There is a quote from Robert Brault that I love. It goes: “In childhood, we press our nose to the pane, looking out. In memories of childhood, we press our nose to the pane, looking in”. It’s a sweet image. One to which we can all relate. But today, Mardi Michels reminds us that there is more than one way to turn the tables on on youth. And some of them are seasonal. Here is eat. live. travel. write. in a cross-hemispheric tribute to the Christmas’ of summers long past. GREG
I am 8 years old. It’s Christmas Eve. I’m at Nana (on mum’s side)’s annual Christmas Eve dinner. And there it is. In all its gelatinous glory. The custard tart. The tart I despise. The tart we will all eat despite despising it because someone, somewhere back in time told Nana they loved it, just to be polite. So there it is on the table in pride of place. Every year. And every year we all have a slice and pretend to love it but it’s just not that nice. I don’t know if Nana made it (I doubt it) but it was just the most cardboard crust you have ever eaten with a solid, you-so-know-this-has-a-ton-of-gelatin insipidly flavoured yellow filling. With a sprinkle of nutmeg on top. Delightful. Not.
When Greg asked me to write a guest post about summer growing up, this is actually the first thing that came to mind, believe it or not. Because I grew up in Australia, summer holidays mean Christmas and all the obligatory family rituals and get-togethers. I remember my sister and I saying we didn’t want to go to this event or the other and dad would always say “It’s family.” and that was that. He’s right (as always!) – family is so important and it’s only now that I am so far away from most of my family that I appreciate this.
The custard tart saga has a Canadian footnote too. When I first arrived in Canada, I remember our neighbours saying they would bring custard tarts over for a pot luck. I was inwardly cringing at the thought but smiled and nodded – these people might be my new best friends (and in fact, 11 years later, they pretty much are!). In fact, what they were bringing over was the cupcake sized Portuguese custard tarts – flaky, buttery puff pastry filled with silky custard (no gelatin there, that’s for sure!) with caramelized tops. I tentatively cut one in half, noticing that these looked nothing like Nana’s custard tart. I ate one half and went straight back for the other. Since then, our neighbours bring these to every gathering and they are gobbled up. Sometimes on Sunday mornings when we go out to get our New York Times, there is a box of them sitting on our porch, you know, just because. Just because they make a damned good Sunday breakfast! Custard tarts are, in fact, amongst my favourite desserts. How ironic, given the very rocky start of our relationship!
For this post, I wanted to make a better custard tart in memory of my Nana. One that I would have made and brought to Christmas Eve dinner if she were still alive and if I lived in the same country. And one with a little twist – coconut! Why coconut? Well, childhood summers in Australia also meant a lot of feeling inadequate because I have the fairest skin ever and I just don’t tan. But every year, I would trek to the chemist (drug store) with my olive-skinned sister where we would buy Hawaiian Tropic coconut oil, which I would apply liberally but which never worked. I simply don’t tan. Which I have totally embraced now as an adult – pale is cool. But when you are in school, then university and you live in Australia, pale is kind of odd. So important was having a tan to me that my best friend (also olive-skinned) and I spent a rainy beach vacation one summer holed up in a youth hostel listening to music and applying fake tan so that we could have that golden glow despite Mother Nature not cooperating with our plans. So my summers smelled of coconut. I may not have had a tan, but I smelled good! Mardi
- 3 egg yolks
- ½ cup caster sugar
- 2 tablespoons corn starch
- ¾ cup 35% cream
- 2/3 cup milk
- 2 tablespoons sweetened shredded coconut
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- ½ teaspoon coconut extract
- 1 sheet ready-rolled puff pastry
Whisk the egg yolks, sugar and corn starch in a medium saucepan. The mixture will be thick. Gradually whisk in cream, milk and coconut until smooth. Heat the mixture over medium heat and cook, continuing to stir with a wooden spoon, until the mixture has thickened slightly(it will come to the boil). Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla and coconut extracts. Transfer the custard to a new bowl, cover surface with plastic wrap and leave to cool.
While the custard is cooling, preheat the oven to 375F. Lightly grease a 12-pan muffin tin. Cut the puff pastry sheet in half, placing one half on top of the other and set aside for 5 minutes. Roll the pastry tightly from the short end, wrap in waxed or parchment paper and place the log in the fridge for about 5 minutes.
Remove pastry from the fridge and cut into twelve rounds. Lay each round on a lightly floured board and roll each one out until they are about 10cm diameter. Press the pastry rounds into the muffin tin. Slightly pinch the overlapping pieces at the top of each tin. Make sure the bottom pastry is thicker that the side pastry.
Scoop the cooled custard into pastry cases and bake for 30-35 minutes, until both pastry and custard are golden. The custard might have dark spots on top of it – this is totally normal and even desired. Leave the tarts in the tin for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. The custard will sink but again, this is ok.
These are best enjoyed the day they are made.