Throwback Thursday: Melktert
There are probably as many precise ways to make a melktert as anyone who has ever made one, yet every one of them will regard theirs as the right way to do it.
After a lifetime of only ever having eaten a milk tart made by other people, I finally plucked up the courage to have a go this week. The revelation for me was that in some instances, today at least, the tart with its filling in is not baked, only the pastry beforehand. This fact resulted from much browsing in many books and on various websites, to get a decent overview of how people prefer to make a melktert. And I do prefer the Afrikaans word for it, “milk tart” just doesn’t feel right to me.
But at the old Cape such tarts were baked, and in our time as well that Bible of all things to do with South African cooking, Cook & Enjoy, has three recipes for milk tart: easy shell, traditional and crustless, all of which are baked in the way that the tannie from down the road bakes them for the Tuisnywerheid shop in every Karoo town.
I would recommend that you grab your copy of Cook & Enjoy and try the SJA de Villiers way, which we know we can trust. But if you’re feeling adventurous, you’re welcome to have a go at mine, which I wrote after having done much browsing by way of research. Then I made it following the recipe I had written, and it turned out in a way that did not embarrass me (I’ve just had some for breakfast; it’s a Karoo thing).
The old boy had a lot to say about milk tart
I also consulted Leipoldt’s Food & Wine, and the old boy had lots to say about a melktert. Even a cursory read through his notes on the topic makes it clear just how this tart has changed down the decades. Naartjie peel, almonds, peach pips and more were par for the course, but not so today…
C Louis Leipoldt tells us that at the old Cape, tarts were “usually made with a very rich dough, repeatedly rolled and buttered, so that when baked it was exceedingly crisp and mellow”.
He continued: “With this a deep soup plate was lined and the filling of the tart, which was its principal ingredient, was poured in. A decorated band of dough was placed on top as an edging and strips of dough were laid across the top in lattice fashion; these were brushed with yolk of egg and a little brandy…” (what else, this is Leipoldt talking) … “before being baked to give the pastry a good golden colour; some cooks added a little saffron to the egg yolk.” And a little brandy to the cook.
The best of the old Cape tarts, for him, was the one with an “old-fashioned milk or custard filling, modified from the old Italian recipes in so many different ways that almost every cook had his, or her, own way of making it – and thoroughly despised anybody else’s method”.
He went on to give three versions of that mélange of melktert recipes. In the first, two pints of milk were boiled “with a feathering of cinnamon, a bit of dried tangerine peel, a teaspoonful of honey and half a cupful of coconut milk, one bitter almond, shelled and blanched, and one peach kernel”. How different the cooking of the old Cape was compared with our simpler versions of the old ways.
A second recipe: “Take coconut milk, new milk and cream, of each an equal portion, and whip them well with a pinch of salt, the yolks of four eggs, a little grated nutmeg and a little powdered tangerine peel… add honey or sugar to sweeten”.
A rich milk tart
The third is “a rich milk tart… you make this by pounding in a mortar a handful of blanched sweet and one bitter almond with a few apricot or peach kernels, three tablespoonfuls of sugar candy, a teaspoonful of rice flour, some flicks of mace and a bit of dried tangerine peel, which mixture you must wash with coconut milk through a sieve. With what comes through you must mix its own amount of cream skimmed from the morning’s milk, and the yolks of as many eggs as will equal it in weight.
“When you have well mixed these you may add, also, the white and yolk of one egg beaten up with a glass of brandy or sweet wine. This you pour into the pie dish, which you have lined with paste rolled out 14 times at least, and you must bake it quickly in a hot oven.”
There is no tangerine peel or almonds in my recipe. Nor is there that familiar Leipoldt glass of wine or brandy.
(Makes 1 tart)
For the pastry:
2 cups cake flour
1 tsp baking powder
A pinch of salt
½ cup caster sugar
125 g butter
For the filling:
2 ½ cups full-cream milk
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 cup caster sugar
2 large eggs
2 Tbsp cornflour
2 Tbsp cake flour
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
2 Tbsp butter
For the pastry:
Sift the flour into a bowl and stir in the baking powder and salt.
Cream the butter and sugar together until pale. Beat in the egg.
Add the flour mixture and whisk to combine.
Press the dough into a springform tart tin. Prick it all over with a fork.
Pop it into the freezer for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 200℃.
Bake the tart base for 15 minutes.
For the filling:
Heat the milk with the cinnamon stick but turn the heat off just before it boils. Remove the cinnamon stick.
Beat the eggs with the sugar, and add the flour and cornflour.
Pour the heated milk in while stirring.
Return it to the heat and cook, stirring, until the mixture thickens.
If, perchance, it forms lumps, whisk briskly until it smooths out, if necessary adding a little more heated milk. You’re looking for a fairly thick but pourable consistency.
Remove from the heat and stir in the butter and vanilla essence.
Pour it into the tart base and dust with cinnamon.
Leave to cool and refrigerate until set. DM
Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.