Milk tart (melktert) is a traditional South African dessert combining a simple pastry crust with a creamy filling, dusted with cinnamon. It's a little like a custard tart but lighter. It's easy to make, comforting and great for entertaining being made ahead.
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There is something about a pie or tart of some kind that feels kind of special. Maybe it's the presence it has on the table. The way it makes you wonder how big a slice you will get, or that it feels like there's more effort involved.
From a practical point of view, they are great for entertaining as you can easily divide them into more or less pieces. Plus, many can be made ahead. This South African tart is a perfect example as it can be enjoyed chilled, warm or room temperature, so it's ideal for making ahead. Plus it uses very humble, readily available ingredients.
What are the origins of milk tart?
Milk tart - "melktert" in Afrikaans - originates from the 17th century from the Cape area of South Africa. It was created by the Cape Dutch colonists in the region and is believed to have evolved from Dutch "mattentaart", a cheesecake-like dessert.
This tart uses much the same ingredients as other custard-like tarts, like Portuguese custard tarts or Chinese egg tarts. However the main difference between milk tart and custard tarts is it has a higher proportion of milk to eggs.
Instead of additional egg, this style of tart generally uses some flour and/or corn starch to thicken the filling. As a result, you tend to taste the milk a little more rather than egg and it's that bit lighter.
Milk tart ingredients and variations
Fundamentally, this tart consists of a simple crust and a sweetened egg-milk filling. As mentioned above, you use a little corn starch and/or flour to thicken the mixture and most use some vanilla extract to add to the flavor.
As with any traditional recipe, you'll find variations. Some bake the filling to help it set, others simply pour it in a ready-baked case and then chill to help it firm up. Most use cinnamon, though not all.
The pastry can also vary a little. Most use a French-style sweet pastry, or pâte sucrée, but a few go crustless or use a cracker crust. Personally, I like the typical sweet shortcrust pastry and think it's worth the tiny bit of effort. Though you can cheat and use a ready-made crust if you are short on time.
Preparing the crust
Here I go with the classic sweet pastry crust which has a great mix of being slightly sweet, buttery and crisp. It's also really easy to mix up in a food processor.
As with many pastry bases, you are best to chill the pastry before baking. This helps to avoid the pastry shrinking too much when it bakes. Then, blind bake it first to avoid the inside puffing up too much. Simply place parchment paper inside the crust and fill with some baking beans. Then, finish the baking open so it crisps up gently inside.
You can make the pastry ahead of time and leave it at room temperature until you are ready to fill the tart. You can do this the day before or earlier the same day but I wouldn't recommend making it too far ahead so the pastry retains its crispness.
Making the filling
For the filling, you start by warming the milk over a medium heat. If you like, you can add a cinnamon stick to help infuse it a little, but you will also add cinnamon on top so it's up to you. Separately, mix together the egg, sugar, vanilla, flour and corn starch. Then, you gradually add the warm milk to the egg mixture.
Top tip: gradually warm the egg
You don't want to warm the egg mixture too quickly or your eggs might cook, and you don't want scrambled egg in the filling! To avoid this, you temper them, which means you gradually add a little warm milk a little at a time. This brings the temperature up slowly.
Return the milk mixture to the saucepan over medium heat and wam gently so it thickens. Then pour, straining to remove any lumps, into the pie crust. Leave it to cool and set before dusting with cinnamon.
This South African milk tart is a deliciously simple combination of crisp pastry crust, smooth, creamy filling and a gentle brush of cinnamon to add to the comfort factor. It's easy to make, and great for entertaining since it's all made ahead. Perfect any excuse you can find.
Try these other delicious desserts, great for making ahead:
- Finnish blueberry pie (mustikkapiirakka, a lovely creamy and berry-filled pie with a hint of cardamom in the buttery cookie-like crust)
- Coffee panna cotta (a lovely coffee flavored twist on the classic set cream dessert)
Milk tart (melktert)
For pastry crust
- 1 ¼ cups all purpose flour plain flour, plus a little more as rolling out
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 egg yolk
- 7 tablespoon butter
- 2 eggs
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoon cornstarch corn flour
- 1 tablespoon all purpose flour plain flour
- 2 cups milk whole milk is best
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon approximately
For pastry crust/base
- To make the crust, place the flour, sugar, salt, egg yolk and butter (cut into chunks) in a food processor. Pulse so that the mixture becomes like breadcrumbs. If needed, add up to around 1 tablespoon of water to help form coarse crumbs. Alternatively, you can cream together the butter and sugar, mix in the egg then mix in the flour and salt. Form the dough into a ball, cover in cling wrap/film and chill for around 30 minutes before rolling out.
- Roll out dough and line a greased 9 inch (23cm) pie dish or tart pan - a pan with a removable base makes it easier to remove later. Press the dough gently into the edges of the dish, and fill any cracks or thin areas. Trim the edges and, if you like, gently prick the base a few times with a fork. Chill again while the oven heats.
- Preheat oven to 375F/190C. Bake blind (ie filled with parchment paper and beans/baking weights) for around 10-15 minutes, remove beans and bake 'open' for a further 10-15 minutes until lightly brown, dry and firm to touch. You want it cooked but not too brown as it tends to shrink more if baked longer. Allow to cool before adding the filling (around the time it takes to make the filling should be fine).
For filling/rest of tart
- For the filling, whisk together the eggs, sugar, vanilla, cornstarch/corn flour and flour in a medium bowl to form a smooth paste. Separately, warm the milk and butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat until it is almost starting to simmer (take care not to let it actually simmer or boil).
- Add a little of the warm milk to the egg mixture and whisk in to combine. Keep adding a little more of the warm milk, mixing constantly, and continue to add and whisk gradually a few more times before then adding in the rest.
- Transfer the mixture back to the pan and return to a medium-low heat and warm gently, stirring constantly. Keep warming a few minutes so that the mixture thickens - it should be like a custard and coat the back of a spoon. Pour the mixture into the cooked pastry base, straining if you have any lumps at all to help remove them (or strain if you are unsure). Sprinkle the top with cinnamon.
- Let the tart cool slightly then refrigerate to cool completely and for the filling to set, around 4 hours (or can chill overnight).
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