My mom is a terrible baker. I mean, I love her and she does do a lot of other things well, but baking was just not one of them. This little fact does not stop her from trying though. Oh, the injustices to baking we had to endure as kids. Mostly they were the Chinese buns (barbecued pork, coconut, red bean paste, etc.) that would not rise, and would turn rock hard when baked. And forget about eating them the day after; my dad would jest, “you could throw them to China and they wouldn’t break…” Then there were the egg tarts with the hard and dense pastry. That mattered very little because as a kid I would eat everything. Growing up in Halifax there was small Chinese population and if you wanted good, authentic Chinese fare, you pretty much had to make it yourself. This is still something I practice today; I am on a quest to be able to make everything for myself and be able to do it well.
In my latest post on sweetsourbitterspicy, I struggle with making a perfectly flaky, buttery pastry crust; something that has alluded my mom to this day. It was also something that I have always regarded as difficult and forbidding. Naturally it was something I had to confront sooner or later. I went on to use this crust to make a quiche Lorraine. This is classified as a flaky/mealy crust. I was happy with the final product but there is always room for improvement. In the past month I have made many batches of pastry with mixed results. I have never spent this much money on butter in a month. Poaching lobster in butter was a close second. Spare no expense – this did not disuade me from trying again. In this post I am attempting a sweeter pastry crust while building on previous techniques and experiences.
It was my mom’s birthday recently and I have these memories of her making batches of egg tarts for us on our birthdays. Whether the pastry was hard or not, it wasn’t something that mattered a whole lot when I was a kid; I ate it all up regardless and I was happy. In this post, I want to return the sentiment to my mom and wish her a happy birthday with lots of love! Hopefully, my pastry (after many trials) will not be hard and dense. It was only after being exposed to good, flaky egg tarts that I realized how far off the mark my mom was. Is ignorance bliss? No, I am glad to know how great egg tarts can be and I want to be able to make them just as well!
蛋撻 (egg tarts)12 tarts
I tried using a similar flaky/mealy crust I had used for my quiche for the egg tarts but was definitely not happy with them; I needed more butter and try something else for the pastry. In my mind, the perfect egg tart crust is delicate, crispy with layers that flake apart. The mealy crust was just not right. Then I remembered – the last time my mom made egg tarts and she made it using two separate doughs. One of them was composed of flour, water, and eggs. The second dough was shortening/lard mixed with flour. These she referred to as 水粉 (water dough) and 油粉 (fat dough) respectively. The fatty dough was folded within the water based dough like a pocket and then rolled out. She repeated the folding and rolling several times to create layers. It sounds a little bit like a puff pastry. Although hers did not turn out very well, it makes sense if you want to achieve the crispy layers that flake apart when you bite into it. Since the flaky/mealy crust was not to my liking, at least for this application, her recipe is worth investigating.
油粉 (butter dough)
- 100g unsalted butter; cold and cut into 1/2″ cubes
- 75g (2/3 cup) all-purpose flour
Chill the cubed butter in the freezer then sift the flour into a mixing bowl and chill that for about 15 minutes. I have learned that in order to succeed in pastry, you need to keep everything cold and keep the fat from melting. So I take every precaution possible to hedge my bets. After all the ingredients have been chilled, use a pastry cutter, or your finger tips to combine together the butter and flour until you have a course crumbly mixture. I like using my hands and fingers and getting them dirty to get firm grasp of the bowl’s contents. Stop when the butter is as big as a pea. This shouldn’t take very long. Gather and press the pieces together. Place a piece of plastic wrap on a flat work surface and turn the butter and flour mixture onto it. Wrap the butter dough with the plastic wrap. Continue to press the pieces together to form a round disk that is approximately 1 inch thick. Chill the butter dough until it is hardened again (approximately 20-30 minutes).
水粉 (water dough)
- 75g (2/3 cup) all-purpose flour
- 30g (4 tbsp) confectioner’s sugar
- 20g (1) egg yolk
- 30ml (2 tbsp) water; chilled
- pinch of salt
Sift together the flour, confectioner’s sugar, and salt into a mixing bowl. I added sugar to the dough not only to give it some sweetness but also to caramelize it and produce a crispier layers within the pastry. Chill the flour mixture in the freezer for about 15 minutes. Mix the water and the egg yolk lightly and chill. Combine the wet ingredients with the dry ingredients and mix until all the flour is moistened and a sticky dough is formed. Lightly flour a smooth work surface and turn the dough out onto the floured surface. Knead until you have a smooth dough that is moist to the touch but also does not stick to the work surface. Incorporate more flour or water to get the right consistency of the dough. The the egg yolk should have imparted a rich yellow colour to the dough. Roll out the dough into a square large enough to completely wrap around the butter dough. Remove the butter dough from the freezer and place in the center of the square piece of water dough. Bring each of the four corners of the water dough to the center to seal the butter dough inside of the water dough Press together any open edges. You do not want the butter to ooze out while you are rolling, so seal it well. Wrap the pastry in plastic wrap and place in the freezer for 10-15 minutes to rest, chill, and harden again.
When the dough has been properly chilled, roll out the dough into a rectangle that is roughly 12″x18″. Start from the center and pushing outward. Flour the rolling pin and your work surface to keep the dough from sticking to each other. You want to work quick so that the butter does not soften or melt too much. If the butter softens too much, cover the dough with plastic wrap and place it onto a baking sheet and let it chill out in the freezer until the butter firms up again. You want the solid butter in the dough. As the small pieces of butter melt once they hit the hot oven, they create pockets within the dough. As the steam from the butter’s water content tries to escape, it lifts the dough and creates the flakiness and puffiness in the crust. Understanding the science behind a flaky crust is easy, execution on the other hand comes from needed experience. Once you have a rectangular piece of dough, fold the dough into thirds as you would a letter. Wrap this in plastic wrap and return it to the freezer to allow the butter to firm up again and rest. Repeat the rolling and folding of the dough two more times. The next two times fold the dough over into quarters and roll out as before. Do not forget to chill the dough and allow the butter to harden back up between each time it is rolled out and folded. I think this is where my mom’s egg tarts failed. She was too diligent with keeping everything cold. The result being that the layers of butter dough melted and amalgamated with the water dough.
This is a long process so allow yourself plenty of time to do it right. I have learned that you cannot take shortcuts with pastry and still hope to achieve good results. Once you have completed the folding and rolling process to build up the layers of puff pastry, roll it out into a rectangle of a uniform thickness of about 3 millimetres. Using a cookie cutter, (or the top of a glass, or any other rounded objects) press circles out of the rolled dough. Lightly oil the tart tins and press the dough into them.
I found the dough on the bottom and the sides to be fairly thin, while the dough around the top rim is thicker. Use your thumb to press the dough into the corners of the tin and create a thicker rim of dough at the top to the tin. Dock the bottoms of the dough by puncturing the dough with the tines of a fork a few times. This will allow excess steam to escape from the pastry dough as it bakes and so you don’t get a large air pocket in your pastry. It was not a big deal to dock the dough with the mealy pastry but I found that with the puff pastry, air pockets can expand and expel the custard mixture from the tart. It makes a bit of a mess. Repeat with the remaining tin molds and pieces of pastry. Keep the prepared shells in the fridge as you continue working the rest of the dough into the tin molds.
Once all of the tart tins are lined with pastry dough and set in the fridge, you can prepare the custard mixture.
- 60g (1/4 cup) golden cane sugar
- 200ml (3/4 cup) water
- 4 eggs; beaten
- 150ml (2/3 cup) whole milk
- dash of pure vanilla extract
For the custard, put the sugar and water in a small sauce pan over medium heat until the sugar is completely dissolved into a simple syrup. Let the simple syrup cool down a bit before using it. Put the eggs into a mixing bowl and whisk until slightly frothy. Add milk and vanilla and continue to whisk until thoroughly combined. Slowly add the simple syrup to the egg mixture in a gentle stream. Whisk while adding the syrup to temper the egg mixture. Be careful not to cook the egg with the simple syrup. Once all of the syrup has been added, strain the egg mixture through a fine sieve to remove any coagulated bits of egg or shells that may have gotten into the custard mixture. Strain into a measuring cup, or something similar with a lip for easy pouring. This will make filling the tart shells easier. My mom liked to use a tea pot for example. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Place the prepared pastry tins onto a solid baking sheet that will not warp when heated, and carefully pour the egg mixture into each of the pastry shells. Do not overfill the shells. Leave at least a centimeter of space at the top. Bake at 425°F for about 20 minutes, or until the custard is mostly set. Keep an eye on them so they don’t burn or overcook. I took mine out when the centers were the slightest bit runny then let them cool. The custard should wobble a bit when you shake the tray. Of course the custard will continue to cook for a bit outside of the oven, but it will set perfectly without overcooking the custard.
I have made a lot of egg tarts in the past few weeks, with varying degrees of success, for this entry - ranging from total failures, passable, to victorious. I am very happy with the taste and feel of this recipe. The pastry developed the individual layers I was looking for, which was very buttery and delightfully crispy. Just look at those layers falling apart! The custard recipe also turned out pretty well. It is eggy and not too sweet, which is exactly how I like it. It was also very soft and smooth. Most of the egg tarts I find in Toronto’s Chinatown are overly sweet and a bit dense for my taste. I have a suspicion that they use at least a little bit of custard powder and water in their tarts to save money. How else can they sell them for fifty cents? While at first I was a bit dismissive of my mom’s method of making egg tarts last Christmas, I have come to realize that she deserves some credit here. While she did not make the best egg tart, she got me started on my explorations displayed in this recipe. She was the missing link in making good egg tart dough. This missing link was that the fat/butter needs to stay cold and not to let it melt. With all that my mom has taught me over the years, I would like to share what I learned with her. She will be very glad to discover the secret after all these years. On my next visit home, I will personally make these for her and point out where she may have erred. I know that she is always eager to learn new things like this and, with the added insight, she can begin her own explorations.
While I started off by saying my mom is a terrible baker, it is not entirely true anymore. It was probably true twenty-some years ago, but now she makes amazing fluffy cakes. Now my dad eats them without hesitation and without jokes of throwing them all the way to China. With the help of her friends and her own persistence of making it over and over again, she has modified her recipe her friend gave her and made it even better.
I hope you enjoyed this recipe, now go have yourself a culinary adventure!