Last night's episode of the Great British Bake Off took viewers back to the ‘roaring Twenties’ with a collection of challenges inspired by the era: a “slapstick” signature, a tricky beignet soufflé technical, and a showstopper inspired by the Prohibition.
Kicking off with custard pies, made famous by an enormous pie fight in the Battle of the Century (1927) starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the challenge required a buttery shortcrust pastry and silky custard filling, but the method to make them proved far from joyful.
Baking with custard is notoriously difficult due to its tendency to split and curdle and its reluctance to set. And for a pastry filled with custard, the flavour and texture really has to sing (unless you opt for pre-made).
Stephen Harris, chef and owner of The Sportsman in Seasalter, gives his take on how to get a proper homemade custard: “The mix should be heated at the same time as being stirred - this is the key," he says. “The stirring means that as the egg proteins heat up they do not clump together to make scrambled eggs. The egg proteins start to coagulate at 65C and you want the temperature as high as you want the mix to be thick.”
For custard tarts and pies, where the mixture is required to set and wobble, Harris suggests heating the custard to 85C then pouring; the higher the temperature, the thicker the mixture. This advice can be used as a guide for any bake that includes custard from tarts, pies and pastries to pastel de nata. However, according to the Telegraph columnist Diana Henry, these little Portuguese egg tart pastries dusted with cinnamon “are not easy to get right – they've been practising for centuries in Portugal.”
When done correctly, custard pies and tarts are worthy of royalty. It was a custard tart made by chef Marcus Wareing that was served to the Queen on her 80th birthday. Based on a traditional recipe passed down from his grandmother, he advises that bakers “fill the case as full as you can – right to the very top” and chill the pastry thoroughly before baking to avoid any breakage.
It is important to get this ratio of filling correct; too little and the custard mix can boil and sink; too generous, and the sides will be at risk of catching. The filling should reach the edge of the crust, allowing for a tiny space before the top, and bakers should aim to use a wide and shallow tart case for optimum results.
When it comes to the natural eggy flavour of custard, it’s tempting to jazz it up but, as proven by David Atherton’s fancy custard tarts worthy of the ‘Hollywood Handshake’, the mixture is best complemented by warming base notes: earthy nutmeg, sweet cinnamon and a generous fleck of vanilla.
This doesn't mean there is no room for experimentation. If you’re looking for a bit of an edge, take a note out of Steph Blackwell’s book. Her sharp and zesty custard pies had just the right amount of zing. And as for floral flavours, try Rosie Brandreth-Poynter's injection of elderflower or subtle blossoms. Unsurprisingly, no-one wants a “soapy” wince-inducing lavender custard (sorry Helena Garcia).
Zabaglione: sweet, frothy, airy
The second challenge of beignet soufflés - a fried choux pastry filled with jam - was to be served with a sabayon. More commonly known by its Italian name - zabaglione or zabaione in Venice - this rich and light mixture of egg yolks, sugar and sweet wine (or champagne) whipped into submission can be served warm or cold, and is described by Marcella Hazan as a “warm, wine-scented froth” in her definitive Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. The difference between a sabayon and a zabaglione is the use of champagne, the omission of sugar and the addition of subtle flavourings, causing the sauce to become savoury. If this route is taken, the sauce is usually called a sabayon not zabaglione. But we're splitting hairs here.
Michelin-starred chef Angela Hartnett recalls fond childhood memories of the dessert “with a 'poufff' the hot air would puff out of my nonna's zabaglione, and a rush of warm eggs and sugar – and whisky! – would fill the room. Nonna would add a slosh of every sort of drink in the house – whisky and brandy as well as the more usual marsala.”
Though a Venitian specialty, zabaglione can be found in all corners of Italy and each region has a different version. The method, however, was famously dubbed as " very tiresome" by Italian food writer Anna Del Conte in Amaretto, Apple Cake and Artichokes: The Best of Anna Del Conte, and getting the right texture is widely considered a bit of a chore.
Thankfully, within A Table in Venice by Skye McAlpine, the food writer reveals that there is “rather more forgiving” method to perfect one. “My method for making zabaione is slightly unconventional,” she says. “I prefer to whisk the egg yolks and sugar off the heat then, only when they have become deliciously light and airy, set the bowl over a saucepan of hot water to finish it off with the Marsala.” This simple yet effective method of creating the sauce will help to eliminate any potential kitchen tantrums (or split mixes).
Served alongside some profiteroles (an easier version of beignet soufflés), you’re in for a winner. Just remember that if serving choux pastry alongside a warm broth like this, Hartnett warns that the “trick is to make sure they’re not too soggy. You don’t want them crispy (it’s not toast) and there should be a slight softness, but you need some texture.”
So, armed with these tips, home bakers can try their hand at a feast of custard tarts and frothy sauce, and feel a little more confident. From profiteroles to a creamy custard tart, we've rounded up two Bake Off inspired recipes to try at home, without the risk of a double elimination.