Saturday, October 17, 2009

Walking on the Wild Side

Baking on a Saturday is relaxing. Oh yeah? Try cooking this apple tart from Moulin de Mougins or these Portuguese custard tarts from Antiga Confeitaria de Belem at 300C in a domestic oven and you are walking on the wild side.

I woke up this morning, after a theatrical week, feeling like a little play in the kitchen. I was not intent on drama, just a little light hearted entertainment. For a curtain raiser I thought Portugese custard tarts and for the main act an apple tart to follow the scallop jiaozi with roe and Pernod sauce Mary demanded for dinner tonight. Well, as they say in the song, that was my first mistake.

The scrummy burnt pastry apple and Calvados tart and the beautiful black tinged custard tarts require about 300C to cook quickly and deeply dark. In the case of the tarts it is because the layered puff pastry takes about 20 minutes to cook normally and yet the custard filling will curdle after about 5. The secret therefore is flash cooking. The Moulin de Mougins apple tart on the other hand needs high heat to melt the sugar and the butter and caramelize the raw apples.

About the only way you can get 300C in a domestic kitchen oven is to crank it up to 250C or whatever your highest heat is and then bake on the very top shelf without the fan in order to get the hotspot you need.

There are other problems associated with the Portuguese pasteis de nata. When you get your oven up that high modern patty pans won't do because the non stick coating burns off at about 230C - 240C.

You really need Mums old pre non stick models if you are going to give these babies a whirl. I am fortunate to have a set of cast iron drop scone moulds which are perfect for an oven that is ticking like the cooling engine of a V12 Jag.

With the apple tart you can give the apples a blast with the fan grill for 3 - 4 minutes at about 200C if the pastry is going too dark and the apples are not cooking and going soft and dark at the same rate. You can give the tarts a spot of grill too if you want a bit more black on top but only for half a minute or so as the custard will granulate.

Now, as to basic method. The tarts require puff pastry and a trick I picked up from an Age article written some years ago by Duncan Markham is very effective. What you do is take a sheet of thawed puff pastry and fold it in thirds. Then press the edges down with a rolling pin and roll it out to lengthen the strip just slightly. Then roll the pastry strip up lengthways, tightly like a Swiss roll and cover with cling wrap and refrigerate for half an hour. Then cut the pastry roll in 1 cm discs and roll each one out slightly to the size needed to line your patty pan moulds. Your pastry will have a lovely layered effect.

For the custard filling take 22g of plain flour and 160g of sugar and sift into a bowl. Whisk 3 egg yolks and 1 whole egg in a jug and heat 300ml of milk in a saucepan with a couple of strips of lemon rind.

Bring the milk to the boil and remove the rind. Mix half the milk into the bowl of sugar and flour and mix thoroughly and then pour back into the balance of the milk in the saucepan. Then put a few few spoonfuls of the flour sugar and milk mix into the eggs and combine. The egg mix then goes back into the saucepan and the whole lot stirred over a low heat for a minute or so.

When you roll out your pastry and line your tart moulds it helps to cover and put the lot back in the fridge until you have made the custard filling and let it cool.

I then transfer the custard from the saucepan to a good pouring jug and take the pastry moulds out of the fridge and fill each case to about 1/2 a centimetre from the top.

Then the scary part starts. The oven is smoking, the baking tray is starting to warp and you inevitably burn your hands as you slide the tarts into the confined space of the top shelf, pushing them right to the back. They will take 6 to 10 minutes. Check them at 6. If they are golden brown and the custard ballooning and going black in spots then that will do. If you want a bit more black pop them under a grill. If the are pale then give them another 2 to 4 minutes in the oven.

Take 'em out, sprinkle them with icing sugar and cinnamon if desired and then try to wait long enough not to burn your mouth before devouring them in a single sitting with black tea or an expresso.

The apple tart is a cinch by comparison. Take a single sheet of puff pastry, cut into a circle and top with cored sliced apple in a Tower of Pisa shape. Then sprinkle with Calvados and smother in brown sugar and large dollops of good butter. Bake at maximum heat for 10 minutes and then turn down to 200C and cook for a further 20. After that cook with the grill element on for 2 minutes at a time while you lie on the floor in front of the oven door watching for the critical moment for as long as your nerve will hold.

Take out of the oven and sprinkle with vanilla icing sugar while still hot and serve with clotted cream. Forget the ice cream. After expending that much nervous energy you can afford to use the cream in large quantities!

Relaxing?... Oh yeah!


  1. I wanted to be there observing you lying on the floor waiting for that critical moment you grab the apple tart!
    I am SO hungry now. Great post Stephen.

  2. I am loving keeping up with your culinary experiments, experiences etc. Keep them coming. Wish I was there to taste most of them. Great job.
    Sue E

  3. V. Lovely very French apple tart Stephen! A small glass of Calvados, a fire, the smouldering embers of lively conversation & a slice of it would be the purr-fect end to a night-Lock it in Eddy!

  4. Thankyou very much. It wont be long now and I will have the water hooked up to my combustion stove and then after twenty years of an ovenless kitchen I will be in heaven.

  5. I'm hungry now. My contribution to the food world this weekend has been (pastry-less gluten free) quiche and potato and leek soup. Boring.


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