The Nigella Diaries: Treacle Tart

I must confess to never having tasted treacle tart until we were in Bakewell. Of course, I’d heard of it, it’s just that I’d decided that I probably wouldn’t like it if ever I were to try it – me not eating sugar other than in its fermented form (ie. wine), that is. As an aside, I still don’t understand why wine isn’t classed in the same way as kombucha…actually, I do understand, I just like to say that so please don’t write and offer an explanation.

Okay, back to the treacle tart. When I tried it that day in Bakewell, I really enjoyed it. I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but it wasn’t what was presented to us.

I’d thought it would be treacly dark, almost like molasses, and teeth shatteringly sweet. What we got was a thin tart with a sort of jammy texture that was a little like eating dark honey on toast – with perfect pastry and custard, that is. Where I had been originally intending to skip past this recipe in How To Eat, now I was quite looking forward to it.

Before I get into the recipe itself, another couple of points about treacle tart. The first is that treacle is nowhere to be found on the ingredients list – although golden syrup is. A little light googling soon provided the answer to that: the word treacle refers to all forms of syrups made during sugar refining, from golden syrup through to black molasses. Mystery solved. The treacle tart, in its current carnation, dates back only to the invention of golden syrup in the late 1800s.

As well as being a classic English “nursery” or comfort food pudding, treacle tart is an example of baking at its most frugal as this tart is actually a fabulous use of leftover bread. Yes, other than golden syrup, fresh breadcrumbs are the major ingredient in the filling for this tart. The idea of binding breadcrumbs with sugar, however, is an old one – medieval gingerbread was made in this way, but with honey.

Anyways, you can see why, when times were tough, this pudding was so popular – stale bread and cheap syrup equalled a big calorie and sweetness bang for very little buck…so to speak.

To the recipe. Naturally, given that this is a Nigella challenge, I had to make Nigella’s recipe. She uses a plain shortcrust pastry in her tart with some lemon juice mixed into the water that you’d usually use to bind the pastry. She also uses double cream in her filling:

“I know this isn’t traditional but don’t be tempted to leave it out: it gives a soft roundedness to the sweet filling and stops it from drying out.”

Her comments about it being non-traditional had me running back to google. I found some recipes agreed with her inclusion of double cream, some included both cream and eggs, and Fortnum & Mason’s uses clotted cream, zested orange and lemon and apple.

More traditional offerings, such as those by Yorkshire born and bred James Martin, did not. This did, of course, present me with a conundrum. On one side I have the challenge to cook my way through Nigella’s How To Eat and on the other a deep desire to keep to traditional methods.

I baked both – a couple of weeks apart, of course. And the verdict? While everyone agreed that Nigella’s version was lovely, my family preferred the more traditional version, so that’s the one I’m bringing you today. For us, it had the perfect breadcrumb to syrup ratio.

Any plain shortcrust recipe will do the trick – or you can use store bought. If you are going to make your own it needs to be thin, but not so thin that the filling leaks out; and substitute a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice for the water that you’d usually use. If you want a recipe for shortcrust though, Nigella’s is as straightforward as you can get.

Nigella’s Shortcrust Pastry

“At its simplest, pastry is just a quantity of flour mixed with half its weight in fat and bound with water.”

In the case of this pastry – enough to cover the base of a 23cm loose-bottomed tart tin – use 120g flour, 60g (diced, chilled) butter, a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice and a couple of tablespoons chilled water.

Nigella uses Italian 00 flour and so do I…usually. This time I’d run out and just used plain. 

From here you rub the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs and stir in (with a knife) as much water/lemon juice as is required to bind it into a dough. Wrap it in cling film and let it rest in the fridge for about 20 mins.

Preheat your oven to 190C. Roll the pastry to line your (buttered) tart tin. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect but repair any gaps in it.

Prick the base all over lightly with a fork, line the base with baking paper and fill with rice ceramic baking beans. Bake the pastry blind for 10-15 minutes, remove the paper and rice or beans and return the pastry case to the oven for a few minutes more, until light golden-brown.

The Filling

Okay, this is the James Martin version – not the Nigella version. You’ll need:

  • 450g golden syrup
  • 85g fresh breadcrumbs
  • A teaspoon ground ginger
  • The finely grated zest of 1 lemon and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice

Mix together the filling ingredients and pour into the bottom of your baked tart shell. Bake it at 190C for 30 minutes.

Nigella’s version

If you did want to make Nigella’s filling you’d heat 225g golden syrup in a pan and when it’s warm and runny add 60g breadcrumbs, zest of half a lemon, and the juice of half a lemon (less whatever you used in the pastry). Let it cool for 5 minutes and then stir through a few tablespoons of cream and pour or spoon it into your pastry case. Cook for 15 minutes at 200C, then another 15 minutes at 180C.

The custard

This is now the only custard I make. It’s that good. It also makes sense. Rather than a complicated set of ingredients, Nigella advises 1 egg yolk and 1 heaped teaspoon of sugar for every 100ml of milk (or cream) and some vanilla. Too easy – and no custard powder in sight.

I make a full cream version using 300ml single cream, 3 egg yolks and 3 teaspoons of sugar and either a vanilla bean or a teaspoon of vanilla extract. 

I’ve taken on the challenge to cook my way through Nigella Lawson’s How To Eat. You can find other episodes here.

Author: Jo

Author, baker, sunrise chaser

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