I like custard. I always have. In whatever form it comes, custard is the most palatable form of reassurance. There’s that sweet, silken liquid that mum poured over steamed jam pudding that said ‘you are home’ like nothing else. Or that slab of bouncy firmness held between sheets of puff pastry and topped with lurid pink icing. When the affectionately named ‘vanilla slice’ arrived in my school canteen lunch order, it was like a warm hug in the middle of the day.
Technically, of course, these are not true custard. In its pure form, custard is the combination of milk and eggs thickened over a gentle heat. Neither the sweetness of my mother’s sauce nor the firm inner glory of my vanilla slice ever saw the trace of an egg. They are both the product of custard powder — a 19th century concoction of cornflour and sugar, coloured and flavoured, and added to hot milk. This British ‘wonder powder’ was invented by Alfred Bird, a self-described experimental chemist from Birmingham, inspired to find a compromise between his own partiality to custard and his wife’s intolerance of eggs.
Returning to custard’s beginnings, this egg-and-milk formulation began in the Middle Ages as a binder for various ingredients, mostly savoury, in flans or tarts. Think the French quiche Lorraine or the Kiwi egg-and-bacon pie. Indeed, the word custard comes from ‘crustade’ meaning a tart with a crust.
All of this confirms my conviction that custard is made for the tart. And the tart for custard. With no disrespect to my dear mum, custard is its best where pastry is involved and eggs are plentiful. Oh, and sugar too. Plenty of sugar.
So, for the sweet-natured lovers of the world, here’s my tried and true recipe for a luscious custard tart. Its eggy, vanillary and creamy — all that custard is meant to be — and held in a case of crispy, buttery goodness.
HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED
For the pastry
- 150g butter, chilled and diced
- 250g plain flour
- Fine zest of 1 lemon
- 1/4 teaspoon of salt
- 100g raw castor sugar
- I egg, lightly whisked
- 1 tablespoon of milk
For the custard
- 250ml double cream
- 250ml milk
- I vanilla pod, split
- 1 strip of lemon zest
- Whole nutmeg
- 8 egg yolks
- 100g raw castor sugar
HERE’S WHAT YOU DO
To make the pastry
- Combine the flour, salt and lemon zest in a large bowl.
- Add in the butter, working it in with your finger tips until you have a breadcrumb consistency.
- Add the sugar, egg and milk and bring it all together with your hands until it forms a dough. No need to over work it at this stage. The more you do, the shorter the pastry will become and the harder to handle.
- Place the ball of dough in the fridge for half an hour.
- Roll the dough out into a large enough round to line a 20cm tart tin (one of those with a removable base is best) with the pastry overhanging the edges just a little. Again, chill the tart case for 30 mins.
- While you wait, preheat the oven to 160C.
- Line the inside of the tart case with baking paper and fill with rice, beans or pastry weights, whichever you have on hand, and bake for 20 mins.
- Remove the pastry weights and paper and bake for a further 20 minutes until the pastry is a golden brown and biscuity.
- Remove the pastry case from the oven and lower the temperature to 120C.
To make the custard
- Combine the cream, milk, vanilla pod, lemon zest and a small grating of nutmeg in a saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer.
- Beat the egg yolks and sugar by hand until pale.
- Pour the hot milk and cream over the egg mixture, whisking as you go.
- Strain the custard into a jug and allow it to settle for a few minutes. Skim off any froth that forms at the top.
- Carefully pour the custard into the tart case and grate some more nutmeg over the top.
- Place the tart in the oven (go gently) and bake for approximately 40 minutes or until the custard has set with just the slightest wobble in the middle.
- Remove the tart from the oven and let it cool completely.
If the mood strikes you, you can serve the tart with some gently poached fruit … whatever’s in season. But the whole point is the custard, so really, just skip the fruit and go direct to heaven.