"Good communication is as stimulating as black coffee, and just as hard."
Like many a spawn of restaurateur parents, my childhood daycare consisted of sitting behind the cash register, twiddling my thumbs and doodling on blank receipts. Of course, out of both sheer boredom but also as a form of child labor, I eventually became the odd helper. I’d have to fill drink orders, decipher Vietnamese short hand on those hand written tickets, and put away all the racks of glasses that came from the dish pit.
We occupied a space inside a mall, so room was limited. Behind the cash register was a small galley prep area, where on one side was a stainless steel counter lined with water glasses and tea mugs. The other side had a reach in fridge holding all of the che, or desserts, bottled waters, and the Heinekens Asians seem to be so fond of. Right next to it was our industrial coffee grinder, whose black ash littered the ground from being run so mercilessly to fulfill our demand of ca phe sua da.
I hated coffee - the darkly bitter taste was satanic compared to all of the processed sugar I was ingesting at the time. However I was still intoxicated by the smell - the auburn, coddling, burnt aroma of roasted beans is hard to forget.
I would recognize customers who would come in daily for their ca phe sua da- auto mechanics from across the street, hairdressers from next door. To stock up for the afternoon rush my dad would have to brew the coffee and pre-mix it with condensed milk, before pouring it into plastic to go cups; all he would have to do is pack each to the brim with ice once a regular came in. (The empty cans of condensed milk would be scraped clean with crisp baguettes as a snack). Eventually I became the one who would be packing those cups with ice - all anyone needed to say was “Cho mot ly ca phe sua da.”
Now all of a sudden, ca phe sua da has become a western phenomenon, with Lee’s Sandwiches hawking it at Costco, taking advantage of how much white people seem to be so mystified by coffee with milk. I really don’t mind those red capped bottles everyone is so impressed by, but I secretly want to tell them they’re missing out on a big part of the experience: the smell of Vietnamese coffee being ground, and the licking of condensed milk off of one’s fingers alongside a baguette.
Truth be told, I still haven’t developed a taste for coffee, but I need to fit in my nostalgia somehow, so this tart is my suitable replacement. I’m not going to go in depth about how good it is, with its crumbling shell giving way to dark, sweetened custard, but I will say this: buy yourself a baguette for the leftover condensed milk.
vietnamese coffee custard tart
MAKES ONE 9-10 INCH TART
brown butter tart dough
2 sticks of unsalted butter, cubed
2 ½ cups of flour
½ cup of sugar
pinch of salt
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1 egg yolk
3 cups whole milk
½ cup heavy cream
1/4 cup finely ground dark coffee
¾ cup condensed milk*
3 egg yolks
⅓ cup cornstarch
4 tablespoons of butter, cubed
*you might have to add more condensed milk at the end to taste depending on how strong your coffee is. However I implore you to buy yourself a good baguette, and use it to eat the leftover milk.
1 cup of sugar
¼ cup of water
3 tablespoons butter
½ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon salt
toasted hazelnuts to finish
mise en place: the tart dough
Brown the butter: in a saucepan place the cubed butter over medium high heat. Stirring frequently, heat it until the milk solids begin to brown and the butter gives off an amber, nutty aroma. A good indicator is that instead of bubbling, the butter will begin to foam. Be careful - if it reaches a oak brown hue on the heat, it’ll be burnt by the time you take it off. Let it cool.
Mix together the flour, sugar, salt, and cinnamon. Pour in the cooled butter and egg yolk, and work everything together with your hands, adding more flour if necessary, until you get a mound of dough. Form it into a disc, wrap it in plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
Once chilled, roll out the dough and fit it into your tart pan- I like to roll out the bottom circle, and then roll strips of dough for the side. Let the lined tart pan chill in the fridge for another 15 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Using a fork, poke holes into the tart dough. Line it with greased foil or parchment paper, and fill the lining with dried beans or rice. Bake for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, lift the foil and beans from the tart dough, and bake for another 10-12 minutes until golden brown. Take it out of the oven and let cool.
mise en place: custard
Heat the milk, cream, and coffee in a saucepan on medium high heat until scalding. Turn off the heat and let steep for ten minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk together the condensed milk, eggs, cornstarch, and salt. Temper the eggs with the hot milk mixture: pour a third of the hot milk into the eggs and mix together to bring the temperature up. Pour the eggs back into the rest of the milk, and cook on medium heat, stirring constantly, until the custard thickens. Take it off the heat and whisk in the butter. Strain the custard into a bowl, cover with plastic, and let chill in the refrigerator.
mise en place: salted caramel
Dump the sugar and water into a sauce pan over high heat. Boil until the caramel reaches an dark amber hue - you can swirl the pan to make sure it cooks evenly, but don’t stir. Once it reaches a dark color, turn off the heat and add the cream (stand back - it’ll bubble violently). Whisk in the salt and the butter.
Pour the cooled custard into the tart shell. Spread a thin layer of the caramel on top, and finish with toasted hazelnuts. Let it set in the refrigerator until you're ready, minimum 2 hours.