My folks are moving house this week, and are in the process of packing up 23 years of possessions and memories. A family can amass quite an inventory over that period of time, and one of the more interesting items to catch my eye was a Pillivuyt quiche dish - stamped with the date - 28.03.27. Even if that date is 1927, it was still quite a find.
To break this dusty baby in I decided to make a sweet tart. I was thinking along the lines of a classic English custard tart. A good custard tart is a thing of real simplicity and beauty, nice crisp short crust pastry encasing a wobbly and soft, melt-in-the-mouth baked custard. The original would normally be flavoured with a grating of nutmeg, but I opted for the sensational taste of vanilla beans. You could play around here and add grated orange or lemon zest, or perhaps a cinnamon quill to the custard. The other departure in this version comes with toffee. Some custard tarts, especially those not baked blind, can end up with a somewhat soggy base. Not at all appealing. This tart case in this version is covered with a thin layer of toffee before the custard is added, not only keeping the pastry crisp, but adding a wonderful crunchy toffee experience to the tart as well.
Don't let the long-winded method for this recipe put you off. I have simply been as detailed as possible if you happen to be a little scared off by pastry work. Although there are a few steps involved, the technique is fairly simple and even a kitchen neophyte should have little trouble ending up with sweet magic.
375 ml (1 1/2 cups) plain flour
90 gm (3 oz) unsalted butter, chilled
Ice cold water
50 gm (2 oz) caster sugar
4 free range eggs
500 ml (2 cups) cream, 35% butterfat¹
125 ml (1/2 cup) caster sugar
1 vanilla bean, or 1 tsp vanilla extract
¹ If you are worried about the fat content of the cream, use half milk and half cream - or substitute milk entirely.
Start with the pastry. Cut the butter into small cubes and place in a food processor along with the flour. Pulse for a few seconds to chop the butter up, and incorporate the butter into the flour. Do not over mix. With the motor running, add a small amount of iced water - say about 2 tablespoons - and allow the mixture to just form a ball. Add a tiny bit more water if necessary. Be careful not to add too much water, as this will steam the pastry as it cooks. Remove the pastry onto a workbench and gently press the mix together, then flatten it into a thin disc shape. Wrap in cling film and store in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. You can do this step up to 1 week in advance, or the pastry freezes well for up to two months.
Remove the pastry from the fridge 20 minutes before you are to roll it out. Select a fluted-edge tart/flan/quiche dish - preferably stainless steel with a removable base. A single piece dish will work, like my new Pillivuyt, but serving time will take a little longer. Unwrap the pastry and dust your workbench and rolling pin with plenty of flour. Place the pastry in the middle of the bench and using long, single motions, roll the pastry out to a circle roughly 35-40 cm in diameter. It should be roughly 2mm thick. Work swiftly and don't let the pastry become too warm. Roll the pastry up around your rolling pin and lift it onto the tart dish. Unroll the pastry gently, so it covers the entire dish. Gently lift up the edges and press the pastry down into the edge of the dish. Do not stretch the pastry, as this will cause it too shrink as it cooks. Cut away the excess pastry with a small knife so it is flush with the top of the dish. Place the pastry case into the fridge to rest for another 30 minutes. All this resting ensures that the pastry will shrink as little as possible during cooking.
While the pastry is resting, preheat your oven to 180 °C (360 °F). Remove the pastry shell from the fridge and prick the base thoroughly with a fork. Cover entirely with a round sheet of non-stick baking paper, and pour plenty of pastry weights on top - or just use dried beans or uncooked rice. This is to prevent the pastry rising during cooking. Place in into the pre-heated oven for 25 minutes. Remove the tart shell and turn the oven down to 150 °C (300 °F). Lift the non-stick paper and pastry weights from the tart and return the shell to the oven for an additional 10 - 15 minutes - just enough to colour the pastry slightly. Remove from the oven.
Place the 50 grams of caster sugar into a small saucepan and add 1 tablespoon of water. Stir well so the sugar and water are combined, but not dissolved. Place onto high heat and allow to bubble away. As the toffee cooks, brush the inside of the pot with a pastry brush so the crystallizing sugar on the sides don't burn. When the toffee is lightly golden, remove from the heat and pour half the toffee into the cooked tart case. Carefully pick up the tart and swirl the hot toffee around so the base is entirely covered with the thinnest possible coating. Add the remaining toffee if necessary to finish coating the base.
Cut the vanilla bean in half and scrape the seeds into a small saucepan. Add the cream and gently bring to the simmer. Combine the eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl and whisk until combined. When the cream has just come to the simmer, pour directly onto the egg mix and whisk well to combine. Strain the custard into a pouring jug.
Place the tart case onto a baking sheet and place into the (still 150 °C) oven. Pull out the oven rack and pour the custard mix into the tart case - filling it right up to the rim. Bake for 40 minutes. Test to see if the tart has set by gently tapping the sides. The centre should be a little wobbly, without any signs of being liquid. Cook for a little longer if necessary.
Allow the tart to fully cool before serving, so the toffee base has a chance to become crunchy again. Serve with a scoop of ice cream - preferably pistachio, and a glass of very sticky noble rot semillon.