Going to the Chinese supermarket with my family was a weekly pilgrimage, and the reward was always egg tarts. As the evil older sibling, I convinced my brother that they were disgusting, so I could have his share. I kept this charade going until college when he reluctantly bit into one and realized just how heavenly they are.
More recently, when I moved to Hong Kong for work, I feasted on egg tarts on the regular. It became a favorite afternoon pastime to wash down a few with coffee and people-watch at a cafe.
“Egg tarts have a long history in Hong Kong, they are indispensable, and they are completely integrated into the lives of Hong Kong people,” said Siu Yan Ho, a former chef who teaches at the Department of Chinese at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
Now back in the states, I’ve used quarantine time to figure out how to make them at home. It’s not easy, especially for a pastry newbie like me, but it’s definitely worth the time and effort. Even before the pandemic, it was hard to find a Chinese bakery in Washington, much less one with freshly baked egg tarts.
“While it is possible to make egg tarts at home, due to its delicacy, there is a lot of work and preparation involved,” said Janice Wong, corporate manager of Kee Wah Bakery in Los Angeles and granddaughter of its founder, who started the bakery in Hong Kong in 1938. “Be patient, as it may take many trials and errors before a satisfactory result is reached.”
It took me six batches to get it right. For the first try, I used a pie tin, which I don’t recommend. As a full-size pie, the egg tart simply had too much filling. It’s like an Oreo cookie — the filling-to-crust ratio has to be just right. I like to take my time eating an egg tart, nibbling around the crust before devouring down the middle.
The dessert is a representative of Hong Kong’s fusion cuisine. There are variations with flaky or cookie crusts, caramelized or glossy tops, and even with Hokkaido cheese or green tea. But, my favorite has always been the flaky crust with a simple, delicate egg filling.
The flaky crust with a puffy pastry is from Guangzhou, China, an open port like Hong Kong, Ho said. It was created in the 1920s with lard when restaurants were coming up with new combinations of dim sum. Many of these restaurants had branches in Hong Kong.
The cookie crust, however, is made with butter and derived from a custard tart during the British colonization of Hong Kong, Ho said. But instead of the more expensive cream and milk filling, Hong Kong bakeries used eggs, sugar and water. This is similar to a Chinese-style stewed egg dessert, he said, which is much softer and smoother.
Basically, it’s like a flan or a creme brulee, said Dave Lazaro, marketing manager for one of my favorite Taiwanese bakeries, 85 Degrees, which has 65 locations in California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Texas. The egg tart is also one of their top selling items out of 50-some types of bread and pastries.
“It’s just that subtle combination,” Lazaro said. “It’s not overly sweet. So when you eat it, you don’t feel like it’s too heavy or too rich, and then it has that texture where it’s just right.”
After testing multiple batches of egg tarts, here are mistakes to avoid. First off, invest in 3-inch wide, fluted metal — not disposable — tart tins. (The throwaway types are too shallow for a proper ratio of filling to crust.) The ruffled edges give you crispy, pretty finish. Lightly grease the tins with cooking spray.
Second, make sure to work out the large lumps of butter in the dough. Small chunks are okay, but bigger ones will result in a crust that sticks to the tins. Third, don’t skip the multiple kneading, folding and refrigeration steps. Although extremely tedious, following through will ensure the crust will be easier to handle and super flaky.
One more tip, while the tarts are heavenly fresh out of the oven, they do not keep well past a day.
If your household can’t eat a dozen, you can bake them in batches. Place the dough in the tart tins, cover them tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate them overnight or freeze them for up to a month. The filling can be mixed and refrigerated for up to two days.
That way, you can bake a half-dozen at a time and make the happiness last longer.
Chinese Egg Tarts
You can make these tarts the traditional way, with a multistep, homemade pastry dough that turns the process into a weekend baking project. If you want to cut the preparation time, you can use a flaky pie dough, a press-in cookie dough recipe, or store-bought puff pastry dough, which will get your closest to the homemade dough. One 9-1/2-by-10-inch sheet of puff pastry (about 10 ounces) works, but you may need to re-roll scraps for a few of the tart tins. You will need tins that are about 3 inches wide by about 1-inch deep. You’ll also need a 3 1/4-inch cookie cutter.
These tarts taste best fresh from the oven. If you do not plan to serve all 12 at once, make the filling and press the dough into the tart molds. Then refrigerate the filling and the tart tins, tightly covered, for up to 2 days. Then, fill and bake the tarts as needed.
Make Ahead: The filling can be refrigerated for up to 2 days, but must be rewhisked before using. The dough can refrigerated, tightly wrapped in plastic, for up to 3 days. It also can be rolled out and molded into the tins, then frozen, tightly wrapped in plastic, for up to 1 week.
Storage Notes: The baked tarts are best the day they are made; they do not store well.
- 1/4 cup (50 grams) granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup (120 milliliters) hot water
- 1 large egg, at room temperature
- 1/4 cup (60 milliliters) evaporated milk
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 stick (4 ounces/113 grams) very cold unsalted butter, cubed
- 1/4 cup (30 grams) all-purpose flour
- Pinch of salt
- 3/4 cup (85 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
- 1 large egg, at room temperature
- 1 tablespoon water, at room temperature
- Pinch of salt
- Cooking spray or vegetable oil, for greasing the tins
Make the filling: In a medium bowl, dissolve the sugar in the hot water, then refrigerate until the syrup is cool to the touch, 30 to 45 minutes.
In another medium bowl, whisk the egg with the evaporated milk and vanilla until combined. Whisk in the cooled syrup until combined. Using a fine-mesh strainer, pass the filling through several times, so it is completely smooth. Refrigerate until well chilled, 20 minutes.
Make the butter dough: In the bowl of a food processor, combine the butter, flour and salt and pulse until it clumps into a ball. (Alternatively, you can work the butter into the flour by hand until it becomes a ball.) Turn the dough out onto a piece of plastic wrap, shape into a 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) thick rectangle, wrap tightly and refrigerate until cold, at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.
Make the egg dough: When the butter dough is sufficiently cold, in a medium bowl, combine the flour, egg, water and salt and mix until not overly sticky to the touch. Dust the counter with additional flour and roll out the dough to about 1/8-inch (about 3 millimeters) thickness. If the dough sticks to the counter, use a thin spatula or bench scraper to release it and add more flour to the surface.
Unwrap the butter dough and place it in the middle of the egg dough. Wrap the butter dough in the egg dough — first folding top and bottom and then right and left — as if wrapping a present.
Generously flour your work surface and dust your rolling pin and the dough with the flour. Roll out the dough to a large, 1/4-inch-thick rectangle; you may need to rotate the dough a quarter-turn every now and then and dust with a little more flour as you go. Fold the dough into thirds, like a letter, and then fold the shorter side in half, creating a compact rectangle. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour.
Repeat rolling out, folding and chilling of the dough two more times. Try to keep the dough in a neat rectangle as you roll and re-roll it.
Once the dough has chilled for the last hour, position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees.
On a generously floured counter, roll out the dough to about 1/16-inch (2-millimeter) thickness. Using a 3 1/4-inch round cookie cutter, cut out circles for the crust. You can re-roll the dough scraps twice, as needed. Lightly grease each tin with cooking spray or oil and place a circle of dough into each tin. Press the dough into the bottom and up the sides of the tin and, using a fork, prick the bottom and sides of the crusts. Chill the crusts for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.
Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and place the tins on top. Fill each tin to about two-thirds of the way with the filling, about 2 tablespoons.
Bake the tarts for 15 minutes, then decrease the oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 7 to 10 minutes, or until the crust is light golden and a toothpick inserted in the center of a tart can stand up on its own without falling over, or the center is set, but still slightly jiggly.
Transfer the egg tart tins to a wire rack and let cool completely before serving, about 20 minutes. Remove the cooled tarts from the tins and serve at room temperature.
Calories: 261; Total Fat: 17 g; Saturated Fat: 10 g; Cholesterol: 105 mg; Sodium: 54 mg; Carbohydrates: 22 g; Dietary Fiber: 1 g; Sugar: 9 g; Protein: 4 g.
Recipe from staff writer Marian Liu.
Correction: A headnote as well as make-ahead and storage notes for this recipe were omitted when this story was first published. They have been added.