Portuguese Egg Tart
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup half and half, or 1/2 cup cream combined with 1/2 cup whole milk
3 tablespoons sugar
A pinch of salt
3 large egg yolks
1 1/2 inches cassia or cinnamon stick
2 strips lemon peel, each 2 to 3 inches long and 1/2 inch thick (use a vegetable peeler to remove)
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
10 ounces frozen puff pastry, thawed according to package directions
1. To make the custard, put the cornstarch into a small, heavy bottomed saucepan. Whisk in a few tablespoons of the half-and-half to dissolve the cornstarch. Then add the sugar, salt, and egg yolks. Whisk to combine. Add the remaining half and half, then whisk to blend. Drop in the cassia and lemon peel.
2. Cook the custard over medium heat, stirring frequently with the whisk or a spoon, for about 8 minutes, until very thick. When the custard gets hot and steam wafts from the pot, stir constantly to ensure even cooking. When done, it should jiggle a bit when you shake the hpan. Remove from the heat, stir in the vanilla extract.
Transfer to a bowl, loosely cover with a piece of parchment or wax paper, making sure the surface touches that of the custard; this prevents a skin from forming. Set aside to cool. (The custard can be prepared up to 3 days in advance and refrigerated. Return to room temperature before using.) Makes 1 1/4 cups.
3. Work with the puff pastry when it is cold as it is much easier to manipulate. Take it straight from the refrigerator and put it on an unfloured cutting board. If necessary, roll it out into a rectangle that is a generous 1/8 inch thick. Pick up one of the longer edges and roll the pastry up into a log that is about 1 inch thick. Roll the log gently to seal well. Tap the ends in to flatten them. Put the log on a parchment paper lined baking sheet, loosely cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 15 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, position the oven rack about 4 inches away from your broiler. Preheat the oven to 400F. Have ready a nonstick mini-muffin pan; each of the 12 wells in such a pan is about 2 inches wide and 5/8 inch deep. Nearby have a small bowl of water and the custard.
5. Remove the pastry log from the refrigerator and cut it in half. Work with one half at a time, keep the other one covered and refrigerated.
Cut the log into 10 even pieces. Put one, with one of the cut sides facing up, in each of the muffin pan wells. If the pastry is hard, let it soften for a couple minutes. Wet one of your thumbs with water, then push it straight down in the center of the dough spiral as if you’re making a thumbprint cookie.
Then use the thumb to flatten the pastry against the bottom of the well and then up its sides. Aim for an overall thickness of about 1/8 inch. Work the corner of the well with your index finger as it’s an area where the dough tends to be gather. Then gently push the dough above the rim about 1/8 inch to form a lip. The dough will sink back down as it sits but try your best. If the dough seems too elastic and resists your will, refrigerate the muffin pan for 15 minutes to relax the pastry before giving it another try.
7. Fill each well about 3/4 full. A scant 1 tablespoon is what I typically use. Too little custard and the baked tarts show too much of their tanned shoulders of pastry. Too much custard and the custard will spill out and form a funny looking lava-like flow. Regardless, your tarts will taste great.
8. Slide the muffin pan into the oven and bake for 12 to 13 minutes, until the custard has puffed up into a mushroomlike dome and small cracks form. Then switch on the broiler and broil the tarts for about 3 minutes, monitoring them carefully, until the tops have acquired little caramelized burnt spots. Remove from the oven, let cool for 5 minutes, then unmold by slipping a dinner knife between the pastry and the muffin well. Return the oven temperature to 400F.
Let the muffin pan cool, then wipe clean (wash and dry the pan should it be extra dirty). Repeat with the remaining pastry. You’ll have some custard left, which can be eaten right off the spoon.
10. Serve the tarts warm. Leftovers can be reheated in a preheated 300F toaster oven for about 5 minutes, until warm.