February 27, 2017 § 3 Comments
The trouble with eating milk tart made by one Lettie Stevens, is that you are ruined for life. No wobbly, cornflour infested, namby-pamby sweet pastry concoction – even from the local tuisnywerheid – stands a chance. It has to be Lettie’s milk tart or nothing.
Lettie, my grandmother, baked the kind of milk tart you’d change an RSVP for – the most objectionable company or gathering could be tolerated for a slice or two with a cup of coffee: proper moerkoffie, hot and milky and sweet.
Her tarts began with puff pastry, which she made herself. I remember marathon sessions grating butter into slabs of cold pastry, folding them this way and that, her fingers deft and slick. Puff pastry’s savoury flavour provides the perfect counterpoint to the sweetness of the filling, the crisp layers complementing its milky smoothness.
Next, the pastry was rolled out, blind baked in enamel pie plates, and piled into tall cake tins, ready to be called into service at any time. And the tarts were so in demand, before you knew it, it was pastry making time again.
There was none of the wobbliness you find in today’s milk tarts. My granny used flour in hers, not cornflour, which gives it a different mouthfeel, and a dollop of oomph and grit that perfectly represents an Afrikaner woman of a certain era.
And it’s the milkiness that makes milk tart so distinct from its relatives – English custard tart or Portuguese pastéis de nata. Here the egg doesn’t take centre stage; it’s all about the comfort of sweetened warm milk when you can’t sleep, or the scent of cinnamon warming the air on a wintry day. Which is why it’s at its very best at room temperature or slightly warm.
My grandmother left me her handwritten recipe books, still among my greatest treasures, so when I heard today was National Milk Tart Day, I had to whip up a crustless version for dessert – in honour both of the day, and the woman I miss so much: a five-foot-nothing dynamo of wisdom and sass, of discipline and old-fashioned common sense, the toughest will, and the softest cheeks.
It’s been years since she died, but the sight of that handwriting still brings both a smile and a tear to my face. Tonight my kitchen smells of cinnamon and milk, and I’m warmed by the comfort of a childhood made sweeter by her capable hands.