Traditional South African Milk Tart (melktert) with a homemade crust, and a silky smooth filling, baked to perfection and sprinkled with ground cinnamon. Milk tarts are comforting, delectable, and when you are living across the globe - nostalgic.
What exactly is a milk tart?
Milk tarts or melktert is a dessert that usually consists of a sweet pastry crust and a custard filling that is made from milk, eggs, sugar, and flour. Milk tarts have a higher ratio of milk to eggs than other custard tarts like the Portuguese Custard Tart (Pastel de nata).
The milk tart as we know it today originated among the settlers in the Dutch Cape Colony (Cape of Good Hope, South Africa) in the 17th century. It is said that this tart was developed from the Dutch mattentaart which is a sort of cheesecake-like dessert.
Milk Tart Variations
Milk tart crusts
Milk tarts can be made with a variety of different types of crusts. This is all dependent on what your personal preference or time constraints dictate. Milk tart crusts can consist of:
- flakey or puff pastry
- a sweet shortcrust type pastry
- tennis biscuits laid in the bottom of the intended pie dish (this is a common quick pie/tart crust in South Africa)
- biscuit base similar to what would be used in cheesecakes
Baked vs Cooked Milk Tarts vs Fridge Milk Tarts
The milk tart filling can be cooked on the stove top and poured into a baked pie crust, or partially cooked on the stove top and then baked in an uncooked pie tart for 30 - 40 minutes.
Then we also have the quick and easy fridge milk tarts made with condensed milk that require no cooking time at all.
My personal favourite is cooked and/or baked milk tarts. Nothing beats the traditional flavour.
Ingredients for the Milk Tart
Milk Tart Crust
- Butter to give the crust a rich flavour.
- Flour - plain or standard grade flour, try to not use bread flour. Even though we do knead this pastry a bit, we don't want gluten to form at all.
- Sugar - to give sweetness. I like to use caster sugar but granulated white sugar will work just as well. I would stay away from brown sugar in this particular instance.
- Baking powder - to give a bit of lift to the crust.
- Salt - bring out the flavour of the flour.
Milk Tart Filling
Milk is the primary ingredient here. I like to use whole or full cream milk. Some variations for milk I have looked at include substituting out a cup or two of milk with buttermilk. I haven't tried this, but I'm sure it will be delicious and rich.
Eggs give this tart the custard flavouring. And help the tart set once cooked. I feel that 4 large eggs strike a nice balance in this tart.
Flour and cornflour are used to thicken the milk in the second cooking step.
Sugar to sweeten the tart. Milk tarts are not meant to be overly sweet. They are subtly sweet, and this recipe has a bit of leeway in the amount of sugar you want to add to your tart. If you want, you can decrease the sugar to half a cup overall.
Vanilla extract and cinnamon sticks add a depth of flavour to the filling.
Butter adds silkiness and flavour to the filling.
Salty Ginger's Milk Tart Recipe
For my milk tart, I opted for a shortcrust type pastry, because I feel like this would have probably been the quick and easy go-to for most households and a biscuity-type crust is how I know milk tart. And then I picked the combination of stovetop cooking plus baking.
Making the milk tart crust
I did a deep dive into many old milk tart recipes. These were clearly published exactly as they were found in the handwritten recipe books of the Ouma's and Tannies (Aunties) because the details were few and far between. After reading numerous methods I pieced together what made logical sense to me, forged ahead and was very pleasantly surprised by the ease of this crust and how well it turned out.
This milk tart crust is similar to the shortcrust pastry - but it's not a shortcrust pastry. It's a short-cut pastry (pun intended). This crust starts with the creaming together of the butter and sugar (yip, no cold butter, no rubbing it in the flour or cutting it through using a food processor). Then you add in the egg and beat it together before adding in the flour, salt and baking powder.
The next step is that you sort of kneading the dough together (about 5 times) until you have a sugar cookie type consistency.
Traditionally, this dough was then broken off into cookie-sized chunks and pressed into the bottom and sides of the pie plate. And smoothed out by pressing a knife into the pastry (I used the bottom of a measuring cup and my hands).
I also tried a slightly different method. I rolled out the pastry until it was about 5mm in thickness and transferred it to the pie plate. The dough did break, so I patched it up using excess chunks and it worked out great. It looked a little more refined than pushing the dough into the plate and allowed me to control the thickness better.
A note on crustless milk tarts...
Growing up, this was the milk tart my mother used to make. Probably to save time and energy. During my life, I have tried many mik tart recipes, and have never really been that happy with them if I'm honest. So I was very pleasantly surprised when I baked some extra filling in a glass dish without a crust. This is the trick to a really good crustless milk tart - pretty much make the filling in the same manner and just skip the crust!
Making the milk tart filling
Whisk together the sugar, flour, cornflour, and salt to get rid of any lumps. Then bring the milk with the cinnamon sticks to a boil. Just as the milk comes to a boiling roll, reduce the heat to a simmer and whisk in the sugar-flour mix.
The milk mixture is cooked on a medium heat for about 10 minutes while you stir consistently. This will prevent any lumps from forming. When the milk has reached the consistency of a bechamel sauce, you can then remove it from the heat and add in the butter, whisking to combine.
Allow the milk tart mixture to cool for about 10 minutes, whisking it occasionally to prevent a crust from forming. Don't forget to remove the cinnamon sticks. While the tart is cooling, beat the eggs and vanilla together until they are light, fluffy and about 4 times in volume. Then add these eggs to the milk, mix thoroughly and pour into your pie crust to bake.
Cover the milk tart with tin foil, tented in the middle so that it doesn't touch the filling, and bake for 30 minutes, remove the foil and bake for an additional 10 minutes until your crust is deep golden brown. The main reason I covered the tart in tinfoil is that my oven is rather old and has a few quirks.
A note on eggs - some of my old recipes call for the separation of the eggs, adding the egg yolks to the milk mixture and whipping the egg whites to a soft peak before adding to the milk. This is a optional additional step you can take when making this milk tart.
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Milk Tart Crust
- 125 grams butter - softened (½ cup)
- 100 grams caster or granulated sugar (½ cup)
- 275 grams plain or standard grade flour
- 2 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 egg
Milk Tart Filling
- 850 ml whole milk
- 130 grams caster or granulated sugar (⅔ cup)
- 3 tablespoon plain or standard grade flour
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch (maizena)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 60 grams butter (4 tablespoon)
- 4 eggs
- 1-2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2 cinnamon sticks
Milk Tart Crust
- Cream together the softened butter with sugar until well incorporated. Add in a single beaten egg and whisk together until well combined.
- Whisk together the flour, salt and baking powder. Add to the butter mixture and mix until combined. Knead a few times until you have a softish biscuit (cookie) type of dough.
- Option 1 - Traditionally the biscuit crust is pushed into the bottom and sides of the pie plates using hands and the back of a spoon or measuring cup, and smoothed out using a knife. This results in a quaint rustic looking pie crust.
- Option 2 - roll out the biscuit crust on a sheet of parchment paper until about 5mm thick. Transfer carefully to your pie plate or dish. If the crust breaks during this process, it really doesn't matter, as you can patch up any holes or tears by pressing extra dough into these spots. This is my preferred method, as it allows me to manage the thickness of the crust a little better.
Milk Tart Filling
- Preheat the oven to 180°C.
- Whisk together the sugar, flour, cornflour, and salt together. Set aside.
- Place the cinnamon sticks in the milk and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat, add in the sugar-flour mixture and whisk to make sure there aren't any lumps. Cook on medium heat for 10 minutes until the milk mixture resembles a bechamel sauce. Add in the butter and whisk through until combined. Remove the milk from the heat and allow it to cool down for 10 minutes whisking occasionally to prevent skin from forming on the milk. Remove the cinnamon sticks from the milk.
- While the milk is cooling, beat the eggs and vanilla extract together until well combined, light and fluffy. Then add the eggs to the milk mixture whisking continuously until thoroughly combined. Pour into the milk tart crust.
- Cover the milk tart with tin foil, making sure to tent the foil over the filling so that the filling does not stick to the foil while cooking. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove the tin foil and bake for a further 20 minutes until the crust is a deep golden brown. The filling will still be wobbly.
- Remove from the oven and sprinkle with cinnamon or cinnamon sugar (your choice). Allow the tart to cool and place in the fridge. The filling will set completely in the fridge.
Milk tart crust - you can use puff or flakey pastry for a milk tart. I have seen this in one or two recipes when research milk tarts.
Crustless Milk tart is also possible using this recipe. During my testing phases, I had a bit too much filling so I popped it into an oven-safe dish and baked it up for 20-30 mins and was very happy with the results.
Egg whites can be separated from the yolks and whipped to soft peaks before addition to the milk tart. This is a common method among many traditional recipes.
On pie plate size - this recipe has been adapted to fill a 24cm deep-dish pie plate, that takes approximately 1 litre of liquid filling, which is common here in New Zealand, Australia and North America. Traditionally, the South African pie plate used for milk tart is shallower and a touch smaller than what is found here. I used a 9-inch pyrex pie dish.
Nutrition Information:Yield: 12
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 353Total Fat: 17gSaturated Fat: 10gTrans Fat: 1gUnsaturated Fat: 6gCholesterol: 118mgSodium: 436mgCarbohydrates: 43gFiber: 1gSugar: 23gProtein: 8g
Nutrition information is an estimate and will vary between brands and ingredients used.
If you like this...why not check out my Melktertjie recipe, a boozy spin on this traditional dessert.