Confession time...I don't have a sweet tooth.
Cakes? In general I can take them or leave them. Puddings? Well I'd rather have a starter, a main course, and well, another starter to finish which literally makes no sense at all. Sweets? Meh! Chocolate? Bleurgh!
I spend all day surrounded by women (it's my job) and cake (part of the job) yet I am never tempted to lay my hands on either (while on the job). This is probably a good thing, in that I value my job and also my waistline which over the past 20 years has barely changed (30 inch in case you are wondering).
Of course there are exceptions. My dessert resolve does crumble if faced with a Sticky Toffee Pudding. I have been known to suck on a Werthers Original or chew on something fluorescent and gelatine filled from a jumbo packet bought at a motorway service station on a particularly tedious car journey. A custard tart? well it would be rude not to. Certain custard tarts that is.
The thing is, not all egg custard tarts are created equal. Variations from different countries claim to be the best, with the Portuguese Pasteis de Nata, the Chinese Dan Tart, and the English Egg Custard and Nutmeg Tart amongst the better known. I was fortunate to be brought up on Dan Tart having been introduced to them whenever my family went for Dim Sum in Birmingham. From a very early age they set the standard for what a custard tart should be, to the point where my Mum would sometimes come home from Sainsburys with some English ones which were less sweet, with heavier pastry and the tops sprinkled with nutmeg (YUK!), and I simply couldn't eat them. From that moment on English custard tarts were nothing to me.
Chinese custard tarts, with their feather-light layered pastry and sweet golden filling should definitely be on the list of 100 foods to eat before you die. My own daughter has probably had 100 of them before she reached 5. To her they are just yellow cakes you get with Dim Sum, but I will be sure to never give her the disappointment of an English custard tart now she has 'gone Asian', at least while she is still of an impressionable age.
There are differing opinions on the origins of the Chinese dan tart with some sources claiming they were developed after the Portuguese introduced their Pasteis de Nata to Macau, whilst others claim the recipe developed following the introduction of the English version during the British colonisation of Hong Kong. To me, they definitely have more in common with the Pasteis de Nata as they both share a crumbly layered pastry. The problem is they are much harder to make at home, such is the complexity of the pastry. Puff pastry just doesn't cut it with a Dan Tart, although it works fine for Pasteis de Nata.
For my own little tarts, I decided to turn the classic combination of rhubarb and custardinto a Portuguese style tart. The rhubarb syrup that runs through the custard gives a hint of sharpness to the eggy filling and a small piece of pink rhubarb is a much more elegant topping than a sprinkle of nutmeg.
Rhubarb and Custard Tarts
For the rhubarb (this will give extra rhubarb to be used for other dishes, such as my Rhubarb Cranachan)
8-10 thin stems of rhubarb, cut into 4cm pieces
200g caster sugar
Juice of 1 orange
1 vanilla pod, seeded
For the custard
3 tbsp plain flour
120g caster sugar
300ml full fat milk
6 large egg yolks, beaten
Extra water to top up syrup
For the tarts
500g puff pastry
Icing sugar to serve
First cook the rhubarb. Turn the oven on to 130°C Fan. Place the cut stems in a large baking dish, sprinkle over the sugar, the vanilla seeds and the orange juice and throw in the vanilla pod too. Mix well with your hands then arrange the pieces so they are nicely spaced in the dish. For those with mild OCD, arranging them in a formation like a cohort of marching soldiers may give you even greater satisfaction. Spacing them will make the rhubarb easier to remove from the pan as it will be fragile when cooked. Cover with foil and bake for about half an hour. Remove from the oven and take off the foil. The pieces should be tender when pierced with a fork, but not turning to mush. Allow to cool slightly. Line a tray with a sheet of baking parchment and transfer the pieces of rhubarb carefully to the tray, allowing as much of the syrup to stay in the rhubarb pan as you can. Reserve the rhubarb pieces and syrup separately for later.
Take the puff pastry block and roll out into a rectangle about 30 cm long. Roll the pastry into a tight log, folding in along the longest edge. Judging how much pastry you will need for each tart is tricky so cut a 1.5 cm test piece off the end of the log and lay it flat on a work surface. With a rolling pin, flatten it out to about 3mm thickness, retaining a circular shape. Take a 12 cup muffin tin and place the centre of the pastry circle in the bottom of one of the cups and press the edges into the sides of the cup, pressing out any folds as you go. The pastry should peek out of the top of the cup by about 3mm. Repeat with the remaining pastry, judging the amount you cut off the log for each tart by how well the first one went. Chill the pastry in the fridge while you make the custard.
Pour the rhubarb syrup into a measuring jug. You will need 160ml of syrup. If you need to top up with water then do so now. Place in a small saucepan and add the remaining caster sugar. Warm gently and allow the sugar to dissolve over a low heat.
To make the custard, place the flour in small bowl and add 4 tablespoons of the milk. Whisk to combine. Scald the remaining milk in a small pan and when you start to see bubbles appear around the edge of the milk, pour it into the flour and milk paste, whisking as you go to remove any lumps. Heat the rhubarb syrup until it bubbles strongly and then pour into the milk mixture, whisking again to combine. Allow to cool slightly before you add the egg yolks. If the mixture is too hot you will immediately cook the egg. Pass the yolks through a sieve into the mixture and stir to combine. Allow the custard to cool slightly.
Turn the oven up to 240°C
Remove the muffin tin from the fridge, pour in the custard to about three quarters full and bake in the oven for 8 minutes until the pastry is golden and the custard is starting to brown. If they are still a bit wobbly, cook them for a few more minutes. Remove and allow to cool in the tray slightly before transferring the tarts to a wire rack to cool. Top with a piece of reservedrhubarb and dust with icing sugar.
Warning: This is a dessert with no real nutritional value. Fine to eat every now and again, but don't eat too many!