‘Come along, kiddie-winkies! Come and get your treacle tart,’ the Child Catcher trills in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, to lure children away. The youngsters are particularly taken with the idea of treacle tart, and it’s not difficult to imagine why: unapologetically sweet and sticky, it’s irresistible to small, greedy hands.
It’s easy to dismiss treacle tart as a nursery food. But that, of course, is part of its charm. It’s the Platonic ideal of a childhood treat, and a byword for comfort. In Harry Potter, the love potion Amortentia smells of whatever someone loves most in the world; to Harry, it smells of broomsticks, Ginny Weasley’s hair and treacle tart, the first dessert he ever ate at Hogwarts.
Anyone making a treacle tart goes in with their eyes open. The first ingredient — a whole tin of golden syrup — is the giveaway: this is a dish with little light and shade. Attempting to make one that isn’t sweet is like trying to make a low-fat suet pastry, or a booze-free Long Island Iced Tea: you’re missing the whole point.
At first blush, the name ‘treacle tart’ is a misnomer, since few recipes for this dish call for what we now know as treacle. But once upon a time, ‘treacle’ was any liquid product of the sugar-refining process. In 1883, Charles Eastick found a way to turn the waste treacle at the Tate & Lyle factory in Plaistow into a honey-like syrup. This syrup was initially called ‘Goldie’ and sold on the cheap to factory workers and locals. But his boss, Abram Lyle, was a shrewd businessmen. By 1885, he’d created the iconic green-and-gold tin, emblazoned with a Bible quote: ‘Out of the strong came forth sweetness.’
The use of this cheap sugar by-product makes sense in this tart, a true waste-not-want-not pudding that uses stale bread to soak up the sweetness. In fact, in its most basic form, treacle tart is a strikingly simple dish. Plain pastry, breadcrumbs, golden syrup: that’s it.
I do recommend a few additions, however. A little double cream, butter and an egg make the syrup centre richer; browning the butter beforehand tips it on to the right side of jaw-achingly sweet. I use brown breadcrumbs, rather than white, and add a sprinkle of salt. But I stop short of the nuts and spices others recommend. To me, the one-dimensional nature of treacle tart is its raison d’être.
The hands-on elements of this tart are short and simple. The pastry is as easy as pastry can be. It won’t crumble in your hands, and it’s quick to shape and cook. Be sure to roll it as thinly as you dare: this will help you avoid the dreaded soggy bottom as this really is a dish that calls out for a crisp, crunchy shell. To make the filling, I recommend soaking your breadcrumbs ahead of time. That way, the tart is more cohesive, and will cut into proud, clean slices that won’t spill all over the plate.
I cook the tart at a higher temperature to begin with, and then drop it down for the bulk of the cooking time. This ensures the sweet spot between crunchy top and tender interior. For the prettiest results, use a 23cm fluted tart tin with a removable base. A larger tin or pie dish will do, though your filling layer won’t be quite so generous.
Treacle tart should be served warm, with cold custard. And a proper, homemade pudding demands proper, homemade custard. As much as treacle tart is a callback to schoolday memories, school custard, made from powder, is probably one best forgotten. This custard is ivory yellow, flecked with thousands of black dots of vanilla, pale and fragrant. The dense, sticky tart matches with a creamy, dribble custard that will pool on the plate.
Custard can be intimidating if you haven’t made it before. But the key is simply patience: cook it slowly, over a low heat, scraping the bottom of the pan, until it’s thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Don’t leave your post, don’t stop stirring, until you reach that point. The stirring I’m afraid is not optional and will guard against lumps. It’s a faff but more than worth the effort.
Treacle tart with custard
Makes pudding for 6-8
Takes 30 minutes, plus chilling
Bakes 1 hour
For the pastry
200g plain flour
100g unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon water
1 egg yolk
For the filling
454g golden syrup
3 tablespoons double cream
1/2 lemon, zested
200g brown breadcrumbs
1/2 teaspoon salt
For the custard
100g caster sugar
4 egg yolks
1 vanilla pod
1. First, brown the butter: place in a small saucepan over a medium heat. The butter will melt and foam, and begin to turn brown and smell nutty. Remove from the heat as soon as you can smell the nuttiness.
2. Place the syrup in a bowl with the breadcrumbs, browned butter, eggs, cream and lemon zest and stir with a whisk. Cover and refrigerate for 3-4 hours.
3. To make the pastry, rub the butter into the dry ingredients until it resembles sand. Mix the egg with the water and add this, bringing the mixture together first with a knife, and then with your hands. Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate.
4. While the pastry is resting, make the custard. Cut the vanilla pod in half and scrape out the seeds. Place the cream and milk in a saucepan with the vanilla seeds and pod over a medium heat.
5. Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar. When the milk and cream are steaming, fish out the vanilla pod, and pour a third of the hot milk on to the eggs and sugar, whisking gently. Return the whole mixture to the pan and cook gently, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan. The mixture will thicken. Dip a spoon in the custard and run your finger down the back of it: if the line remains clean, and the mixture doesn’t rush to fill the gap, it is ready. Leave to cool, with clingfilm touching the custard to stop skin forming.
6. Roll the pastry out in a rough circle about 4in wider than your tart tin. Using the rolling pin, lift it into the tin. Prick all over with a fork and refrigerate for 20 minutes. Once chilled, push a rolling pin over the edge of the tin so that the excess pastry falls away.
7. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Place baking parchment on the pastry and fill with dry rice. Bake for 15 minutes, remove the rice and parchment and return to the oven for ten minutes. Brush the base with the remaining egg yolk and bake for three minutes.
8. Spoon the thickened mixture into the tart case and bake for ten minutes. Turn the temperature down to 140°C and bake for another 25 minutes.