I spend quite a lot of time ‘collecting’ things for my characters: I flick through books and drift around museums quietly discovering things that might have belonged to them. These socks. That perfume bottle. This mirror. It’s part of building a well-rounded character, I think, placing these bits and pieces in their hands and their living spaces. I also spend quite a lot of time thinking about what they might like to eat: when I first invented my pleasure-loving Georgian courtesan, Angelica Neal, I spent ages researching eighteenth-century sweets and puddings. None of them actually feature in the story (so far), but imagining how she’d have eaten them, and with what enjoyment, really helped me get to the heart of her character. I’m convinced that back in 1788 Angelica would have gone absolutely wild for a baked custard tart flavoured with nutmeg and orange blossom water. Tomorrow is my very last Novel History class, so I decided to bake Angelica’s tart for our tea-break.
I have for some time treasured in my mind an 18th century recipes for ‘the most delicious orange tart’ which involved boiling Seville orange peel in milk or cream: however, I did not also treasure it in my Favourites folder, and I utterly failed in tracking it down today. Mrs Beeton gives a recipe for something quite similar, though, so I collated a few ancient recipes and crossed my fingers that I’d approximate what I was looking for.
The happy result is deliciously fragrant and unctuous, although the texture’s a little bit different from what I’d envisioned: it’s wobbly and smooth and air-bubble free, a bit like silken tofu or an old-fashioned custard tart – which I suppose is exactly what it is. I think I’d expected it to be a bit more eggy and a bit less creamy, but it is beautiful. Here’s the recipe:
shortcrust pastry (I bought some. So sue me. I’ve got to interview a Booker Prize winner tomorrow)
300ml double cream
125 ml whole milk
zest of one orange
juice of half an orange (eat the rest of the orange yourself)
30g light brown sugar
2 egg yolks (keep whites for meringue or something)
a tsp or so of orange blossom water (go easy – but not too easy)
preheat the oven to 200C.
Put the cream and milk in a pan with the orange zest and a good grating of nutmeg, and heat on the hob until almost boiling. Then take it off the heat and let it cool. The orange flavour will steep into the cream and intensify over time.
Line one big pie tin or two little ones with the pastry, prick, and blind bake for 15 minutes or until done. Once removed from the oven, reduce the heat to 170C.
Now beat the eggs together with the sugar and orange blossom water and add the orange juice.
I didn’t strain the orange zest from the cream, but I probably should have done for reasons of presentation. Anyway, once the cream has cooled enough not to scramble it, you can add it to the egg mixture in a steady stream, stirring all the while.
Pour the egg mixture into the pastry case/s and bake in the oven for at least 30 minutes or until sunny-golden coloured and firmish. It might swell up as it bakes: don’t worry about that, it’ll deflate quite quickly afterwards.
Allow to cool, and slice up. Enjoy with a little bowl of rare and astringent tea.