That making custard is said to require precision and skill and that said custard might impazzire (go crazy, ie split) are the two reasons I avoided making it for years. I stuck to my tin of Bird’s powder, which I liked even more once I learned from Simon Hopkinson that Mr Bird drove a custard-coloured Rolls Royce around town. But then I discovered a number of tricks that dispelled all those fears about making my own. First, it is perfectly acceptable – encouraged, even – to add a spoonful of flour; the custard equivalent of stabilisers on a bike. Second, once you have the hang of it, proportions of sugar and milk can be relaxed. And third, if it doesn’t thicken as it should, you can always melt some chocolate into the pan, to end up with something somewhere between a chocolate pud and one of those thick Italian hot chocolates you pay a fortune for at the bar at the top of the ski run.
The custard today is for an Italian torta della nonna. Originally from Florence, torta della nonna – grandma’s tart – isn’t strictly an Easter treat, being found under the glass dome in trattorias alongside fruit salad, lasagne-sized tiramisu and crisscrossed jam crostata all year round. It nevertheless feels fitting at this time of year – symbolic even – its egg-rich custard scented with the eternally hopeful scent of lemon and a pine nut topping.
First the pastry case, for which I suggest you use the recipe your fingers know best and the method of chilling and baking blind you are most comfortable with. I make a slightly sweetened shortcrust – 300g plain flour and 150g cold diced butter rubbed to breadcrumbs with cold hands, a pinch of salt, 80g sugar and two eggs added and everything brought into a dough, which is then wrapped and rested in the fridge for an hour. This quantity is more than enough for a 23cm tart, so you can make jam tarts the next day with what’s left, or stash it in the freezer for another year. Although not fussy, this tart is best with a crisp crust, so roll as thin as you dare, then line the tin with an overhang (to be snapped away once baked) and bake blind under a parchment circle weighted with beans until the pastry is the colour of a rich tea biscuit.
When it comes to custard, recipes often suggest you begin in a bowl, but that means another thing to wash, so I whisk together five egg yolks and six tablespoons of sugar in a heavy-based saucepan off the heat. Once the mixture is pale and thick, stir in a heaped tablespoon of cornstarch or plain flour, then put the pan over a low heat and, little by little – and always whisking – add 600ml warm milk and the zest of an unwaxed lemon. Now comes the steady whisk, for about 10 minutes or so, over a low heat, so the mixture never so much as bubbles, until your custard is smooth, silky and thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. If it goes wrong, see the chocolate note above.
Covered with cling-film, the custard will keep happily in the fridge for a couple of days. Otherwise, pour it directly into the tart case, then scatter over 50g pine nuts or flaked almonds that have been soaked in cold water for 10 minutes (a good way to stop hasty cooking). Bake at 180C/350F/gas 4 for 30 minutes, or until the custard is set and the pine nuts ever so slightly golden. Torta della nonna is better eaten when it is just warm, rather than hot, after Easter lunch – or any lunch for that matter. I think it is even better the next day, fridge-cold so the custard is set firm and fudgy, cut and eaten with no precision or skill but plenty of joy for Easter, or equinox, or simply for having made custard.