Sometimes, it is the least spectacular-looking foods that pack the biggest flavour punch, and deliver the most reward in terms of eating. Think beef stew, a mass of dark brown homogenous sludge that delivers rich, sticky umami flavours with every mouthful. In the same vein, beef rendang, that fabulous Malaysian curry whose uniform brown appearance gives no hint of the flavour explosion within: a riot of coconut, ginger, lemongrass and garlic. Banana bread - not exactly sporting oodles of frivolous decoration, yet - for me - infinitely more rewarding than any fancily decorated piece of patisserie. Lentil dhal - if made correctly, a gorgeous blend of buttery richness and warming spices, but definitely never a contender for prettiest dish of the year.
In Syria, I once took a bite from a loaf of bread that looked distinctly normal and unpromising, only to find the most incredible soft, buttery brioche texture underneath its sweet, glazed crust. In Vietnam, the homely appearance of a bowl of pho gives very little hint of the depth of flavour promised by that clear broth. In Sicily, you'd be forgiven for turning your nose up at a bowl of caponata, a sweet-sour aubergine stew, but perseverance would reward you with an incredible medley of flavours: punchy vinegar, smoky aubergine, salty capers. Curries are, by and large, mostly indistinguishable in appearance, but what a range of hot/sweet/sharp/spicy combinations lies hidden by that homogeneity.
This Yorkshire curd tart may not win any prizes for prettiness. It has no sexily oozing ganache coating, no whipped cream swirls, no sugar paste roses. There are no glacé cherries, edible flowers or decadent spirals of buttercream. It doesn't even boast a glorious colourful simplicity about it, like a lemon tart or a rhubarb crumble.
However, this is all a cunning ploy on the part of the Yorkshire curd tart. It likes to maintain a sense of exclusivity, you see. It only wants to be familiar to that privileged and select group who are 'in the know'. It doesn't want to be adopted by the plebs, cheapened by mass production that provides barely edible, over-processed, over-sugared versions to satisfy the sweet tooths of the general public. Look what happened to its good friend Bakewell Tart, or Mince Pie. It's barely worth thinking about the poor fate of Fondant Fancy. The Yorkshire curd tart never wants to find itself in the overzealous hands of that dentist's nemesis, Mr Kipling.
In order to maintain this status quo, the Yorkshire curd tart hides its fabulous nature under a cunningly-fashioned cloak of beige. It conceals its utter deliciousness beneath a cleverly uniform, nondescript crust. Even when you cut into it (be gentle, please), it gives little away, revealing nothing more than a few uncontroversial currants peppering what is otherwise a homogenous, unremarkable interior.
Ah, I can see it's fooled you too. You weren't that amazed by the photos. They're certainly not a patch on that luscious chocolate ganache cake with the glossy strawberries I made about a year ago. You're thinking, 'meh, looks a bit bland. Beige. Click away'.
Perhaps you should, because I'm not sure the Yorkshire curd tart will be very happy about me revealing its secret to the world.
Because the truth is, you see, that this is an utterly delicious piece of baking. You start with a pastry crust, which is always a good sign. You fill this with a mixture of creamed butter and sugar, blended with pale curd cheese - a little like ricotta, but firmer. This you brighten with a few aromatic spices - nutmeg, mostly - and sweet little currants, which provide a beautiful burst of flavour within the comforting, custard-like filling.
It's hard to describe the flavour of this wonderful creation. I first tried it, at the insistence of my mother, a Yorkshire lass, at Betty's tearoom (a northern institution). I was sceptical, just like you. I probably wanted to go for the shiny fruit tarts sitting next to it. The Yorkshire curd tart is unfazed by these. It is not jealous of their flouncy airs and graces - it doesn't want to attract the attention of just anyone.
However, since my first bite, I've been hooked on the glorious combination of crunchy pastry and the soft, yielding interior. Its texture is reminiscent of a cross between treacle tart and custard tart - not too sweet and sticky, but not gooey either. It's probably best described as a more dense, crumbly version of a cheesecake. Apparently it originated on farms as a way of frugally using up the curds that are by-products of the cheesemaking process. I can't think of a better way to rescue them than by combining them with butter, sugar, spices and fruit.
Having long enjoyed the occasional curt tart from Betty's (a major factor in my decision to attend York University), I decided to have a go at making my own. It seems fitting that I mark my transition to the north of England by ensuring a Yorkshire speciality lies firmly within my cooking repertoire.
While you can sometimes find curd cheese in specialist delis and cheese shops, it's incredibly easy to make - you just heat whole milk, add a little lemon juice, allow it to separate into curds and whey, then drain the curds in a sieve overnight through a cloth so they turn a little more solid and creamy. After your cheese is ready, you just make a quick pastry, line a tart tin, then beat the cheese with the butter, sugar, currants and an egg.
I decided to add a few spices to enrich mine: nutmeg is a given, but I also put in a little ground ginger, and some orange peel powder. The slight hint of warm citrus that it lends to the crumbly, creamy filling is perfect. It's not too sweet a tart, instead possessing a delicious buttery creaminess, without actually containing much butter. It's rich and comforting without being heavy, a perfect late afternoon pick-me-up, or a delicious dessert with some ice cream.
I'm sure you're all intrigued. Get into the kitchen, make this delicious and underrated creation, and enjoy the unusually moreish combination of ingredients.
Then promptly forget it ever happened. Forget all about the curd tart. Definitely don't tell your friends. Let's keep it a little-known secret.
Yorkshire curd tart (serves 6-8):
For the curd cheese:
- 1.2 litres whole milk (a 2 pint bottle is fine)
- Juice of 1 lemon
- For the pastry:
- 140g plain flour
- 85g cold butter, cubed
- 1 tsp caster sugar
- Pinch of salt
- Ice cold water
For the filling:
- 50g butter, softened
- 50g caster sugar
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/4 tsp ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp orange peel powder
- Curd cheese (see above)
- 35g currants
The night before you want to bake the tart, make the curd cheese. Bring the milk to a gentle simmer in a large saucepan, then add the lemon juice. Lower the heat and stir gently, and watch the milk separate into curds (white lumps) and whey (pale liquid). Remove from the heat and leave to cool, then pour the mixture into a sieve lined with muslin or a teatowel/clean cloth, resting over a pan or bowl. Leave to drain overnight. In the morning, scrape the curd cheese (it will look a bit like ricotta) from out of the cloth and refrigerate. You can use the leftover liquid (the whey) for making scones or soda bread - use it instead of buttermilk.
For the pastry, put the flour, butter, sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add 1tbsp of cold water, pulse again, then continue to add water a little bit at a time until the mixture just starts to come together - you'll need around 2-3tbsp. Turn the pastry out onto a floured work surface and knead until it just forms a ball, then wrap in clingfilm and chill for at least 30 minutes in the fridge.
When ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 180C. Roll out the pastry on a floured work surface and use to line a 20cm tart tin or pie dish with a removable base. Don't trim the sides of the pastry yet, as they will shrink when baking. Put some greaseproof paper in the pastry case and fill with baking beans, then bake for 10 minutes. Remove the beans and paper and bake for a further 10 minutes, until the case is golden.
Meanwhile, make the filling. Beat together the butter and sugar using an electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Gradually add the egg, beating in between additions. Add the nutmeg, ginger and orange peel powder, then add the curd cheese. Whisk gently to incorporate it into the mixture, then whisk in the currants.
When the pastry case has baked, pour the curd filling into it and bake for 35-40 minutes until golden and set - it should still have a slight wobble to it, though. Allow to cool, then dust with icing sugar and serve.