A speaker from South Africa came to my department and my friend and I were in charge of cooking for the party after his talk. She’s into curry so we made some of that (and by some, I mean roughly twice as much as 25 people can eat), and I looked up South African desserts. I found one called melktert, as in milk tart, and it seemed to be pretty popular, so I settled on that. It’s a custard pie, which means it needed pie crust. I had never made pie crust before, and I had a feeling that could end up going badly, but I went for it anyway. I made two crusts to start and carefully crimped the edges, but when I blind baked them, they shrunk up so much that they didn’t really have edges anymore. I’m told this means too much butter, which doesn’t surprise me because I was so worried about overmixing the butter and flour that I actually ended up with visible pieces of butter in the crusts.
They tasted good, though, and all that butter did make them quite flaky. But I was embarrassed to serve them, so I ran to the store and bought three pre-made crusts. When I tripled the recipe for the filling, I ended up with enough for four pies, so I went ahead and used one of my ugly but yummy crusts, and I’ll have you know it was the first one to disappear at the party.
For the filling I used this recipe from Epicurious. The South African speaker was really surprised to see it at a party so far away from his home, and he said that it was the kind of thing you would never have a party without in South Africa. Exactly what I was going for. More importantly, he and the other guests liked it. Few things are as gratifying as making a dish that reminds someone of home.
It’s an interesting kind of custard. In my book, a custard is what it is because it has egg yolks in it. Egg whites can also be in it, but they need not be. In a lot of custards, only egg yolks are used, so you end up with a lot of extra whites. The natural thing to do with egg whites is make meringue, and thus we have a lot of custard pies with meringue on top, like lemon meringue pie. In melktert, you separate the eggs and beat the whites, but then you mix them into the batter instead of putting them on top. Of course, the foam sort of floats no matter how much you try to mix it in, so you end up with a foamy layer on top of the custard that browns really well. There’s also a nice subtle cinnamon flavor from infusing a cinnamon stick in the milk rather than adding ground cinnamon to the custard. With my American tastes, I would probably add more sugar if I did it again, but overall, it was quite popular.