Custard. Temperature. Creativity. And what no one tells you about the link between dim sum and crème brûlée.
According to the World Wide Web, Confucius once said that “Wherever you do, go with all your heart”. We can never be sure if he actually said such a thing, but if he did, he might just as well have been referring to the egg tart, because it has travelled all around the world.
The egg tart is a type of baked pastry. It has a flaky round crust that only crumbles when you bite into it, and a delicious eggy centre that is just the right balance of sweet and savory. Found often in Cantonese dim sum, the egg tart can also be found in “Portugal, England and various Asian countries“.
That yummy centre is in fact a custard. A custard typically refers to any cream or milk liquid that is thickened by eggs. When heated, the egg proteins in the egg denature into a semisolid gel. It is this semisolid gel that gives the egg tart’s custard its unique texture and taste (read more about custards in the 1-Minute NomNom “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a jam“).
The Portuguese egg tart – which has a 200 year history – is a variation of this. It has an egg custard but it has one special element. It has delicious looking brown spots on top of the custard (see above). This is the effect of using a higher baking temperature (compare, for example, the 290°C/554°F used versus 200°C/392°F for the “regular” egg tarts).
The higher temperature causes non-enzymatic browning due to both the sugars and proteins used in the custard. In that respect, the effect is what we are seeing with:
- crème brûlée with its layer of burnt sugar on top of an egg custard (see photoe below) i.e. caramelization (see the 1-Minute NomNom “Burn (sugar) baby burn“)
- caramel with its reaction between the sugars and the proteins i.e. Maillard reactions (see the 1-Minute NomNom (“Butter me up baby, I’ll be your sweet caramel“)
Put the same ingredients and the same science into different cultures, and we get different but equally delicious foods. It is all quite remarkable, not just for our stomachs, but also of human creativity, as we see from the world travels of the yummylicious egg custard and tart!
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