Portuguese custard tarts are not my friend. I don’t mean I don’t like Portuguese custard tarts; they don’t like me. Or at least they don’t cooperate when I try to make them, which in my book is pretty much the same thing as not liking me. Even if you are unfamiliar with them, you may have deduced that Portuguese custard tarts are tarts filled with custard. This is essentially true, but is an entirely inadequate description. Portuguese custard tarts are disks of puff pastry filled with vanilla custard the consistency of the lemon part of a lemon meringue pie with burnt bits on top that sound like they should ruin the experience but instead are a strangely perfect counterpoint to the sweetness of the tart.
Just to make sure there are no misunderstandings here, I am not a person who normally scarfs down tarts of any description with wild abandon nor am I an aficionado of dessert in general. What I am is a person who enjoys a culinary challenge as long as I can co-opt willing taste testers. And in the case of Portuguese custard tarts, the line stretches around the block and back.
So, a few weeks ago in the Pursuits section of the Saturday Globe and Mail there was a whole page devoted to Portuguese custard tarts. The bulk of the article was a story about the mystique and quiet perfection of the Portuguese custard tart, the long quest of the writer (a chef) to successfully replicate a bakery-boughten tart at home, and the final triumph of nailing it. In a sidebar that fills the entire right-hand column of the page is the recipe she devised. The list of ingredients is simplicity itself: sugar, cinnamon, egg yolks, vanilla, milk. Hence, the list of ingredients takes two inches of the fifteen column-inches. The other thirteen inches hold the instructions.
To be fair, the recipe does not quibble with using frozen puff pastry (thawed, of course) and I think the technique suggested for creating the tart shells is genius: just roll up the pastry into a log, cut pieces off at half-inch intervals, and then roll each piecelet out. It starts out roundish, which makes it easy to create an appropriately roundish four-inch diameter disk. At this point I’m (literally) rockin’ and rollin’, and apparently acing the whole custard tart thing.
Next, I’m told to prepare a simple syrup with water, sugar and a cinnamon stick. Of course, I do not have a cinnamon stick, nor do I know anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who would ever be in possession of a cinnamon stick and I’m also at the cottage so I will proceed stick-free. But I do have ground cinnamon. Oh wait, I don’t. I’ll put it on the list. But I do have allspice. Good enough. I proceed to dissolve the sugar in some water with my cinnamon substitute. Easy peasy.
Now on to step three: the custard. “Whisk five egg yolks, add warm milk and the simple syrup, then stir constantly until the consistency of heavy cream,” says the recipe. I stir and stir and stir and stir for far more than the promised four minutes but eventually the custard complies. Three for three. Then the custard goes into the tart shells and into the 500-degree oven (I wasn’t even sure my oven went that high but it does – who knew?) for ten minutes until the custard is brown.
When the timer goes off, I open the oven and brave the blast-furnace to retrieve the tarts. The custard is not brown but the top of the pastry is black. Not irredeemably black, but way far from brownish. The next step is to broil them for three to five minutes until the top of the custard is caramelized and blackened in spots. You will be pleased to know I’m not that dumb. I did not stir proto-custard for fifteen minutes in order to blindly follow instructions to render my tarts even more inedible than they currently are.
There is of course a moral to this story, or as we say in professional services biz, key takeaways. First, do not assume that when you are luxuriating with your feet in the sand by the shore you will not be pulled out into a riptide by a rogue wave. Second, just because someone else says they have done something successfully doesn’t mean their method will also work for you because it is impossible to recreate anything exactly. The moon will be in a different house, Jupiter will not be aligned with Mars, the mojo will not be working. Third, just buy the bloody Portuguese tarts.