Sunday, January 29, 2006

Custard Tarts

My inspiration for this round of baking came from a trip to Portugal. I was lucky enough to spend five days in Lisbon over Christmas. One of the food highlights was getting my teeth into Portugal's pasteis de nata, something I had long anticipated! Pasteis de nata are sweet, creamy, cinnamon dusted custard tarts in flakey pastry cases. They are extremely delicious (as you may well imagine), and went down a treat when taken with a cup of bica (espresso strength coffee).

Click here for a link to the website of the famous bakery in Belem, Lisbon, who claim to still produce their custard tarts according to the original ancient recipe (first produced in the nearby Jeronimos monastery).

Many Portuguese pastries and sweets are based on the ingredients sugar and eggs, and some contain only these. The Moors were responsible for bringing sugar cane to Portugal (to keep them sweet whilst in occupation for 500 years). The nuns of post-Moorish Portugal are credited for blending sugar with egg yolks aplenty, and thereby inventing the myriad of golden doces conventvais (conventual sweets). Why so? Well, convents tended to be pretty well-off. They took the excess daughters of the wealthy (cheaper than marrying them off), and these women brought 'dowries' with them to the convent which included plenty of chickens. Lots of chicken = lots of eggs. The egg whites were possibly used either for clarifying wines, or for starching habits. The yolks were used up by making delicious sweets which were sold to raise further funds for the convent. For these nuns life was sweet.

As befits a country with many traditional foods based on eggs, milk and cream, custard tarts are a fixture of nearly all British cake shops and bakeries (sometimes very good, and sometimes a crime in the name of custard). Inspired by the scrumptiousness of Portuguese tarts I thought I would look into our own British version, and treat myself to a home-made tart or two.

Custard tarts have a long history in Britain, and were served at the Medieval table where they were know as doucets or darioles. Henry IV had a doucet at his coronation banquet in 1399. Doucets could include meat ingredients such as pork mince or beef marrow, but they were always filled with a sweet custard. The Medieval cook may have used almond milk instead of cow's milk. Almond milk was a rather expensive alternative, but suited the wealthy whom consumed it on 'fast' days, when rich dairy products were not permitted. Almond milk was an infusion of blanched, ground almonds and either syrup, water, or water and wine. There is a recipe for doucet in Jane Grigson's English Food

Incidentally the name 'custard' reveals something of its special relationship with pastry. The word is derived from both the old French for crust (crouste), and the Anglo-Norman 'crustarde', which meant a tart or pie with a crust. The egg and milk binding used for many a tart became interlinked with these words.

Traditional Foods of Britain, assigns East Anglia as the main region associated with the production of custard tarts. Laura Mason has linked a number of rich custard recipes with the Cambridge and Norfolk areas. A relative of the custard tart, Cambridge Burnt Cream (now more commonly know by the French name of Creme Brulee), is supposed to have originated at one of Cambridge's academic institutions. Lucky students. No wonder some of them take such a long time to graduate.

Other British sweets such as bread and butter pudding, also owe a debt to custard. What is bread and butter pudding but slices of bread baked in custard? Where would a trifle be without a layer of creamy cold custard? And let's not forget the joy of pouring warm custard over a slice of sweet and sharp apple pie?

I decided to try a Medieval(ish) recipe. I purchased from Oxfam one week after Christmas a pristine copy of Maggie Black's Medieval Cookbook - which just goes to show that if you give your unwanted Christmas presents to charity, they do end up with someone who wants them. I say Medieval-ish because tarts and pies at this time were generally baked in pastry coffins/cofyns/coffyns, which were hand-built pastry cases and free of a supporting metal tin. Ivor Day's amazing historic food site shows a good example of custard tarts in coffins, and other free-form pie cases. I was a bit concerned about combining free-flowing custard with a not very well formed free-form tart case, so I decided to stick to my new-fangled tart tins.

(Ingredients are approximately 2/3 of the quantities given in the book, as I wanted to make small individual tarts, not one large one. I have adapted the method for preparing small tarts.)

pinch of saffron strands ground in mortar, then soaked in 1 1/2 tablespoons of warm water
4 egg yolks
235ml double cream
85ml milk
45g white sugar
pinch salt
sweet shortcrust pastry

1. Pre-heat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas mark 6.
2. Roll out pastry and use to line small tins. I did a variety of sizes but all roughly 3-4 inches wide.
3. Prick, fill with baking beans and pop into oven for about 15 minutes to bake 'blind'. Keep an eye on so that the pastry doesn't colour and burn.
4. In the meantime mix up your custard. This recipe doesn't call for you to heat the custard whilst you mix it, all ingredients are whisked together cold. First beat the eggs yolks lightly, then add the cream, milk, sugar, saffron water and salt. Simple.
5. Take tart cases out of oven, tip/pick the baking beans out. Turn the oven down to 160C/325F/Gas mark 3.
6. Pour custard into tart cases and return to oven. I let mine bake for 25 minutes. You want the custard to be just set as it will continue to cook after the tart is removed from the oven.

When the tarts first came out of the oven they were a frightening sight. The custard mixture was quite frothy when it went into the cases, and the hot custard puffed up in the oven. Fortunately as the tarts cooled the custard settled, leaving a ripple effect and some attractive bubbles.

Thanks to the saffron and the yolks the custard was a beautifully cheerful golden-yellow colour.

Although the custard formed a fairly shallow layer in the tartlet case, and the custard was not as sweet as the Portuguese tarts, blimey, were these boys rich! As a treat with a cup of strong (bitter) coffee one tart was a delicious morsel. As part of a four-course Medieval banquet, well, I may have had to pass on the boar's head to keep room for a slice of doucet.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Chocolate Encore

Yesterday was very pleasurably spent working my way through my EBBP box of chocolate goodies. As an aside I would also like to mention the Choco-Mocca liqueur I made from Johanna's recipe, which I took to my brother and sister-in-law's yesterday evening. This went down a treat, and made a nice change from taking a bottle of wine, plus it looks far more impressive ;-). When taking a photo of the bottle I very almost forgot that I was intending to give it away, and had to stop myself pouring a large glass (for illustrative purposes...).

British baking recommences next weekend.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

EBBP3 - Comforting Food Parcels

This was my first time participating in Euro Blogging By Post, organised on this occasion by Johanna of Passionate Cook. Thank you Johanna! The theme set by Johanna was 'comfort'. Perfect for curing those post-Christmas, New Year back-to-work blues. I enjoying putting a parcel together to send to Dagmar in Sweden, and once this was posted off I couldn't wait to see what the postman might bring to me.

And what a box he brought... A sunny yellow parcel from Nicky of Delicious:Days in Munich, Germany, packed to the hilt with wonderful things. Nicky had designed a special 'Foodblogging by Mail' label to go on the front of her box, so I knew before I opened the package that this was from someone with an eye for detail.

First out of the box were a cute little jar of sunflower honey, and a bar of chocolate from Dallmayr. Dallmayr, Nicky wrote, is a very famous and very traditional Munich food shop.

Next, calling out for my attention, was a bag of beautifully colourful pasta - coloured with natural colourings like beetroot. I have not seen pasta like this before. I look forward to turning it into a very cheerful looking dish. In the meantime I will open my cupboard every now and then to take a peek at it, as it is very cheering just to gaze upon.

Then, another bar of chocolate - Dolfin dark chocolate with grilled almonds. Mmm. Sounds good, and a nice looking wrapper too.

A little bag contained homemade Mozartkugeln sweets, made by Nicky herself. She blogged about them on her site, and includes the recipe. They are chocolate marzipan truffles (I LOVE marzipan), and I can highly recommend them!!. How fantastic to be sent handmade truffles all the way from Germany. Note also the felt coaster in the photo below. Nicky sent me a set of four - perfect for placing a mug of hot chocolate on.

Next out was a packet of tea - a blend of two of the finest - Earl Grey and Darjeeling. Again, this was in a lovely little bag, very traditional looking, with a handwritten label. To accompany the tea, Nicky sent four sugar stirrers - how beautiful these are. Who needs diamonds? - these are pretty, twinkly, and you can eat them!!

Then, for perfect accompaniment to the Mozartkugeln, or a square or two from the chocolate bars, a packet of PROPER hot chocolate. Great pink packet with a costumed lady. This hot chocolate is delicious. I made mine up with milk, no need to sweeten. It was creamy and extremely soothing. I had got the idea by now that Nicky was quite a chocolate fan, and saw chocolate as a comforting treat. Well, how right she is. It works for me each time.

See how perfect this arrangement looks. Mug of hot chocolate to hand. Choice of truffle or cube of chocolate - or indeed both...

At the bottom of my box was a little silver oil spout for adding to an oil or vinegar bottle. Actually, I put this straight to use on a vinegar bottle which I seem to be incapable of pouring in a controlled manner. Also hiding away under all the larger items were some caramels made with salt butter.

So who could not fail to be comforted after receiving such a lovely selection of foods and drinks? Thank you so much Nicky for your choices and your thoughtfulness. I look forward to trying out the Jamie Oliver pasta recipe that you recommend. Opening this box was better than Christmas. It was very touching that someone I had never met had gone to so much trouble to find me nice things and to send a parcel across many of hundreds of miles. So lots of best wishes and thanks are winging their way from me to Munich, and will continue to do so as I continue to enjoy my EBBP bounty!

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Scottish Black Bun - Happy New Year!

I have never participated in Hogmanay, which is the name given to Scottish New Year celebrations, and which has its own traditions and customs. This year with my baking I am doing so, and hopefully by allowing my Black Bun into your home (only electronically unfortunately), I will bring you good fortune for the New Year.

Hogmanay customs are believed to have been brought to Scotland by Viking invaders. Coming from a more northerly latitude, and keen to mark the end of the darkest period of the year, the Norse people would celebrate the Winter Solstice (also known as Yule). The shortest day is the 21st of December, but over time the Winter Solstice and year-end festivities became united.

Everyone celebrates the start of the New Year, but the Scottish do go in for Hogmanay in a big way. Part of the reason for this is no doubt down to the fact that for 400 years Christmas festivities were banned as Popish nonsense, and therefore the Scottish had to channel all their partying into the (Pagan) end of year event instead.

Ideally your Hogmanay should go like this*. You are at home at midnight listening to the chimes of the clock, and after the final stroke of twelve the doorbell rings. When you open the front door there in the doorway is a tall, dark male stranger. I would settle for Pierce Brosnan, although he is a little grey these days, but I would still be pretty pleased to see him standing there. The dark man should be bearing symbolic gifts. This midnight visit is known as ‘first footing’, and if the ‘first foot’ across the threshold is of a dark male, this will bring the home good luck. I read that this is because if back in the 8th century you opened the day to a tall blonde guy, it may well mean that the Vikings were here for your wife and daughter. Not so lucky. Also not so welcome were the flat-footed, cross-eyed, women and redheads. I fall into both the last two categories, but, you’ll be pleased to know, neither of the former! I hope my electronic first footing will only bring you only good luck.

* That is, if you are not dancing the streets of Edinburgh, carousing with other revellers, singing the few lines of Auld Lang Syne that you are reasonably sure you remember and la-la-ing the rest.

The gifts proffered by first footers should be: a lump of coal - to represent warmth throughout the year (and the resources to buy fuel); cake (or shortbread)– for a year of plenty; and whisky – to induce year-long jollity. Black Bun is a suitable cake to receive (or offer). Black Bun is now widely served as part of the Hogmanay rituals (although Laura Mason writes in ‘Traditional Foods of Britain’ that Black Bun may originally have been produced for export to the south – i.e. England), and is representative of the wish for a year with plenty of food to eat.

So what is a Black Bun? Not what you might expect. The 'bun' is a fruit-dense cake, enriched with spices and molasses (hence the 'black"), and the whole is encased is a shortcrust pastry case. Sounds quite a heavy treat. Robert Louis Stevenson clearly thought so, as he wrote in his 1879 notes on Edinburgh life, that 'Scottish bun is a dense, black substance, inimical to life'. I have to admit that I have not previously come across a recipe quite like this, so I was intrigued to see how it would turn out.

For the cake:
200g plain flour
200g raisins
400g currants
1 tsp ground mixed spice
1 tsp ground ginger
75g dark muscovado sugar
25g molasses sugar
100g chopped mixed peel
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tbsp brandy or whisky
1 egg, lightly beaten
3 tbsp milk

For the pastry:
200g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
50g butter, chilled and cubed
50g vegetable shortening or lard, chilled and cubed

1. First make up the pastry. Put the flour, baking powder and a pinch of salt into a bowl. Add the butter and shortening and rub in until it resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in 4 tablespoons of cold water and mix to form a soft dough. Cover and leave in fridge for half an hour.
2. Preheat oven to 180C/Gas mark 4.
3. Mix all the cake ingredients together in a large bowl, and add just enough milk to moisten the mixture (it will still look pretty dry).
4. Roll out the pastry and use three-quarters of it to line the base and sides of a 900g loaf tin. Use a single piece which is large enough to drape into tin, then press and smooth out the pastry to fit.
5. Fill with the cake mixture. You need to press it down to fit it all in.
6. Dampen the edge of the pastry at the sides of the tin, and then use the remaining pastry to form a lid. Press the edges of the pastry firmly together and trim off excess pastry.
7. Bake for 2 hours, and then allow to cool in tin for 1 hour.

My recipe came from the January 2006 issue of Delicious Magazine. I found plenty of other recipes on the internet (all slightly different), but I liked the fact that the recipe in the magazine had come from someone's mum. A sure proof of success, as this must be a tried and tested family recipe. I followed the recipe pretty carefully, only substituting chopped crystallised ginger for the peel, and a couple of tablespoons of liquid molasses for the molasses sugar (none to be found locally). I also poured a little extra whisky over the top of the fruit mix, prior to popping on the 'lid'. I made sure that I rolled out the pastry nice and thin as I suspected a thick pastry crust might be a bit much. This meant I had a little pastry left over, so I decorated the top of my bun with a Scottish thistle motif. When my bun baked the top cracked a little as the cake swelled inside the pastry crust, so the thistle did a secondary job of distracting the eye from the crack. Well, I'd like to think so anyway.

I made the cake the weekend before Christmas, to allow time for maturing.

I thought my bun was quite a handsome fellow. Although heavy, he was not too hefty, and not suitably weighty for pitching at blonde cross-eyed strangers, should they come a-calling.

Sliced into my handsome golden bun revealed a darkly delicious interior. The moist fruitiness contrasted nicely with the pale flakey shell.

The cake was pleasingly moist thanks to the whisky, and it had a certain dense chewiness to it (in a good way). The addition of crystallised ginger worked well with the spices to give a kick to the dried fruits. It was not a cake you'd need a second slice of, but it was no way as stodgy as I had feared. However, if you were combining it with a dram or three of whisky, it would do a fine job of soaking up the booze.

Happy New Year!!