Nutmeg custard tart brings back milk bar memories

Andrew McConnell is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.

In this story

The milk bars of my youth used to sell little tarts in foil cases. Brown, flaccid pastry filled with a simple set custard and dusted heavily with nutmeg. Somewhere in that dusty memory – beside the lamingtons and fridge of flavoured milk – is the inspiration for this dish. 

It still amazes me that such a rarefied spice found its place in the corner shop. The only other memory of nutmeg in my youth is the eggflip: a strangely delicious milkshake with a whole raw egg blended into it, a scoop of vanilla ice-cream and a whack of nutmeg grated on top. Dad used to make them. His other speciality was a slice of Tip Top white bread slathered in jam with whipped cream on top. It was a time-poor scone, and delicious.

The recipe here evolved after I described the milk bar tart to my head chef. He went away and came back with this. The pastry is crisper and the custard is much more delicate, with no artificial emulsifiers or thickeners. What has stayed the same is the nutmeg.

Nutmeg was traded across the Indian Ocean, fetching high prices with Venetian buyers and becoming a prized spice in mediaeval European cuisine. The Dutch got involved in the trade in the 17th century, with bloody results. Nutmeg pops up in bechamel sauce, but other than that it rarely comes out of the larder. The skin of fresh nutmeg is used to produce mace. In Indonesia I bought some fresh mace and it had the most incredible aroma and a unique subtle flavour. I made a mace and turmeric butter and used it to cook marron. I’ve never seen it available here.

The only accompaniment I could think of for this tart – other than whipped cream – was a pumpkin sorbet. To me the flavours signify autumn. I find pumpkin pies too rich, but this is a way to harness the flavour of the pumpkin without it becoming overwhelming. The sorbet can be made successfully without an ice-cream churn. 

The sweet pastry recipe can – in fact, should – be frozen. Make more than you need.

1 . Nutmeg custard tart

For this recipe you will need a 24-centimetre cooked sweet pastry tart shell.

– 13 large egg yolks

– 110g soft brown sugar

– 750ml whipping cream

– ½ tsp grated nutmeg

– a good pinch of salt

Whisk together the eggs, sugar, cream, nutmeg and salt. 

Leave the custard to come to room temperature for an hour. Preheat your oven to 110ºC. Strain and pour the custard into the cooked tart shell. 

Cook the tart at 110ºC with no fan for about 40 minutes. After this time check every five minutes by tapping the edge of the tart to see if the custard has set. 

Once cooked, cool to room temperature and grate some fresh nutmeg over the top of the tart. Leave the custard tart to cool before attempting to slice it. 

Serve with a scoop of pumpkin sorbet (recipe below). A slice of this tart can also make a great stand-alone treat.  

Pumpkin sorbet

– 250g castor sugar

– 250g maple syrup

– 500ml water

– 1kg roasted pumpkin flesh, skin removed

– 1 tbsp cider vinegar 

– pinch of salt

In a saucepan bring the sugar, maple syrup and water to the boil. Continue to simmer for a moment until the sugar is dissolved. Set aside to cool. 

Puree the roasted pumpkin, vinegar, salt and the syrup in a blender until smooth. Strain though a fine sieve. Transfer to a plastic container and place in a freezer. Every half-hour stir it with a fork to break up any crystals that may form and repeat this a few times until the sorbet starts to set. Leave the sorbet overnight in the freezer before serving. 

Wine pairing:

Campbells Rutherglen Muscat, Rutherglen, Victoria ($21, 375ml) – Mark Williamson, sommelier, Cumulus Inc

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 4, 2015 as "Pie for now".

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Andrew McConnell is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.