For my first personal baking endeavor, I dove right into the deep end with Paul Hollywood’s classic British Egg Custard Tarts, the technical challenge in season 3 of “The Great British Baking Show.” Why? Well, I was pretty confident about the pastry part, since I have a reputation for turning out perfect pie crusts thanks to a recipe I inherited from a friend’s grandmother. (Though there was the Thanksgiving I hurled an uncoooperative and crumbling ball of dough across the kitchen–the last time I’ll ever try adding whole wheat flour to the recipe…)
As well, whenever I “rub in” cubes of shortening with the flour, I hear the soft, faintly-Scots-inflected voice of our teacher talking us through the process–my family lived a year in England when I was a pre-teen, and I had a double period of Cookery each week. Every Thursday, I’d trot off, wicker basket over one blue-blazered arm to the bus stop to catch the red double-decker that took us to Bramcote Hill Grammar School. I’d return home at tea time bearing some treat for the family: scones, rock cakes, lemon curd, and kedgeree, which is a kind of casserole made with fish and boiled egg that I’ve happily never encountered since.
What I didn’t realize is there’s a big difference between making one pie crust and twelve little tart shells. What I also didn’t anticipate is that it’s one thing to try a new recipe that has one new technique. It’s something else entirely to try a recipe that has a whole bunch of them.
Plus I didn’t actually even have the full recipe, since the measurements were all in British and had to be converted. I also didn’t have most of the equipment you’d ideally use.
Well, Google took care of the conversions for me, and I discovered that a plain old blender is just fine for grinding raw almonds–though did you know that if you grind for too long, you risk turning them into almond butter?
The crust itself turned out to be not all that hard to put together, despite the use of almond meal to the usual flour/fat. It was just a little stiffer and more crumbly than plain pastry. I was careful to let it rest, as I’d seen on the show,
and meanwhile turned my attention to preparing the tart pan.
What should have been a tart pan. All I had was a silicone muffin tin. But I figured it would work, especially since I planned to use a tip I’d learned from the show: criss-cross strips of parchment paper beneath the raw crusts so I could easily lift them out. This was a whole lot harder than it sounds: those little strips of paper didn’t want to stay put and kept popping and slipping out. But eventually I forced them more or less into place.
Time to cut out the shells but–no tart cutter. I improvised by free-hand-cutting circles a bit larger than an old jar lid. They weren’t pretty, and even less so by the time I’d poked them into place–none of the elegant crimping I usually do with pies–but–they were ready to blind-bake.
The recipe doesn’t actually call for it, but everything I’d read talked about pre-baking pastry for eggy mixtures.
I knew the show’s bakers weighted down their empty crusts, so I carefully poured dried garbanzo beans into each one. A few minutes in the oven, and–another unknown skill. How do you get those beans OUT of the shells? They never showed that part on the show. Now obviously, I should have Googled for how-to, but by then I was too irritated by the amount of time all these new steps were taking to bother. I tried lifting those things out with my fingers. Nope, too slippery to grab more than a couple at a time. I tried a spoon: ditto. I tried carefully tipping the muffin tin up, but only a few beans tumbled out and all the shells threatened to. I finally resorted to lifting each shell carefully up (thank goodness for those parchment strips) and c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y dumping out the beans. I only broke one shell, but since it wasn’t fully baked, was able to kind of squeeze it back together into a facsimile of what it had been.
About then was when I was tempted to hurl the whole project across the kitchen and to heck with it. But, like that long-ago Thanksgiving pie disaster, I knew who would have to clean up the mess.
Thankfully, the custard itself was easy to stir up, and I was proud of myself for figuring out on my own to pour the warmed milk extremely slowly into the egg mixture so it wouldn’t curdle.
The finished tarts weren’t at all beautiful, but they tasted great. The custard had just the right sweetness, with a delicate hint of the nutmeg sprinkled on top. Which is good, because the recipe made a lot more custard than it did crust.
And no soggy bottoms!
Now I know what I’m doing, kind of, I’m going to make these things again. Maybe. Though it’s tempting to think of making just one single large tart…. And next bake, I’m going to choose a recipe with only a single new technique.
These are the American measurements I came up with:
- For the sweet pastry
- 165g/5¾oz plain flour=1/1/3 cup
- 25g/1oz ground almonds=5.3 TBS
- 120g/4¼oz chilled unsalted butter, cubed= 1/2stick
- 55g/2oz caster sugar=4.5 TBS plain granulated sugar (which I blender-ground VERY slightly to make it finer. Beware: grind too long, and you’ll get confectioner’s sugar.
- 1 free-range egg
- For the custard filling
- 700ml/1¼ pint full-fat milk=2 1/2 cup
- 7 free-range egg yolks
- 90g/3¼oz caster sugar=1/2 cup
- freshly ground nutmeg
And no, I’m not including the actual recipe because it’s not mine. I refer you to the PBS Food page (clink link).
May your tarts hold together, your kitchen hold the right equipment, and your soul a whole lot more patience!