In Happy in the Kitchen, the book of which I think so very highly, Michel Richard turns ripe yellow tomatoes into a simple, yet lovely tart of golden hue. The tart is served with a garnish of heirloom tomatoes of different shapes, sizes, and colors. It looks so beautiful in the photograph that someone like me, who isn’t particularly fond of tomatoes or the idea of turning tomatoes into something custardy, became completely enticed.
This golden tomato custard was originally designed by Richard as the filling of a tart. A flaky, buttery crust of pâte brisée is first blind-baked. Then the crust, filled with a mixture of yellow tomato purée and eggs, is baked a second time. Richard keeps the filling simple with very minimal seasoning, allowing the sweetness of the ripe tomatoes to come through. The recipe as originally written is exquisite. This tart is a simple, inexpensive-yet-elegant brunch or lunch item which will make your guests beg you for the recipe. Trust me.
However, the recipe comes with a caveat or two. The tomato filling, once baked, releases quite a bit of clear liquid. Even though the custard is cooked through, there’s always some liquid gathered at the bottom of the tart, causing the crust to become soggy quite quickly. Even Richard himself has warned the readers that this is not a tart that keeps well; it is best served immediately when the crust is still flaky and the delicate tomato custard is light and velvety (which also means that reheating will pretty much murder it). You want to take that warning seriously.
I’ve figured out a way to get around that, and that is to forget about the crust. Not only does this eliminate the most time-consuming (not to mention the most calorically-dense) part of the recipe, it also kind of transforms the tart into something else that is quite different from the original. You see, the filling is delicious enough to show up all by its creamy self without the crust. Yellow Tomato Tart has then become Yellow Tomato Custard with the texture that reminds you of the custardy corn pudding you love at the Thanksgiving table — without the corn kernel, of course.
I’ve also added to the yellow tomato custard mixture something which is not part of the original recipe — a pinch of saffron. You can’t really taste it, but the saffron gives the custard such a bright, beautiful golden hue which the yellow tomatoes and the yolks alone can’t give. You see, the deepest yellow pigments in the yellow tomatoes are in the skins. But those happen to be the part that get strained out. I don’t know how Chef Richard got his tomato tart to be so bright yellow in the photograph. All I know is that even with the best and freshest eggs and the ripest tomatoes, my tart filling always turned out pale.
Well, not any more.
The last tweak is in the flavor area. Again, the recipe as written is perfect in terms of flavor. But I have found that a couple of tablespoons of grated hard cheeses, preferably sheep or goat milk cheeses, such as my favorite myzithra or Pecorino Romano, give this tomato custard a huge flavor boost. It’s a personal thing. You certainly do not have to do that.
Lastly, for best results, you would want to bake this custard just as you would crème brûlée, i.e. in a bain marie. The entire batch fits nicely into a 11″x7″ glass or ceramic pan. To make several individual custards, use individual springform pans for easy unmolding or 6-8 ounce ramekins which can be served unmolded. Whatever size container you use, make sure the custard comes up to no more than 3 inches from the bottom of the container. The thicker the custard, the more likely it is to fall apart on you after it has been unmolded. This tomato custard is very delicate, and when it’s inverted, the base cannot support the total weight very well.
Yellow Tomato Custard with Saffron and Myzithra
Adapted from Yellow Tomato Tart recipe by Michel Richard
2 pounds of ripe yellow tomatoes, cut into large chunks
5 large eggs
1-2 teaspoons of olive oil
1 teaspoon of salt
A small pinch of saffron (optional)
2 tablespoons of grated hard cheese of your choice (Parmesan, Asiago, Pecorino, Myzithra, etc.)