Egg custard tarts are desserts that are popular in a number of different cultures and, while all are similar, none are quite alike. Pastal de nata, the Portuguese custard tarts, are usually cooked so that the top of the tart browns and begins to caramelize. Dan tats, Chinese egg custard tarts, have a unique flakey pastry crust and a richly eggy center. The first tarts are relatively common, while the dan tats are found at some Chinese bakeries and dim sum places.
I like all incarnations of egg custard tarts (especially some a friend once delivered to me from an unnamed bakery in San Francisco’s Chinatown). The basic tart is very simply and just needs a pastry crust and a good custard filling. The tarts should be small – no bigger than two or three inches across – and stable enough that you can pick them up and eat them out of hand. This gives them great snackability, and makes them a low maintenance treat that is easy to share over coffee.
I chose not to use a traditional pie crust dough for these my, largely because I planned to make my tarts in muffin pans and felt it would be easier to hand-shape the crusts. So, I made a slightly crumbly tart dough that could simply be pressed into my baking pans. Pressing the dough by hand gave me a lot of control over the shape and thickness of the tarts. I filled up 10 muffin cups (you could do 12 slightly smaller, if you prefer) about 2/3 – 3/4 full. You can use small tart pans, if you have them, but a muffin tin really works great for these tarts. The dough is very easy to handle and very pliable when it warms slightly under your fingers.
My custard was made with milk and egg yolks, as well as a bit of sugar. The yolks gave the tarts a wonderful yellow color and ensured that the custard was very, very tender and incredibly silky. The filling contrasted beautifully with the slightly crisp crust. The flavor of the custard was classic, just hints of milk and egg, but this is a filling that could easily be flavored with vanilla, citrus or a little spice for a little variety.
Egg Custard Tarts
1 3/4 cup all purpose flour
3 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter, chilled
1 large egg
1/2 cup sugar
4 large egg yolks
2/3 cup milk (low fat is ok)
Preheat oven to 350F.
Make the crust. In a food processor, combine flour, sugar and salt and pulse to combine. Pulse in butter until mixture is crumbly, then blend in the egg until the dough comes together like very wet sand. Dough may be slightly crumbly still, which is ok. Pour into a ziplock bag, press dough into a ball, seal the bag and refrigerate for about 15 minutes.
To make the filling, whisk together sugar and egg yolks by hand until sugar is mostly dissolved, trying not to make the mixture light or foamy. Whisk in milk. Strain mixture into a measuring cup (or other bowl that is easy to pour from).
Divide the slightly chilled dough into 10 equal measures and press each one evenly into a muffin cup to form small tart shells. Press pastry until it comes about 2/3 of the way up the side of the muffin cup. Flatten the top edge of the crusts a bit with your finger to help prevent the filling from running out. Pour the filling into the tart shells, filling them to the top but not overfilling (if there is a bit of leftover filling, just discard it).
Bake for 20-25 minutes, until tarts are set but still slightly jiggly in the center when the pan is shifted.
Cool for about 30 minutes in the pan, then gently lift tarts out using a butter knife and place on a wire rack to finish cooling completely.
Makes 10 tarts.