I love custard of any description. Whether it be Bird’s or Ambrosia’s Devon kind or fresh stuff poured over a crumble or a quivering baked version, I love custard. Sadly it has never reciprocated that love and everytime I’ve tried to make it, there have been problems. It’s split, ended up scrambled, been full of lumps and the packet version has resembled concrete. I’ve always thought if I wrote a book about my cooking exploits, it would be called ‘Custard is my Nemesis.’
Few things go better with custard than rhubarb so when I finally got my paws on some proper Yorkshire forced rhubarb for the first time this season (even though Mister North has been cooking up a storm with it for a while now this winter.) I decided that come hell or high water, this weekend would be the time that I tamed custard, even if it meant the kind of mayhem in the kitchen that accompanied the cartoon duo of the same name.
I’ve been eyeing Dan Lepard’s Bay Custard Tarts forever, even having cut the recipe out of the Guardian and kept it when it first appeared several years ago and thanks to the clear and foolproof instructions in Short and Sweet, I knew this was the place to start with custard, but decided to put a seasonal twist on it by layering the baked custard with a topping of tangy rhubarb curd, partly because it would no doubt be delicious, but because it might hide a custard malfunction…
I made the tart cases from scratch using Dan’s sweet shortcrust recipe and tips on pastry handling. The first time I made pastry it was exceptionally good and I wondered why people worry about it, but every subsequent time has been a mess of varying levels. I decided to try and teach myself better pastry skills while I was mastering custard, but you could just use shop bought if that’s easier. But do follow Dan’s tip to only blind bake the cases for 15 minutes and undercook them slightly to allow the custard to ‘stick’
Rhubarb and Custard Tarts (adapted from Dan Lepard’s recipe)
Makes about 8
250g sweet shortcrust pastry ( I omitted the lemon zest from the original)
300 ml whole milk (or semi skimmed with about 50ml cream added)
1.5 teaspoons cornflour
50g caster sugar
3 bay leaves
1 whole egg and 4 egg yolks
Roll out the pastry on an oiled surface until about 0.5cm thick and press into the rounds of a muffin tin. Don’t worry if the pastry is a bit wonky, you can patch them up. Trim the edges to look neat. If you are a bit slow rolling and lining, chill the pastry again for 15 minutes and then put bun cases into each round, fill with baking beans and blind bake at 180℃ for 15 minutes or until just colouring.
Whisk the milk, cornflour and sugar together and bring to the boil. Add the bay leaves and leave on the lowest heat to infuse for 15 minutes (try and time this to be happening when the pastry is cooking). Turn the oven down to 160℃, remove the bay and then add the egg and the yolks to the milk mix. If you are worried about it splitting, add a small splash of the milk to the eggs and then mix it all in. It should go from looking like white sauce to very thin, very yellow custard. Pour into a Pyrex jug and pour into the cases. I only half filled them to keep room for the curd. They then baked for 10 mins or until the custard was just set and not at all coloured.
I used an adapted version of my own lemon curd to make the rhubarb curd. This amount filled 8 tarts and 2 jam jars. Instead of having to faff with a jelly bag to extract the juice from the rhubarb, I used highly seasonal blood orange juice as a base.
350g forced rhubarb (Marks & Spencer sells it if you’re struggling to find it)
zest of one blood orange and the juice of two (or use regular oranges)
50g unsalted butter
100g caster sugar
2 whole eggs and 2 yolks
Cut your rhubarb fine and cook slowly with 50g of caster sugar until it collapses in on itself and you can’t see any chunks or fibres. Remove from the heat and blitz with the handblender until a smooth uncannily pink puree and set aside.
Set up a bain marie and melt the butter and sugar before adding in the zest, juice and eggs and yolks and heat until it starts to thicken. Remove from the heat and stir in the rhubarb puree. It will become the most beautiful soft pale pink.
Fill the now set and slightly cooled custard tarts with about a dessert spoon full of curd til it reaches the top and allow to set so you get two distinct layers of custard and curd. Top with slices of rhubarb you have cut into 5cm batons, halved down the middle, brought to the boil and cooked lightly in a sugar syrup and then baked in the oven for 35 minutes until they resemble adorable rhubarb shrinkies with a real bite of sourness. Allow the curd to cool and set completely before tucking in.
These blew me away. Without any hairpulling or panic, the pastry was perfectly smooth and short*, the custard was set beautifully without lumps or bumps and the curd added a complimentary tanginess that makes these tarts much more grown up than the rhubarb and custard sweets of childhood. The bay leaves subtly enhance the sweet creamy custard and the blood orange keeps it all fresh. I loved these and felt incredibly proud of them. I plan to make baked custard and shortcrust pastry many more times in the future. I hope this wasn’t just beginners’ luck!
*You need to buy Short and Sweet to get the pastry recipe. That recipe alone is worth the price of the book, but it’s so brilliant you’ll thank me for the tip.