Though I could wax poetic about the many joys of living in Indiana (see: cornfields, cow manure, and fattening pies), it does mean that we're rather far from anywhere that made actual Chinese food. My mother always refused to eat out, insisting that she could always cook it better at home (I did inherit my food snobbery from somewhere!)
If they did feel like store-bought food, my parents would stop by Chinatown in Chicago on the way home from business trips for meat, groceries, and of course, dessert. It was always exciting to find the white paper box from St. Anna's bakery on the kitchen counter, with grease already starting to seep through the flimsy cardboard bottom. It would open with a puff of air scented with that wonderfully distinct smell of shortening and sugar, revealing little cakes, pastries, and of course, egg tarts.
Maybe it's nostalgia, but those egg tarts remain one of my favorite desserts. While egg tart is the literal translation from Chinese, it really is a custard tart, composed of a flaky crust with a creme brulee-like filling. Traditional egg tarts usually have a puff pastry crust, but egg tarts to me always should look like the ones from Chicago, oblong with a thick, sweet, shortbread crust.
Out of all the recipes I've posted on this site, these tarts are probably the ones I've made the most. I meant to share them more than two years ago, but I was never quite satisfied with the photos, and didn't feel they did these tarts justice. The pictures here are from two different times (I burned them slightly the second time, oops), but I've made them much more than that.
What with all the recipes I share here, there's very few things that I actually repeat. This is one of them, and that really is the highest recommendation I can give.
Happy Chinese New Year!
Yields: 12-18 tarts
Adapted from ourfamilyfoodadventures.com
For the Crust
½ cup butter, cubed, room temperature
¼ cup sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 ¼ cup flour
¼ teaspoon salt
For the Filling
1 ½ cup water
⅔ cup sugar
¼ cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Make the crust. Beat together the butter and sugar until light at fluffy. Whisk in the egg and vanilla, then fold in the flour and salt. Shape the dough into a disk and refrigerate for 2 hours, or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Make the filling. Place the water and sugar in a saucepan, and heat until it begins to boil. Let boil for for 2-3 minutes, take off the heat, and let cool to room temperature.
Beat together the eggs, milk, and vanilla extract. Whisk in the sugar syrup mixture from the previous step. Pour the filling through a strainer into a measuring cup.
Divide the dough for the crust into 12-18 equal pieces, depending on your large or small you tart molds are. (If using a muffin tin, divide it into 12, if using smaller tart tins, you can divide the dough into more pieces). Generously grease the tart tins with vegetable oil or butter, and shape the dough along the inside of the molds.
Place the tart molds onto a cookie sheet, then pour the filling into the molds, almost to the top. Bake for 15-18 minutes, or until the center is set but still slightly jiggly. Let cool to room temperature and serve.