Durban - Tuesday is a special day in our culinary calendar: it’s National Milk Tart Day.
The celebration is now in its fifth year. The humble milk pie comes from Dutch medieval cooking, via the Dutch settlers in the Cape. Some people trace its origin to Mattentaart, described by Thomas van der Noot in 1510 in his Een notabel boexcken van cokeryen (A Notable Book of Cookery).
It is a pie with a crust and a custard filling, baked in a round pie tin. After baking, it is often dusted with cinnamon. The filling is made from milk, sugar and eggs, thickened with flour, but everyone has their own recipe. The ratio of milk to egg is higher than in a traditional Portuguese custard tart (Pastel de nata), resulting in a lighter texture and a stronger milk flavour.
For Durban baker Jenny Clark, co-owner of the Fat Frog deli, coffee shop and kitchen in Morningside, it takes us back to our youth.
“In the Afrikaans community, at every fête you had to have a ‘stukkie melktert’ with lots of cinnamon on top. I was brought up in Namibia and it was always the first thing you bought, along with pannekoek and vetkoek.”
She believes the secret of the dessert’s success is its “simplicity of taste”. “It’s comfort food. Everyone takes a bite and that takes us back to a memory of our childhood.”
Clark has been making milk tarts for years. At first she used her aunt’s recipe for the milk tarts she sold at the Essenwood Market for 15 years.
“It was the best recipe I had found. And then I discovered a better one. My son’s girlfriend, Heidi, showed me her recipe.
“It’s marked at the top ‘Ouma Burger’s melktert resep’. It’s from the year dot. And I’ve been making it for about two years now.
“It really has the most amazing, buttery shortcrust pastry and the secret, which is unusual, is that it also has two tablespoons of cooking oil in the recipe.”
This one is a deep-dish pie that certainly looks impressive. The pastry is baked separately from the custard, which is just set in the casing. The whole cooking process takes about an hour.
Clark says the custard is crucial. “It must be properly set, but it also musn’t be like glue.
“Ours is made on the stove. Many milk tart recipes separate the eggs and you whisk in the egg white later, but this doesn’t need the egg white at all. The custard also shouldn’t be too sweet.”
Clark has also been baking for the home industries shop, Something Special, for 15 years and still sells her deep-dish milk tarts there. She also sells the mini bite-sized versions of the classic.
When told about a recipe for milk tart samoosas, she says: “You’ve got to be joking!” - until she realises you’re using phyllo, not samoosa, pastry.
She has done variations, including mini croissants stuffed with milk tart filling and glazed with apricot jam.
She notes that Thai people do something similar with custard desserts and the Greek bougatsa (a custard-filled phyllo roll) is also one of her favourites.
“Anyone for a milk tart milkshake?” she laughs. “I’ve already done that for my beesting cake.”
And what makes a baker?
“Doing it with love. Don’t start flinging things in, don’t try to rush people. It’s not a race” is her advice.
She and partner Claire Allan insist the Fat Frog is just a simple kitchen. It’s not a coffee shop or a bakery or a place to buy frozen meals - although it covers all three. “I love talking to people and creating a family at the shop,” Clark says.
Marie Louise Guy, co-author of The South African Milk Tart Collection, says there are variations around the world.
“It has become difficult to define the milk tart because you now get milk tart shakes and alcohol flavours.
“You can even find different flavours in various parts of the country. Some add dried naartjie peel to add flavour, while others make red velvet milk tart by adding beetroot.
“In places like the Bo Kaap, they use turmeric powder that gives the crust a more orange colour. Some people also add rum and almonds or peanuts.