Walk around in any Chinatown and youâll eventually find yourself browsing the display case of a Chinese bakery. These shops offer cakes and snacks that present a departure from traditional European bakery fare: Fluffy coconut cocktail buns (gai mei bao), crackling pineapple buns (bolo bao), mooncakes, and riffs on Western European items like the Hong Kong Sweet Bun (based on the many styles of English cream buns) are just a few examples of the unique pastries that make up Tang bing, or âTang-style baked goodsâ.
Perhaps one of the most well-known of these confectionsâa standard by which all Chinese bakeries may be judgedâis the Cantonese or Guangzhou-style egg tart (daan tat). With its silky, sweet egg custard filling encased by crisp and tender puff pastry, this tart is believed to have originated in Canton (now Guangzhou) around the 1920s, in response to the sudden influx of British businessmen and officials and their love of the British egg custard tart. The southern Chinese city was a prominent international port destination dating to the 18th century, and attracted British chefs and bakers who shared many of their recipesâincluding egg tarts. (Contrary to popular belief, daan tat are not based on the Portugese pastel de nata. For that, we have the Macau-style egg tartâbasically a deeply caramelized version of daan tat. Why Macau? Macau began as a Portugese settlement, so there is some connection there. But the Macau-style tart is a decidedly more recent invention.)
While daan tat had its origins in mainland China, it wasnât until after World War II that the Cantonese egg tart made its way to Hong Kong, as wealthy Cantonese people migrated to the major port city. Itâs in Hong Kong that the pastry was perfected, helping to catapult the cityâs status to global food destination.
What Makes an Egg Tart Special?
What are the major differences between a British egg tart and a Cantonese egg tart? For one, British egg custards often employ custard powder, which was a relatively unknown ingredient to Cantonese cooks at the time. Instead, the filling in daan tat is simple: eggs, sugar, milk, and maybe vanilla extract. Second, Cantonese bakers turned to a flakier, multi-layered, more tender puff pastry crust in favor of the traditional dense short crust. (In a circuitous move, Cantonese chefs later developed their own short crust version in response to rising demand for egg tarts. Bakers found that the short crust was easier and faster to produce, which improved profitability. Still, the puff pastry version is the OG and, in my opinion, just better.)
Perfecting the Puff
For the purposes of this recipe, I decided to stick to the Hong Kong style of egg tart, which I think is the gold standard. This version is smaller (around 3 inches in diameter) than its Guangzhou counterpart. But the most important quality of the tart is the puff pastry: Light, delicate, and super crispy with multiple layers. Puff pastry is laminated, made from alternating layers of dough and fat. (Entire books have been written about dough lamination. Itâs a complex technique with so many cool applications. I wonât get into the nitty gritty here, but all you need to know here is that itâs the key to a good egg tart.)
Chinese puff pastry differs from European puff pastry in a couple ways. First, where European puff pastry consists of alternating layers of dough and butter, Chinese puff pastry is traditionally made with lard or shortening. This kind of puff pastry features alternating layers of dough and an âoil doughââa mixture of fat and flour that forms a malleable paste.* These small adjustments yield a pastry with just as much crispness and flakiness as traditional puff pastry, but with a more tender, delicate structure akin to a short crust. âAdding lard makes the pastry flakier and [gives] a unique aroma,â says Wong Wai-Tim, executive dim sum chef at Royal Garden Chinese Restaurant in Hong Kong. âPastry made with just butter would make it crunchy and sharp on the palate, while adding lard makes the texture flakier and lighter. A mixture of butter and lard would be the best.â
After comparing the lard-dough method to a more traditional puff pastry formula (and even quick-puff methods), I did find that the lard-dough was more tender, and the layers more delicate when baked. On the other hand, I preferred the butter flavor to that of deodorized lard (though this is definitely a personal preference). Finally, lard can be a little harder to source in some parts of the country. So was there a way to split the difference? Was Wong Wai-Timâs observation correct? Could I achieve the same textural effect with butter alone?
I looked at the ratio of fat to flour in the âoil-doughâ layer. Typically, in classic puff pastry, the butter layer and dough layer are distinct: There is little to no flour in the butter layer, and all of the gluten is contained in the lean dough layer. When baked, the butter melts away, any water evaporates (which causes the âpuffâ), and the layers of dough separate. Because there is little to no flour in the butter layers, youâre left with layers of crisp, crunchy dough.
For Chinese puff pastry, the oil-dough layer can contain as much as 80 percent flour relative to the weight of fat. Thatâs a considerable amount of flour, approaching a short crust or sablÃ© dough. After baking this dough, I noticed smaller layers of short crust as the fat melted and water evaporated, which likely contributed to its coveted delicate texture. (Additionally, the lamination process involves rolling and folding the dough multiple timesâsystematically pressing the layers together. The high-flour fat layers of Chinese puff pastry (which could be thought of as suspensions of fat and flour) may be gradually integrating into the lean dough layers over time, which would further tenderize them. At least, thatâs my best guess explanation for the tenderizing effect.)
As far as dough handling, I found that the Chinese-style puff pastry was a little easier to roll out than classic puff pastry dough. I suspect that because the two layers were less disparateâthat is, there was some flour in the butter layerâthey were texturally more similar than a lean dough layer and a pure butter layer. But again, thatâs just conjecture.
More Butter, More Better
The main difference between butter and lard, beyond their animal source, is that lard is pure fat, while butter is an emulsion of fat and water. Given that extra water, I could expect some greater steaming and puffing potential in baking. Lard also has a different texture compared to butter at room temperature; itâs softer, so it tends to roll out in a laminated dough more easily. The downside is that lard tends to incorporate into the dough more readily (especially if your rolling technique isnât great), so you have to be more careful to keep the layers separate.
To test this difference, I tried substituting butter for lard, using the same high proportion of flour in the âoil-doughâ layerâa hybrid method of classic puff pastry and the traditional lard dough.
The dough worked pretty well. It produced similarly tender and flaky layers as the lard dough, with the added benefit of extra separation between layersâlikely due to the water in butter converting to steam during baking. Still, the layers were not as ultra-tender as I would have liked.
How could I tenderize the layers even more, without resorting to lard? I thought about enriching the lean dough layer; ingredients like butter, cream, eggs, and sugar can all soften a dough and produce a more delicate texture. After testing multiple strategies, I found that simply adding an egg yolk did the trick. The fat in the yolk tenderized the layers just enough to emulate the flaky layers of a lard-based dough. After all, these are egg tarts: it was only fitting to include egg in the dough itself.
Now that I had a working puff pastry, all that was left to do was to prepare the custard filling. Here I stuck to the traditional formula of eggs, sugar, milk, and vanilla extract. I found that adding too much milk made the color of the custard disappointingly pale. To highlight that natural yellow colorâwithout resorting to yellow food dyeâI substituted a smaller amount of evaporated milk for the whole milk, and cut it with a little water. The water did not dilute the color as much, and it even resulted in purer egg flavor. The evaporated milk provided the same richness as milk, but I could use less. Finally, I used a higher proportion of egg yolksâboth for added color and egg flavor.
Putting It All Together
Weâve got all the components for the tarts. Here are some helpful tips as you go along.
When In Doubt, Work Cold
Temperature is the single most important factor when working with any laminated dough. The key is to roll the dough when it is pliableânot stiff or overly soft. If the butter layer is too cold, it wonât roll out without shattering and breaking; in this case, simply wait until the butter warms slightly and becomes more malleable as it sits at room temperature. On the other hand, if the butter is too soft, the layers could be mashed together too easily; thereâs no saving a dough like this if the butter is too soft. Overall, overly soft or warm butter is a far worse problem to have. For this reason, itâs best to keep the dough coldâeven in the freezerâbetween each round of rolling.
Measure Twice, Roll Thrice
Laminating dough involves lots of rolling. Itâs a skill that takes practice. Here, a ruler can go a long way toward ensuring success. A ruler helps keep the dimensions of the dough in check, and provides a guide for rolling the dough out uniformly. Remember: A uniform dough means uniform layers.
I also found it important to roll the dough very thin prior to cutting and lining the tart moldsâthinner than you would expect. Why? The dough expands considerably as it bakes, and if the dough is too thick, the ratio of crust to filling will be thrown off. Roughly one eighth of an inch seemed to be the ideal thickness.
Bake It Hot (But Not Blazing)
Puff pastry bakes best in a hot oven. The hotter the oven, the more dramatic the rise. But for these tarts, I wasnât looking for deep golden brown or any hints of caramelization in the filling. So I found the ideal baking temperature around 400Â°F (205Â°C)âhot enough for rapid expansion, but low enough for the custard to set without browning.
For The Butter Block: In the bowl of a food processor, process flour and butter until a smooth paste forms and begins to gather around the blade, about 30 seconds. Scrape butter mixture onto large sheet of plastic wrap and cover with second sheet of plastic wrap. Gently press into rough 6-inch square and bring ends of plastic wrap over center to form a neat parcel. Using bench scraper, gently square the sides. Place in refrigerator and cool until slightly firmed, about 30 minutes.
For The Dough: In a small bowl, whisk water and egg yolk until smooth and combined, about 30 seconds; set aside. In now-empty bowl of food processor, pulse flour and salt until combined. With processor running, add egg yolk mixture and process until dough runs around processor blade, about 30 seconds. Transfer dough to lightly floured counter and knead until smooth, about 30 seconds. Press dough into rough 6-inch square, transfer to parchment paper-lined baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and freeze until slightly firmed, about 25 minutes.
Remove butter block and dough from refrigerator/freezer and let rest on counter. Butter block will be ready when it reaches between 68Â° and 72Â°F (20-22Â°C), or when it gives way and is pliable when gently pressed, about 10 minutes. If too cool and firm, continue resting on counter until ready. The chilled dough block should have a similarly malleable texture as well.
On a generously floured work surface, roll the dough to a 13-inch by 6-inch rectangle. (Tip: to help straighten the sides, you can use a bench scraper as a straight edge to press and pull the dough into a neater rectangle.) Unwrap butter block and place in center of dough. Fold top and bottom flaps of dough over butter so they meet in center, pressing seam together with fingertips to seal. Using a rolling pin or your fingers, press or pinch the open sides of dough together to seal in the butter block.
Rotate dough 90 degrees so middle seam is perpendicular to the edge of the counter (dust the counter lightly with additional flour throughout this process as needed). Roll vertically to a roughly 16-inch by 6-inch rectangle. Fold top and bottom edge of dough to center, then fold in half again to form 4-inch by 6-inch rectangle. Rotate dough 90 degrees, then roll vertically once more to a 16-inch-long rectangle, and fold exactly as before. Place dough on the same parchment-lined baking sheet, wrap with plastic, and return to freezer for 30 minutes.
Transfer dough to a floured work surface so that the open edges are parallel to the counter edge and let rest until dough is pliable enough to gently bend when flexed, about 5 minutes. Using a rolling pin, gently beat and press the dough until it is pliable enough to roll without cracking. Roll vertically to a roughly 16-inch by 6-inch rectangle. Fold top and bottom edge of dough to center, then fold in half again to form a 4-inch by 6-inch rectangle. Place dough on the same parchment-lined baking sheet, wrap tightly with plastic, and refrigerate for 2 hours or freeze for up to 1 month.
To Shape and Bake: Transfer dough to floured work surface and divide in half, covering one piece loosely with plastic wrap. Let rest until the dough can be worked without cracking, about 10 minutes, although the timing will vary depending on the temperature of your kitchen and precise thickness of the dough. Working with one dough portion at a time, gently beat and press dough with rolling pin until dough is pliable. Roll to a 15-inch square measuring about 1/8-inch thick. Using a 3 3/4-inch ring cutter, cut 8 circles of dough; discard dough scraps or save for another use. Working with one circle at a time, press dough into a lightly greased tart mold, starting from center to edges, until dough clears sides of mold by about 1/8 inch. Using a fork, lightly poke holes in center of dough. Repeat with remaining dough. Transfer tarts to freezer and chill until firm, about 30 minutes.
For The Filling: In a large bowl, whisk water and sugar until dissolved. Whisk in evaporated milk until combined and mixture cools slightly. Whisk in eggs, egg yolks, vanilla, and salt until smooth and combined; at this stage the mixture will be quite thin. Strain mixture through a very fine-mesh sieve into a 2-cup measuring cup, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 1 hour or up to 24 hours.
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 400Â°F (204Â°C). Arrange frozen tarts on rimmed baking sheet and bring egg mixture to counter. Carefully pour egg mixture into tarts, stoppingÂ 1/4 inch from the rim. Bake tarts until pastry just begins to brown and custard is just set, pausing to rotate halfway through baking, 16 to 20 minutes. Let tarts cool in molds for 5 minutes. Unmold, cool an additional 10 minutes, and serve.
Food processor, sixteen 3-inch stainless steel tart pans, 3.75-inch ring cutter.
European-style butters such as Plugra, Lurpak, or Kerrygold are churned longer, and feature at least 82 percent butterfat, compared to 80 percent in American style butters. That extra fat gives the butter a softer texture, which makes rolling the dough easierâand the resulting pastry flakier.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Wrapped tightly in plastic, the laminated dough can be kept frozen for up to one month. Alternatively, the lined tart shells can be wrapped in plastic and frozen for a month instead.