Philani’s melktert

If music be the food of love, play on. But food itself is more than nutrition for the body, it is also the music of loving memories. Last night my youngest own-blood son, David, sent me a skype message from faraway England asking whether I still had Philani’s wonderful melktert recipe. David’s request triggered a rush of memories, but I was sitting on a deadline so said I would get back to him today.

When I woke this morning I decided not only to dig up Philani’s recipe, but whip up two melktert with different bases and write it up for the blog. Working with me on this project was long-time member of our extended family, Khaya (Mwelase), a trainee paramedic with NetCare 911, who was off-duty for the day.

Philani, let me first explain, is Philani Khumalo, a tall easy-going, seriously intelligent young attorney who now works in Johannesburg. For many years, while completing school and then studying law at university, he was a much loved member of our household. He loved nothing better on Saturday afternoons than putting on his favourite Philip Glass opera, Akhnaten, and cooking up a storm in the kitchen. Invariably, due to popular demand he would produce his justly famous melktert which he had perfected and to which everyone still refers nostalgically.

South Africa is a hunter’s hotpot of cultures and their foods. The Dutch contributed not only their language, the backbone of Afrikaans, but also several delicacies which have joined the ranks of our popular national food symbols: melktert, intertwined koeksusters, and the ball-shaped vetkoek. Although melktert is sometimes translated as milk tart, or baked custard pie, most people know it as melktert.

The basis of Philani’s melktert was a recipe he got from the back of the box of another South African traditional symbol, Maizena® (the South African standard household cornflour brand). I still have the old original recipe, as well as our modified recipe given here, but do not have all Philani’s variations. Nonetheless melktert in our household is still fondly known as Philani’s melktert.

You can use any shallow pie or rippled flan dish with an outer diameter of around 26cm. Grease the dish with a piece of butter paper, or spray it with an anti-stick agent like Spray ‘n Cook®. You will be glad you did when removing a wedge of melktert at the end.

Khaya pressing out the shortcrust pastry base. On the left is the crushed biscuit base.

 shortcrust pastry base (makes one)

  • 250 ml (1 cup) cake flour [375 ml (1½  cups)]
  • 80ml (1/3 cup) Maizena
  • 62,5 ml (¼  cup) sugar
  • [2 level teaspoons baking powder]
  • 1 pinch salt (a pinch is between thumb and tip of forefinger, a generous pinch is between thumb and crooked forefinger)
  • 90g (a fifth of a 500g block) butter or margarine [100g]
  • yolk of an egg

Mix together dry ingredients. Work the butter into the dry ingredients, rubbing between your fingers until there are no lumps of butter left and you have an even-coloured, gritty mix (a bit like fine sawdust). Put the egg yolk in a cup and top up to half-way with cold water, then beat with a fork. Using the fork whisk the beaten egg into the flour mix then with floured hands lightly compress the mix in a ball, put it in a pie dish in the fridge for 20 minutes or so to chill. Once chilled press the pastry evenly out and up the sides. Prick the base with a fork (to prevent unseemly swelling) and bake the shell in the oven for 10 minutes at 180C.

Pricking the base of the shortcrust pastry shell.

alternate base (makes one)

  • 1 packet tennis or marie biscuits (crushed in a plastic bag with a rolling pin)
  • 140g melted margarine or butter

Melt the butter in the microwave for a minute on high. Stir in the crushed biscuit and press out in a pie dish with the back of a spoon.

filling for one melktert:

  • 500ml (2 cups) milk
  • 1 heaped (or 1¼ ) tablespoon Maizena (cornflour)
  • 1 heaped (or 1¼ ) tablespoon cake flour
  • 1 level tablespoon butter (or margarine)
  • 1 egg (separated)
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 capful (½ teaspoon) of vanilla essence

filling for two melktert:

  • 1 litre (4 cups) milk
  • 4 level tablespoons cornflour
  • 3 ½ level tablespoons cake flour
  • 3 tablespoons butter (or margarine)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 capsful (1 teaspoon) of vanilla essence

Melt the margarine in the microwave. Beat in the sugar with a wooden spoon. Beat the eggs and then mix thoroughly with the margarine and sugar mix. Add the vanilla essence. Begin gently heating the milk. When warm, not hot, add some warm milk to the mix and stir well until the mix combines evenly. Add all of your mix now to the warm milk in the pot, stirring all the while.

Pouring the cornflour and cake flour mix into the warm milk mix in the pot. Keep stirring!

Meanwhile mix the cornflour and cake flour with some cold water, adding a bit at a time until you have a smooth mix that will just pour.

Add this to the warm milk mixture in the pan, keeping on stirring. As the mixture approaches boiling it begins thickening. Let it bubble (boil) for a minute or two as you stir.

If you rush this process (too hot a cooking ring) you will get the odd lump or two. But that is not a disaster. Just keep on. The lumps will reduce and you will remember next time to use a lower ring heat, or take the pot off the heat from time to time so that you can match your stirring to the thickening.

Pouring the thick cooked custard into the shells.

Pour your thick custard mix into the pie shell(s). Bake at 180C for 15 to 20 minutes, then put on a wire rack to cool and set. Sprinkle powdered cinnamon over the baked custard top.

The finished product fresh from the oven, with a dusting of cinnamon.

You will know that you got it right when you cut and remove that first slice. The custard should be firm and not flow into the space left!

You should experiment with both bases. Crushed biscuit is fine (and quick). But the shortcrust pastry recipe we use is great for all sorts of dishes, whether as the shell for a quiche or for a pie topping (chicken pie, steak and kidney pie, savoury mince pie).