A few weeks ago I shared an interview with one of my best friends, Jess Chen. In that interview, Jess shared memories from her childhood in Taiwan and her post-grad life living in nearly every major city in the United States. Be sure to check out the interview here: The Hungry Traveler Interview with Jess Chen.
Chatting on the phone recently, Jess and I got on the topic of desserts in Asia. I shared a story about going to a bakery in Beijing and being surprised at the flavors I found. When I bit into what I thought was a coconut bun, it was actually a dried pork bun and what I thought was chocolate turned out to be red bean paste. Jess agreed that she had experienced similar surprise and then told me about the egg tart craze she encountered on one of her last trips to Taiwan. She remembers people being so obsessed with egg tarts that even KFC had a line down the street when they introduced their version of the delicate pastry.
Although I was familiar with the Portugese version, I had never tried the Asian variety, commonly referred to as Hong Kong egg tarts. Jess sent me her recipe, and after a quick trip to the grocery store, I was on a trip to Hong Kong from the comfort of my apartment kitchen.
Egg tarts can be found across Asia, but are particularly popular in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, and Macau (where there is a huge Portuguese influence). The tarts are simple – a flaky crust (either a sweet cookie dough or puff pastry) filled with a rich, creamy egg custard and baked until set. They are usually served at room temperature but are especially wonderful just out of the oven.
Hong Kong egg tarts are similar to pasteis de nata, the famous Portugese egg tarts, but the Asian version have a smooth glassy top as opposed to the caramelized brown top found in Lisbon. Egg tarts became popular in Hong Kong and Guangzhou teahouses in the 1940s and are most likely a variation on the classic British custard tart. The egg tart, known as da taa in Mandarin, is one of the few desserts included in traditional dim sum offerings.
I’m not sure when I’ll be in Asia next (I hope it’s soon) but baking these egg tarts was a fun and easy way to learn more about a place I miss very much. While cooking Asian cuisine may seem daunting, Hong Kong egg tarts are easy and will connect you to a new culture with just a few ingredients and a little bit of time. However, if you do find yourself in Asia, then head to Tai Cheong, the bakery behind the most famous Hong Kong egg tarts.
Hong Kong Egg Tarts
Despite being from a far away place, Hong Kong egg tarts are surprisingly easy to make. Let’s start by talking about the equipment needed…
I like to use small brioche molds in order to get the decorative crust, but you can also use a standard muffin pan. If using the muffin pan, you’ll want to crimp the edge of the dough or decorate the edges using the tines of a small fork. A circle cutter is needed to cut out the puff pastry, and if you don’t already have one, purchasing a set for your kitchen is a minimal investment and will come in handy often. Finally, a fine mesh strainer, an essential piece of kitchen equipment, is needed to strain the filling before pouring it in the tarts.
3.5 Inch Brioche Molds – I recommend buying at least six individual molds.
Circle Cutter Set – useful for many recipes and cooking projects. In this recipe, I use the 3.5-inch circle.
Fine Mesh Strainer – an essential piece of equipment in any kitchen.
The first step is mixing the filling. The milk and sugar are heated just until the sugar dissolves. Then, the milk mixture is gently whisked into the eggs until everything is smooth and incorporated.
In making the filling, the key is to whisk enough so that everything is smooth and combined, but not vigorously enough to cause foam or air bubbles, which will prevent the iconic glassy top.
Tip: Put a dish towel under the bowl of eggs to secure it to the counter. Then, use one hand to pour the milk and the other hand to whisk the mixture together. The towel will secure the bowl so you won’t be chasing it as it slips around the counter.
After the filling is mixed, strain it into a clean bowl using a fine mesh strainer. This gets out any bits of eggs and ensures a perfectly smooth, glassy top. Chill the filling until it is completely cool.
While the filling is chilling, work on cutting out the puff pastry. After unfolding the puff pastry, I use a rolling pin to gently roll it out, making it thinner and slightly more pliable. You don’t want to roll too much or make it too thin, just a few quick passes with the rolling pin will work.
Be sure to keep the counter lightly floured to prevent the pastry from sticking and work quickly or the dough will become soft and difficult to maneuver.
Use the 3.5-inch circle cutter to cut a circle of puff pastry and then place each dough circle into a brioche mold. Gently press the dough into the corners, grooves, and bottoms of the mold. Using a fork, dock the bottom and sides of the dough. Continue with the rest of the puff pastry (for as many molds as you have) and then refrigerate the dough in the molds for 30 minutes.
Once both the filling and dough are chilled, fill each mold almost to the top. It will take about 2 – 2.5 tablespoons for each 3.5-inch tart. Carefully move the tarts to the oven and bake until they are just set and puffed up slightly. A knife or toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean.
I only have 6 molds so I made these egg tarts in two batches. I made all of the filling at once and refrigerated it. Then, I cut out 6 pieces of dough and placed them in the molds, chilled them for 30 minutes and filled and baked the tarts. Once they were out of the oven and cool to the touch, I repeated the process to make 12 tarts total.