I first encountered these treats as a little girl, when my parents always stopped by the local Chinese bakeries in Pearl City and later in Seattle … I was fortunate to grow up appreciating the myriad of taste experiences eating dim sum, or tea-lunch bites of yummy-ness. Nowadays, I consider myself a transplanted Northern Californian up here in Washington State. I spent the better part of 30 years hanging in the Oakland and San Francisco Chinatown areas of the San Francisco Bay Area. There is one treat at the Chinese bakery that is right up there with the perfect croissant found in any North Beach bakery: Dan-Tat, or Hong-Kong style egg custard tarts. Arguably, my favorite Chinese pastry, next to Bok Tong Go, or steamed rice pudding cakes. Period. And the best part is that today, I can make them at home.
Dan-Tat can be found in Hong Kong, Macau, and other parts of China. The Hong Kong and Macau versions differ slightly. Macau’s version was brought over by Portuguese colonizers, and they have more of a scorched, caramelized exterior. Dan-Tat eventually made its way to Hong Kong, where it was influenced by British custard tarts, which are a bit more glassy and smooth.
Ah, the sweet, sweet taste of colonial expansion.
You can buy them at Chinese bakeries, where you might be lucky enough to get a warm one. (Easy for me to do when I worked in the SF Financial District, just below Chinatown.) Don’t be the tourist when you’re visiting cities that have established Chinatowns … like Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland and Glendale/Los Angeles. If you want hot, fresh Dan-Tat, then go early in the morning when the bakeries just open and scoop up an entire pink box full … your co-workers will endear themselves to you for it.
But we don’t all have restaurants within reasonable traveling distance that offer good quality Dan-Tat, so it’s time to learn to make them from scratch like the best of ‘em. So gather round, padawans – a whole lot of awesome is about to come your way.
In a bowl, combine the flour, salt, and 1 tablespoon sugar. Add the butter and break it up roughly with your fingers, making sure to keep visible little chunks of butter in the dough. Add 2 tablespoons of cold water and bring the dough together. Add a tiny bit more water if necessary, but not too much. Cover the dough and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured board, knead gently, and form into a neat rectangle. Roll the dough away from you (not back and forth), forming a 20 x 50cm rectangle (about 8×20 inches). Try to keep the edges even, and don’t overwork the butter streaks. Flecks of butter should still be visible in the dough.
Fold the top third of the dough down to the center, then the bottom third up and over that. Give the dough a quarter turn (left or right) and roll out again to three times the length. Fold the same way as before, cover, and chill for 30 minutes.
While the dough is resting, make the filling. Dissolve 1/2 cup sugar into the cup of hot water, and allow to cool to room temperature. Whisk eggs and evaporated milk together and then thoroughly whisk in the sugar water and vanilla. Strain through a very fine mesh strainer–this step is extremely important to getting a smooth, glassy egg tart.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F/200 degrees C and position a rack in the lower third of your oven. Roll out the dough and cut circles to fit your tins (you can also use a shallow muffin pan). Press the dough into the tins and use a ladle to fill each tart shell until just reaching the edges of the outside crust. Once filled, immediately (but very carefully) transfer the pan to the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 350 degrees F/180 degrees C and bake another 10-12 minutes, until filling is just set (if a toothpick can stand up in it, it’s done). If you see the shells start to puff up a bit, crack open the oven a little, and they should settle back down.
You can let the tarts cool for a couple minutes and enjoy them while they’re still hot.