There are many symbolic dishes that will grace the table when folks celebrate Chinese New Year on Feb. 10.
A whole fish and whole chicken for family togetherness. Candied melon seeds as a wish for a sweet new year. And long-life noodles to foster many more years to come of such celebrations.
For me, though, it’s all about the custard tarts.
OK, custard tarts may be more associated with dim sum outings, rather than necessarily any Chinese New Year festivities.
But can you blame me for hankering for them? Who doesn’t love a warm, eggy custard tart with a crust so flaky that shards of pastry cascade all over your clothes when you bite into one?
Leave it to an Englishman to come up with a brilliant version, too.
That would be Jamie Oliver, whose cookbook, “Meals in Minutes” (Hyperion), I received a review copy of last year. The book is set up in a unique style: Recipes are grouped into complete menus that are designed to be cooked and on the table in about 30 minutes. As such, the ingredients are listed all together for all four dishes that make up each menu. And cooking directions have you moving back and forth from one dish to another, just like you would in your own kitchen when preparing a holiday meal made up of many dishes.
The “Quick Portuguese Tarts” is the finale to a menu that also includes “Piri Piri Chicken,” “Dressed Potatoes” and “Arugula Salad.”
Truth be told, though, I only made the tarts. What can I say? I just couldn’t help but zero in on the pastry part.
Because you use purchased frozen puff pastry to form the tart shells, these are a breeze to make. The filling is just egg, sugar, vanilla, heavy cream or creme fraiche, and orange zest.
These tarts get an added bonus of an orange caramel poured over the top after baking. Although I loved the sort of burnt orange sweetness the caramel attains, I’m not sure it’s needed. As the caramel cools, it sets up and gets quite sticky. So much so that when you bite into a tart, the caramel ends up sticking to your molars pretty fiercely, detracting from the lovely creamy, smoothness of the custard. Maybe it’s the love of the Brits for sticky toffee pudding that prompted Oliver to add the caramel to the tarts. But I think it’s like that last accessory you’re tempted to put on after getting dressed for the day — probably unnecessary in the long run.
I’d definitely make these tarts again without the caramel. The puff pastry — and do buy the all-butter kind — makes a wonderful crisp container for the comforting custard within.
Enjoy one for the Year of the Snake. Or just because you can.
Jamie Oliver’s Quick Portuguese Custard Tarts
All-purpose flour for dusting
1 large sheet all-butter puff pastry (14-ounce package), thawed if frozen
1/2 cup creme fraiche or heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla paste or vanilla extract
5 tablespoons superfine sugar
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Dust a clean surface with flour. Unfold the sheet of pastry and cut an 8-inch square from the pastry. Put the trimmings into the refrigerator for another use. Sprinkle over a few good pinches of ground cinnamon, then roll the pastry into a jelly roll shape and cut into 6 rounds. Put these into 6 of the cups in a standard-size muffin pan, and use your thumbs (lightly flouring them makes the job easier) to stretch and mold the pastry into the cups so the bottom is flat and the pastry comes up to the top. Put on the top shelf of the oven and cook for around 8 to 10 minutes, or until lightly golden.
Spoon creme fraiche or heavy cream into a small bowl. Add the egg, vanilla paste or extract, 1 tablespoon of superfine sugar, and the zest of 1 orange. Mix well.
Take the muffin pan out of the oven, and use a teaspoon to press the puffed-up pastry back to the sides to make room for the filling. Spoon the creme fraiche mixture into the tart cases, and return to the top shelf of the oven. Set the timer for 8 minutes.
Put a small saucepan on high heat. Squeeze in the juice from the zested orange and add 1/4 cup of superfine sugar. Stir and keep a good eye on it, but remember caramel can burn badly, so don’t touch or taste.
Remove the tarts from the oven. Pour some caramel over each tart (they’ll still be wobbly, but that’s good). Put aside to set. Then, serve.
Adapted from “Meals in Minutes” by Jamie Oliver
More Lunar New Year-Type Recipes: Whole Roast Chicken with Ginger and Soy-Whiskey Glaze by Jean-Georges Vongerichten