Before we go anything further I think it’s really important that we talk about custard. Described by Delia Smith as the “traditional English sauce”, custard is a mandatory item on dinner tables and dessert menus up and down the country.
Where I come from, custard is more than just a sauce. It’s a religion. We dream in custard. When we order a ‘pudding’ after dinner, it’s the custard we are really looking forward to; the pudding is just for show.
There were two custard camps when I was growing up. Those that bought ready-made and those revered few who practiced the art of homemade. My family falls mainly into the first camp, purchasing the bright red and blue boxes of Birds-Eye pre-made (not powdered, but the “real stuff” where half the fun is the “squelching” noises it makes while being squeezed out) or Marks & Spencer’s own with real vanilla for special occasions.
My grandma on my Dad’s side was the exception however, conjuring up a delicious home-made jug-full for almost every Sunday lunch. “She makes ‘er own” we would say, one eyebrow raised with pride and an almost mystical awe.
My lovely grandma passed away only a few weeks ago and I am determined to become a disciple of homemade custard in her memory. Now that Fall’s refreshing breeze is returning to NYC, the time certainly seems ripe to start my training.
This week, however, I felt that the weather was still just a little too warm for a bowl of steaming sponge and custard, and so I decided to make a dessert that was much loved in my household when I was growing up: a custard tart.
I felt that there was no one I could turn to for a lesson as fundamental as making a custard tart than dear Delia, and so it is her recipe that I have adapted below.
Adapted from a recipe by Delia Smith
First the pastry:
Sift 5oz plain flour with a pinch of salt into a large bowl. Add chilled cubes of 1 oz shortening (or lard if you can get it) and 1.5 oz butter. Gentle rub the fat into the flour, lifting the mixture up high all the time to give it a good airing. Then, sprinkle in about 1 tbsp ice cold water and bring the mixture together with a knife. Finish off with your hands.
Wrap the pastry in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 30 mins.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to gas mark 5, 375°F (190°C) and pop a baking sheet in to preheat on the center shelf.
Roll the pastry out into a circle on a surface lightly dusted with flour, giving it quarter turns to keep its round shape. The size should be 1 inch larger than the diameter of your tart tin.
Transfer the pastry to the tin. Fold the pastry over the rolling pin to do this in one piece (I failed miserably at this which is why my pastry case looks more like a patchwork quilt, but it was still quite delicious so no need to worry if you experience a similar disaster!). Take a sharp knife and trim the surrounding pastry, brush the whole surface with some beaten egg and prick the base of the tart with a fork.
Place the tart on the baking sheet in the oven on the center shelf and bake for 20 mins, until the pastry is crisp and golden. Check after 4 minutes to make sure the pastry isn’t rising up in the center. If it is, don’t worry, just prick again a few times with a fork and press it back down with your hands.
While the pastry is baking, take the time to grate 1 and 1/2 fresh whole nutmegs and soften 1 tsp butter.
Once the pastry case is out of the oven, adjust the temperature to gas mark 3, 325°F (170°C).
Now, the filling:
Now, place 1 pint (570 ml) single cream into a saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer. Break 3 eggs and 2 egg yolks into a heatproof jug and beat lightly. Add 2 oz (50g) caster sugar and mix with the eggs using a balloon whisk (I used a fork…). Try not to beat too vigorously as you don’t want lots of bubbles. Pour the hot cream over the beaten eggs and add 1 tsp vanilla extract and half the grated nutmeg. Whisk all the ingredients together again briefly.
Now, place the pie shell (still in the tin) back on the baking tray with the oven shelf half out and have ready the rest of the nutmeg on a plate or piece of foil.
Carefully pour the filling into the pastry case – it will be very full – and scatter the rest of the nutmeg all over, and dot with the 1 tsp softened butter. Bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes, until the filling is golden brown, firm in the center and slightly puffed up.
Serve either warm, or as Delia and I both prefer it, cold.