Every surface of my kitchen and person-including my glasses, my nose, and the front of my apron-was covered in all-purpose flour. My hands were coated in vegetable shortening, and my dough was nowhere near done. I was determined to make Chinese puff pastry so I could fill its flaky layers with sweet, vanilla-scented egg custard. I'm an avid-and formerly professional-baker, but it was my first time making my way through a recipe for homemade Hong Kong egg tarts.
Like many emigrants from Hong Kong, I can't remember ever not knowing and loving this classic Chinese dessert. Nor can I recall the first time I had an egg tart, but I can picture my mom picking me up from school with a box of the warm, buttery pastries, and my dad ordering the tarts at dim sum, where their arrival signals the end of the meal.
The Hong Kong egg tart is a quintessential part of Cantonese cuisine that's the product of both British and Chinese tastes. Its roots are in the British custard tart made with a creamy filling and a shortcrust dough. The British introduced the custard tart to the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou in the 1920s, and over time the Cantonese adapted the tarts to suit their own tastes. Instead of using the expensive, imported ingredients the British tarts called for, like butter and custard powder, chefs used lard to make flaky puff pastry and whisked together a filling of eggs, sugar, water, and a touch of milk. Today both the shortcrust and puff pastry versions of the egg tarts are widely available to purchase in bakeries around Hong Kong.
I asked Kristina Cho, author of Mooncakes and Milk Bread, how she felt about egg tarts. "They're just so iconic," she tells me. "If you go to dim sum-or even if you go to a Chinese bakery-[the experience is] almost incomplete if you don't get one." San Francisco pastry chef Melissa Chou, of Grand Opening Bakery, agrees. "It's a very iconic Chinese dessert for me," Chou says. "It's the thing I always keep going back to."
Despite the Hong Kong egg tart's popularity, it's not something often attempted at home. The labor involved in making properly layered Chinese puff pastry is daunting and perhaps doesn't seem worthwhile when the tart is so easily purchased at a local Chinese bakery. Over the phone Chou tells me, "I would say it's never occurred to me to make them myself." Chou chuckles. "It's just one of those things. Why would I do that myself?" It's simpler to go the shortcrust route, but Cho, Chou, and I all agree that egg tarts made with flaky puff pastry are superior in taste and texture.
To make French-style puff pastry, you encase a cold slab of butter between layers of dough, then fold and roll it over and over again until you have thin, alternating layers of butter and dough. With Chinese puff pastry, you start with two separate doughs: one made with flour, water, and eggs, and another that includes lard or shortening. The two doughs are chilled, stacked on top of one another, and folded and rolled-as you would French puff pastry-to achieve thin layers. Compared to butter, lard and shortening are both more concentrated fats-they contain less than 1% water. The high ratio of fat to flour in the shortening-enriched dough, layered with the water dough, results in a shatteringly crisp pastry when baked.
It's extremely important to keep the dough as cold as possible and to work quickly. Because lard and shortening are extraordinarily soft fats even when cold, Chinese puff pastry is difficult to handle and can be challenging even for skilled chefs. In his cookbook, the Michelin-starred chef Andrew Wong writes, "For 20-odd years I completely took for granted the difficulty involved in making the perfect custard tart."
Still, I was determined. It seemed silly that I was confident in my ability to make a fancy French cake like a marjolaine or opera but couldn't imagine baking something as essential to my culture as the egg tart is. It wasn't just about embracing a new challenge, though. Lately, I've been yearning to re-create the flavors of my childhood in my own kitchen. I want to steam a whole fish, dive into a bowl of red-cooked chestnuts, and fill my apartment with the warm, spiced aroma of flavor-potted tofu.
For a long time I felt pressured to assimilate and shied away from my Chinese heritage. I was emotionally exhausted by the rejection that often came when I shared my food and culture with others. After these negative experiences in high school and early adulthood, I couldn't help but feel that being Chinese was more a burden than a joy. In my most vulnerable moments, I thought that disregarding my heritage seemed like a fair price to pay if it meant I'd be unequivocally accepted by my peers.
I never learned to make turnip cake or mooncakes from scratch. But last year's shooting in Atlanta and the recent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes jolted me awake. I immersed myself in Chinese food blogs and cookbooks. Cooking through Irene Kuo's The Key to Chinese Cooking, Cecilia Chiang's The Seventh Daughter, and Grace Young's The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen felt like reconnecting with my culture. Setting my dinner table full of the foods I grew up eating-and sharing this experience with my husband-filled my chest with pride.
"When you make [an egg tart] yourself, you lay a little claim to it," Cho says. "You can just feel really prideful of yourself and your culture too." That afternoon I thought about Cho's words as I followed Wong's egg tart recipe. My first try turned out terribly; I had overworked the dough and it was tough and brittle. My second try was much better. I bit into the crisp, tender pastry and savored the smooth custard. It wasn't quite as good as the last one I had at the famed Tai Cheong bakery in Hong Kong, but holding the egg tart in my hand-one that I had made from start to finish-felt pretty darn empowering.