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Ginger Brûlée Tarts

It’s raining today, in case you hadn’t noticed. I’ve just filed a long piece about the best pudding to make in high summer and bright sunshine, and now it is raining with blustery gusto. Oh British summer, how you toy with me.

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But, putting my Pollyanna hat on, that means I can already start looking towards colder days and warmer flavours. Pastry isn’t much fun to make when the sun is shining and you’re brow is starting to bead: it thrives in cool kitchens and cooler hands. Having spent one of the hottest days of July watching butter leach through my fingers as I tried to make proper puff pastry, I found myself already longing for Autumn cooking: tender, braised meats, and bubbling crumbles and piping hot soups.

This pudding crosses that funny divide between August and September, where we’re about to lurch into harvest festivals and back to school stationery and black tights joy, but may still end up with a day so hot it demands beer gardens and barbecues and aftersun. These are elegant little tarts, yes, self-contained, and served cool, but they whisper of the return of baked custards and spices. The bitter caramel of the burnt sugar lid stops the pudding becoming too sweet, as well as delivering the obligatory and satisfying crack.

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I bake both the pastry and custard at absurdly low temperatures, but this should ensure that your pastry doesn’t shrink, and your custard doesn’t curdle. It’s a surprisingly slow pudding, for one that demands something as dramatic and last minute as brûléeing: the longer you infuse the custard with the ginger for, the better it will taste. Infuse it the day before if at all possible. The whole pudding can be made in advance right up to the point of brûléeing, which should be done as close to service as possible, so that the crust doesn’t dissolve and end up soggy. In fact, this pudding really benefits from time to rest in the fridge after cooking. Those that we brûléed and ate the following evening were miles better than those (still delicious puddings) that we had immediately after cooking.

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Oh and the key to a really great sugar crust is simple: brûlée twice. Sift the icing sugar in an even layer, and brûlée that. Allow it to solidify (this will happen very quickly), and then sift another layer of icing sugar, and remelt.

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A note on the pastry: I was really cross about this pastry. It isn’t my normal sweet shortcrust recipe: it’s a St John recipe, and it felt more like making a cake batter than pastry. It had none of the satisfaction of rubbing the fat into the flour, creating breadcrumbs, and then magically coming together into a dough. I couldn’t get it to stay together when I was lining the cases. I swore blind that I wouldn’t post the recipe for it. In fact, I just swore quite a lot. But, with no other dough to hand, I baked it anyway. And, maddeningly, it was glorious. So short and buttery, but without crumbling away on contact, sweet and crisp. I reproduce it below, and recommend it highly, but make it in the knowledge that when you are lining the cases, you will need to squidge and repair. Don’t worry: it will smooth out in baking, and you’re going to fill it with custard in any event.

It goes like this:

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Ginger Brûlée Tart

Makes: 6 individual tarts (I use 3.5 inch fluted tart tins)
Takes: 1 hour 30 minutes plus several hours’ chilling
Bakes: 1 hour 10 minutes

For the pastry
125g softened butter
70g caster sugar
20g soft brown sugar
2 egg yolks (plus a yolk for brushing)
225g strong white bread flower

For the custard
400ml double cream
4 egg yolks
3 inches grated stem ginger
1 heaped teaspoon ground ginger
55g light brown sugar

For brûléeing
Icing sugar

1. First, infuse the cream; do this the night before if possible. Peel the ginger with a teaspoon, and grate it into the cream. Add the ground ginger to the cream, and heat gently until it is steaming and just about to boil. Remove from the heat, cover, and leave for at least an hour to infuse and cool; longer if possible.

2. Now make the pastry: cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Weigh out the flour, and add the egg yolks to the creamed mixture, one by one, alternating with a spoonful of the flour to stop the mixture curdling. Mix in the rest of the flour, until a dough has formed. Knead very briefly to smooth the dough, and refrigerate for 45 minutes in clingfilm.

3. Grit your teeth: you’re going to line the pastry tins, and it will look like a mess. That’s ok.  Divide the dough into six equal pieces and roll into rough circles, bigger than your tart tin, about 5mm thick. Place onto your tart tin, and don’t worry, it will crack and break. Squidge and repair until you have covered the tin in an even layer. Well done. Make sure it reaches beyond the edges of the tin, and then roll a rolling pin slowly over the tin to give you a neat edge. Freeze for 20 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, make the custard by first heating the cream back up to steaming (but not boiling). Then whisk the sugars and egg together vigorously and add a little bit of the hot cream to them and whisk well. Add the rest of the cream slowly, whisking continuously, until all combined. Pour the entire custard through a sieve into a jug and cool in the fridge.

5. Preheat the oven to 140 degrees C. Prick the pastry base with a fork. Cover the pastry with cling film and fill with baking beans or dried rice. Blindbake the shells for 20 minutes, then remove the beans and clingfilm and return to the oven for another 10 minutes. As soon as you take them from the oven, paint with a little egg yolk to seal any holes, and allow to completely cool.

6. Preheat the oven to 100 degrees C. When the tart shells are cool, place on a baking tray and pour in the custard. Bake for 40 minutes until the custard is set but with a slight wibble in the centre. Refrigerate until needed.

7. Just before serving, sift a layer of icing sugar onto each tart, and either place under a hot grill (watch carefully!) or use a cook’s blow torch to melt and caramelise the sugar. Allow that sugar to solidify and repeat with another layer of icing sugar.

8. Ta Dah!

Icing on the Cake

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We ate this with rings of pineapple caramelised in a hot pan with some caster sugar and a drop of water. Full disclosure: whilst I was developing this recipe, I made far too much custard. So if you happen to only want to make two or four tarts and end up with excess custard, you can do what I did and make normal creme brûlées: pour the custard into a ramekin and place it in a tin with water coming about 2/3 of the way up the side of the ramekin. Cook at 100 degrees for 50 minutes, until set but with a gentle jiggle in the centre. Refrigerate, and then brûlée as above.

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