Waiter, there’s something in my… melktert!


20071127_milktarttitleoptimisedDo you know the feeling when you know something is part of your heritage and you know you should like it… but you just don’t?  Like my father growing up in the Afrikaner heartland of the Orange Free State province, but not liking braais.  Or a Scotsman who can’t stand haggis.  Or me, growing up in an Afrikaner household in South Africa and not really caring for melktert.

And I have to say, I could have picked something easier to avoid.

Melktert (literally “milk tart”) is one of those baked items (like koeksusters) that you really struggle to get away from in South Africa.  Every school cake sale featured milk tarts, every home industry bakery is full of them, and everybody’s mom/sister/aunty/gran had their own secret recipe.  But when a friend of my mom’s would come round for tea and say she had brough milk tart, my heart would sink.  I wanted coconut tart, apple tart, fridge tart – just something with some taste!  You see, milk tart is basically a baked custard tart and I’ve never been a fan of custard – just too bland for me.  So my relationship with milk tart was kind of doomed from the start.

Melktert is one of the dishes that we inherited from the Dutch settlers who colonised the Cape in the 1600s.  I had initially wondered whether melktert was not borrowed from the Portuguese who were the first Europeans to land at the Cape and continue to be a thriving community in South Africa, because the Portuguese pastel de nata is very similar to a mini melktert. But greater minds than mine seem to disagree and insist that the melktert we still eat today is inherited from the Mediaeval Dutch cuisine.

The first mention of a similar dish in Dutch cuisine is in fact in the first cookbook published in Dutch by Thomas Van der Noot in 1510.  Apparently, the Mediaeval diet in Europe was heavily influenced by religious restrictions.  The church stipulated that feast days should alternate with fast days and so in most of Europe Wednesdays, Fridays and sometimes Saturdays (as well as days such as Lent and Advent) were fast days.  On fast days, meat and animal products like milk, cheese and eggs were not allowed.  To comply with these rules but still manage to have dessert, a porridge would be made on feast days consisting of almond milk, oil, cake flour, rice flour, ginger and cinnamon.  Later, when the fast day rules were relaxed, milk and eggs were substituted for the almond milk (almond essence was added to compensate for the loss of flavour).  Van der Noot apparently also included a “modern” recipe for melktert which included extra eggs and very little flour, bringing it almost entirely in line with the recipe we know today.

The one I never liked.

But then something happened.  On my visit to Johannesburg earlier this year, I got together with friends for a braai and Bronwyn volunteered to bring a milk tart.  She stressed that she would not be slaving over a hot stove making it, but did mention that she had found a shop that does excellent milk tarts.  Hmmm.  Unconvinced.  So after dinner, the milk tart was brought out and I cut myself a small piece, not exactly filled with hope.  But… what’s this?  Firstly, the custard filling was actually wobbly, like a pannacotta, rather than like the foam mattress-texture that I recall from my youth.  And the crust wasn’t the stodgy shortcrust I remembered, but puff pastry!  And far from being a disappointment, the taste merely confirmed what my eyes had already told me – a delicate wobbly custard filling in a featherlight crust with a generous dusting of cinnamon.  Perfect!  And so I began a thaw in my attitude towards milk tart.

Given this month’s saucy WTSIM theme of topless tarts, I really had no other option than to try my hand at milk tart to see if I could recreate milk tart as-the-universe-originally-intended.  The traditional flavouring is cinnamon, but I figured if we were infusing the milk, we might as well make things a bit more interesting and add some cardamom.  And besides – who hasn’t yearned to spice up a staid family dessert into a sexy topless tart?!


Other blogger recipes featuring custard include:






MELKTERT (serves 8)


about 200g of ready rolled puff pastry
1.5 cups milk
1 tsp butter
a pinch of salt
1 cinnamon stick
1 green cardamom pod
1 tsp custard powder
1.5 tsp cournflour (cornstarch)
1.5 tsp cake flour
1 Tbsp cold milk
1/4 cup sugar
2 eggs, separated
1/4 tsp almond essence (optional)
sugar mixed with a little ground cinnamon


Pre-heat the oven to 200C.  Line a 20cm diameter fluted pie dish with the puff pastry, leaving the edges raggedy and hanging over the edge of the dish.

Bring the milk to a slow boil in a medium saucepan, then add the butter, salt, cinnamon stick and cardamom pod.

Combine the custard powder, cornflour and cake flour.  Add the cold milk and make a paste.  Stir a little of the hot milk into the paste to thin it, then stir the custard paste into the hot milk in the saucepan.  Make sure there are no lumps in the paste – and don’t panic too much if there are some lumps in the saucepan once you’ve added the custard – just make sure you stir vigorously and continuously to get them to dissolve.  Add 2 Tbsp of the sugar and stir continuously.  (I cheated a little and whisked the custard with a wire whisk to keep it smooth!)  When the custard thickens, remove it from the heat and discard the cinnamon and cardamom.

Beat the egg whites until stiff, then beat in the remaining sugar gradually and set aside.  Beat the yolks slightly and then add about 2 Tbsp of the warm custard mix to the yolks and mix well.

Stir the yolk mix into the custard saucepan and add the almond essence (if using).  Gently fold in the egg whites.

Pour into the prepared pie dish, sprinkle with cinnamon sugar and bake at 200C for 10 minutes.  Then turn the heat down to 175C and bake for a further 10-15 mins, until puffed up and golden.

Allow to cool on a wire rack and serve in slices with coffee.

NOTES:  After much thought and some reading, I decided that the milk tart I had in Johannesburg was probably made by baking the pastry shell blind, making the custard in a separate put, and then scooping the thickened custard into the shell – no baking.  But seeing as I could not find a recipe for this method and I’m not confident of my custard-making skills, I opted for the recipe above which was adapted from a couple I found on RecipZaar. 

What attracted me to it was the whipped egg-whites – no way could it be stodgy with all that egg white in it – and I was right.  It’s not a difficult recipe at all, but takes a bit of time as each constituent part needs to be worked on – and it does dirty a lot of bowls/pots!  The addition of the cardamom was an inspiration, even if I say so myself, and I will definitely be repeating this as the taste is marvellous.  I also loved the taste of the custard before I added the eggs.  The flavour of the spices came through very strongly, and I would happily make flavoured custard like this to have with fruit desserts in future. 

The finished product not only looked lovely and puffed up in the oven like a souffle (see below!), but retained that lovely eggy wobbliness even after it had sunk down to normal proportions.  It is light and very moreish and deliciously spiced.  Definitely a keeper!


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  1. says

    Now, I love bland custard desserts. I’ve tried Kit’s crustless melktert, but I think this one’s on the agenda now too. I LOVE the idea of adding cardamom. Clever Jeanne!

  2. says

    Sjoe, you had me worried there for a minute – a South African that doesn’t like milk tart? The recipe you posted is very similar to the one I use and it IS nice. I confess I can’t handle those powdery, floury affairs that call themselves milk tart either!

  3. says

    Never heard of melktaart (I’m Flemish, not Dutch) but I love Portuguese nata. Your spiced-up version looks absolutely amazing Jeanne, I will certainly try it sometime. There’s a similar custard-based tart from Delia I absolutely love (deep lemon tart) and it’s easy to play around with (I’ve done coconut milk+mango and other versions).
    The medieval cookbook has me intrigued…
    Inne (de-lurking for the first time – we met briefly at Clotilde’s lecture in London a few months ago)

  4. says

    gorgeous Jeanne. This is very similar to my mom’s milktart recipe, and I have to agree that the souffle wobliness is the best part, as is the gently infused spiced custard. We do still use shortcrust though, albeit a very SHORT crust. I will have to try it with cardamom. I often add star anise as this is my favourite spice.

  5. says

    Great to see new life breathed into an old favourite! I agree that your addition of the cardamon is inspired. Will definitely give this a go come Christmas.

  6. says

    Never been a fan of custard tarts ever for the same ‘bland’ reason – cheesecake neither. But know cheese cake seems to have made a revival and everyone loves them, so I have to keep making them, and have been working on creating the perfect one. The secret, as in you milk tart is probably the same – you need to eat it warm – when it’s been kept cool over night, especially if you put it in the fridge it goes rock solid and just awful. Still slightly warm and they are both comfort food.

  7. says

    Wobbly? I have to confess that I would have difficulty even trying this. It looks like it falls into the “shudders on the plate” category of food. However, I have finally seen the light with creme brulee so this would probably surprise me too.
    What a good idea to add the cardamom!

  8. says

    Okay, NOW you’re talking my language. And I don’t mean the bit about you not liking custard (really??) but that melktert looks so gorgeous. I’m just going to have to nick it for a tea time here. I’ve never made one and we didn’t really have them foisted on us at home (probably why i love them, non?) but we did do our fair share of custard, even though it was always from custard powder. I’ve been kind of craving one of these for a while. Canadians don’t really do, or understand, custard. What do you mean there’s no UltraMel? :) What I’d give for a tub of Woolies’ fresh custard…
    Jeanne, could you tell me where in Johannesburg your friend got her melktert? I’d love to tell my Mother-in-law about it…

  9. says

    I have just decided, we have a lot in common. I don’t(didn’t) like melktert either and like you, I completely skip the custard…nothing whatsoever interesting about it! I still feel the same way about custard and I only eat my own melktert, which I make with puff pastry too and it doesn’t bounce(overuse of eggs) when I put my teeth to it! I’ll give yours a go too..if it tastes anywhere near as good as your beautufl pics…!We just HAVE to have a “family melktert recipe”…it is part of being south African, like you say.

  10. Nikki says

    When I knew I would be moving to the US, I also knew I had to find a melktert recipe that I could take with me. And as I am adamantly addicted to the poured custard version, and I don’t like the baked custard, soufflé-type melkterts, it was quite a search. A friend of my mom’s passed on a recipe, and I’ve since converted several Americans (including my husband) to the delights of cooled custard in a prebaked pastry. Start off with a pastry crust baked blind (puff pastry sounds wonderful, but I normally cheat and just use the standard supermarket pastry crusts).
    For the filling:
    1 pint (approx 2 cups) milk
    1/3 cup sugar
    2 eggs
    3 Tablespoon maizena (corn starch/corn flour)
    1 Tablespoon butter
    1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence
    Heat the milk and sugar until near boiling. Beat the eggs and maizena together until smooth. Temper the eggs with a little of the hot milk. Add eggy mixture to milk. Stir continuously and boil until it thickens. Remove from heat and add butter and vanilla essence. Pour through a sieve into pie dish and allow to cool. Sprinkle with cinnamon before serving.
    I’m going to have to experiment with cardamom, that sounds intriguing.

  11. says

    Hi Syrie
    The cardamom flavour really was great – don’t know why it hasn’t been part of the recipe for years!
    Hi Gay
    Thanks – it’s well worth making as the reward:effort ratio is really high :)
    Hi Charlotte
    If you love custard, I sincerely recommend that you make the custart that I used for this recipe. The cinnamon/cardamom flavour meant it was the first custard that I ever wanted to sit down and eat with a spoon, straight out of the pot!
    Hi Abby
    Glad I brought back some memories. You never quite leave Africa behind…
    Hi Gill
    I know, I know, hard to believe hey! But as you say, there are some things out there calling themselves milk tarts that serve purely to blacken the name of milk tarts around the world :o)
    Hi Patricia
    I have to agree with you (even if I say so myself!!). It’s amazing what a difference playing with subtle flavours and textures can make in a recipe.
    Hi Inne
    So it was you that I met that night!! I know you mentioned your blog’s name when we met but I never wrote it down and the next morning I wracked my brains but could not remember it! Thanks for delurking… I wonder whether the almond milk dessert referred to in the medieval book (and its successor) wasn’t called something else altogether. Either way, I love trying to find the roots of recipes like this that have travelled and metamorphosised!
    Hi Inge
    I think I’d like to try it with my own homemade SHORT crust pastry too. I know I have a great recipe tucked away somewhere that my mom used for klappertert – might give that a whirl next time.
    Hi Robert
    I was amazed at the difference that a subtle flavour can make – it just lifted the whole tart! Now it’s among my new favourite recipes…
    Hi James
    You are so right about eating it straight out of the oven! But then what baked item isn’t improved by eating it still fresh and warm… Although I have to say that, given the volume of eggs in this recipe, even after I had kept it in the fridge overnight, it still retained an appealing lightness.
    Hi Eva
    I had to say, I didn’t think it was possible to have a sexy-looking milk tart. But I did it :) Glad you liked the photos.
    Hi Elizabeth
    No, don’t worry – this is probably less wobbly than you’d think – it’s just delighfully wobbly compared to the milk tarts I remember from childhood – terrifyingly solid! If you can manage creme brulee, you’ll be fine with this :)
    Hi Robyn
    Yes really… But having said that, I have always liked the Woolies fresh custard! Maybe it’s the custard powder version I didn’t like?? Who knows. It just never got me excited the way Bar-One sauce could :) The melktert that changed my life was bought from the Weltevreden Park Spar in Jozi. It’s made by a company called Ouma se Spens, so probably also available in other branches of Spar and possibly other stores. Hope your ma-in-law finds it!
    Hi Ronell
    Great minds (and tastebuds!) think alike! There really is little worse than those milk tarts so dense they bounced, and that stodgy, stodgy pastry. This recipe is definitely going to become my family melktert recipe! I have my mom’s recipe too but that called for Ideal milk (and the measurements are still in ounces, which is Greek to me!) which I didn’t have, so I went with this one instead. It’s a winner!
    Hi Tartelette
    Glad you liked the tart! And if a non-custard-fan like myself could love it, so will you :)
    Hi Evelin
    Who would have thought it was a case of “you just haven’t met the right tart”! :o) Do yourself a favour and try it – too delicious!
    Hi Nikki
    Thanks for that recipe! I really do think that’s the way the milk tart was made that I tasted in Joburg, but I culd not find a recipe on the net. This sounds exactly right! And I’m pretty sure you could do the cardamom trick with this recipe too – just add the pod to the milk when you heat it and remember to fish it out later.

  12. Nikki says

    Thanks Jeanne! I forgot to mention that the 1/3 cup of sugar is a little on the sweet side for my tastes. If you do attempt this version, you may wish to experiment a little with how much sugar to add.

  13. Sarah Pipillini says

    Hello Mon Glace Cherie!!!
    FYI, if you are looking for your Melktert, the one you so cunningly hid behind the green veggie packets in the blue covered tart plate under the big round thingie; Don’t. It’s gone! All of it. I found it.
    Let that be a lesson for you!!!

  14. John von Bonde says

    Hi Jeanne
    I was fascinated by your historical narrative on the derivation of the melktert. The final version you give is definitely the real thing: I also have childhood memories on the subject, namely of my mother and grandmother referring slightingly to relatives and acquaintances who had the temerity to refer to “custard tarts” (i e short crusted versions of the real thing) as “melktert”! As for the unbaked fridge tarts masquerading as melkterte, well, words suitable to ladylike lips just didn’t suffice to describe those affronts to die ware tradisie (the true tradition, for the POMS). I remember a childhood winter holiday with my grandmother in Oudtshoorn where the predominant topic of conversation for an entire week was who made the most authentic melktert; funny how it acquired almost cult status in Afrikaans circles, isn’t it?

  15. Elvis says

    Hello Jeanne,
    Is cardomom the only difference between your recipe and Bronwyn’s Mom’s recipe? I’m looking for the old wobbly melktert from my childhood, but all I’ve found so far as re foam mattress type, lol! Willing to give the cardomom a shot…but…definitely want to try without too.
    Nikki, I’m trying your recipe for the thanksgiving dessert today. Thank you for posting that!

  16. Mike Hughes says

    I have been making melktert for years with all sorts of results. Your recipe sounds fab, ad no “foam mattress. May I suugest that when boiling the milk you might add a cinnamon stick to be removed later?

  17. says

    Jeanne! You’re making me miss Cape Town horribly! I remember having my first milk tart in Cape Town and writing it off as a custard pie like back home which I was never too fond of. Then I had a home made one that changed my mind. Love the addition of cardamom in your recipe, that sounds amazing! I’m gonna have to try making my own sexy, spicy topless tart!