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).

Sinful summer temptations

As one who firmly believes that a melting sin on the tongue is worth two furtive sins behind the bush, I take great pleasure in concocting sins in the kitchen. Especially now that summer’s here and one’s activity meter has thawed into life once again.

Recently I decided to tackle two delicacies that most of us resort to buying because we think they are just too complicated to successfully make oneself: passionfruit ice-cream and lemon meringue pie. As with all my recipes I like to get down to the core of what makes a dish work without the frilly bits. Professionalism is the ability to understand what you are doing and to practice doing it so that you can get it right every time (barring earthquakes, electricity failure and your son arriving with a pregnant stranger at the kitchen backdoor).

Start by switching on the oven to 180C so that it will be ready when you need it.

Lemon meringue pie with lemon curd filling

The best lemon meringue is made with your own lemon curd, so the first step is making a honey jar of lemon curd as follows:

 Lemon curd filling

  • 50g (level tablespoon) butter
  • 200g (1 cup) white sugar
  • 2 eggs (beaten)
  • 2 lemons (juice strained through a sieve)

Melt the sugar and butter in a small saucepan on the stove at low heat, stirring as you go. Once fully melted add the lemon juice mixed with the beaten eggs. Keep the heat low and keep stirring until the mixture begins thickening a little. Turn up the heat a little and let it boil for a minute or two while continuing to stir. Bottle and let cool. The recipe works really well if you don’t rush it. And no, for this one you don’t have to use a double boiler. It was given to me by a friend, Sue Rushton, who got it from another friend, Jenny Henrico, who lives just up the road from her.

Rich shortcrust pastry pie shell

  • 1½ cups  cake flour
  • 100-150g butter (or cooking margarine) cut into chunks
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 generous pinch salt
  • grated zest from the lemons
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 80ml cold water

 Rub the butter into the flour, baking powder, sugar, salt and lemon zest. Rub until the flour has become a yellowish granular meal and there are no butter chunks left. Beat the egg yolk in the water and pour slowly into the flour mix, stirring with the tines of a fork. Work quickly, then lightly compress the mixture into a light ball and place in the mixing bowl in the fridge. Never overwork flour when adding liquid, otherwise a gluten reaction kicks in which will turn the baked result into the Dwarf Bread lovingly described by Terry Pratchett. While the pastry is chilling you can make the meringue topping.

After half an hour grease a pie dish with a torn off corner of the butter paper (I like those pyrex dishes with the crinkly edges used for soustert, flans and shallow quiches). Put the ball of pastry in the centre and work it outwards. If your fingers get sticky then lightly flour them. Work it to the edge of the flat and then up the rim. Pat the jutting edges level with the rim and then work your way around the rim gently pushing a finger into each crinkle valley to give a nice ripple effect. Cut some slits in the base to stop it developing bubble bottom. Bake the shell in the pre-heated oven for 10 to 15 minutes until it starts browning. Remove and let cool for 20 minutes or so.

Meringue topping

  • 3 egg whites
  • ½ cup sugar (chopped to castor sugar in the blender)
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 pinch salt
  • remainder of grated zest from lemon
  • 1 dessert spoon of lemon juice

 Beat the egg whites stiffly with a hand mixer (not a machine, they mix too quickly – we’re not mixing cement here y’know). Beat in the cream of tartar, castor sugar, lemon zest and lemon juice.

 Assembling the lemon meringue pie

Spoon the lemon curd over the base of the pie crust (you will use about three-quarters of the curd you made earlier). Spoon the meringue over the lemon curd. Place in the pre-heated 180C oven for 20 minutes, turning the heat down to 120C ten minutes after putting the pie in the oven. Best eaten chilled.

Passion fruit (granadilla) ice-cream

We grow the large yellow passion fruit (Passiflora edulis f. flavicarpa) but have to beat off the monkeys to get at the fruit which is harvested when it ripens and falls to the ground. We preserve the pulp with sugar (1 cup of sugar to 1 cup of pulp), dissolving the sugar in the pulp in a mixing bowl over several days at room temperature before bottling (cover with a plate when not stirring). Kept in the top of the fridge or on a cool dark shelf it remains usable for months. Just give the bottle a shake every few weeks to mix up the pulp and natural syrup.

The ingredient proportions for ice-cream are: for every cup of cream you use 2 egg yolks, three table spoons of sugar, 40ml (1 tablespoon) passion fruit pulp. The basic ice-cream recipe (without the passion fruit) was given to us by a Japanese friend, Takeo Horigutsi, in the late 1980’s.

  •  750 ml (three cups) cream
  • 9 table spoons sugar
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 125 ml (half a cup) of passion fruit pulp syrup

 Vigorously stir the egg yolks and sugar until they form a nice light yellow creamy consistency. Whip the fresh cream until it forms stiff peaks then add slowly to the creamed egg yolk and sugar mixture, stirring all the while, until you have a nice even consistency.

 Pour into a 2-litre ice-cream container, stir in three tablespoons of the passion fruit pulp, close the container and place in the freezer for one hour. Remove from the freezer and stir thoroughly once again, ensuring even distribution of the passion fruit pulp. Cover and return to the freezer for a further five hours.

 Warning: this is a rich, smooth, real ice-cream that rarely lasts more than a day!