Baking from Memory: A Sweet Watercress Tart

All families seem to have beloved “secret” recipes that bring them together year after year. As I live abroad and as I grow older, I have an acute sense of nostalgia for everything related to my past and my family. In my family, that secret recipe happens to be a sweet spinach tart that my grandfather used to make.

The recipe for that tart lived only in a little notebook that a devastating flood washed away in 1983, so ever since, we have been on a quest to remake it.

As I have mentioned here before, I come from a family of pastry chefs. My grandfather, my Aitite Angel, was an amazing chef who with eight children, opened a little pastry shop in my town in 1949 (still in the family).

He was an apprentice in a patisserie in Bilbao at the age of 14 and most of his “repertoire” was French inspired. However, he was known to experiment and occasionally surprise everyone with new creations. This is the case of his sweet spinach tart that everyone remembers fondly. Puff pastry shell filled with a warm cinnamon and fresh spinach cream. Unusual for sure.

The idea of trying to remake this tart myself has been roaming around my head for quite some time, but I needed more details. After speaking with several members of my family, the only details I could gather were that this tart had a chiboust-like custard made with cinnamon, spinach and a surprising ingredient, condensed milk.

I found beautiful watercress at the market so I used that instead of the spinach. My first attempt was unexpected, sweet and delicious. Of course, I wish I could have shared it with my family to see if it resembles the tart they remember. Soon perhaps.

These are some photos from this weekend’s farmer’s market where I found the most adorable family of kid farmers. Four brothers and sister (the oldest being 13) who raise their own chickens and grow their own vegetables. How cool is that! I rushed to the market before their stand was up because I didn’t want to miss out on the eggs, which are known to disappear in a matter of minutes. What can I say, dreamy.

For the puff pastry recipe, go here.

Watercress and Cinnamon Filling

100 grams whole milk
1 cinnamon stick
100 grams condensed milk
20 grams cornstarch
2 egg yolks
25 grams watercress or spinach, finely chopped
2 egg whites
40 grams sugar
Ground cinnamon, for the topping
Demerara sugar, for the topping

In a medium saucepan, cook the whole milk and the cinnamon stick together on low heat for a few minutes. Let it steep for about 15 minytes and then, bring it to a boil.

In the meantime, whisk together the egg yolks and cornstarch until there are no lumps. Add the condensed milk and whisk.

When the milk comes to a boil, remove the cinnamon stick and temper into the egg yolk mixture. Return this to the pan and cook until it thickens. Transfer to a clean bowl immediately. Fold in the chopped watercress or spinach.

Right away, whip the egg whites to soft peak and sprinkle in the sugar. Continue whipping to stiff peak.

Add a third of the meringue to the warm custard and fold. Fold in the rest of the meringue.

Pour into the baked puff pastry shells. Sprinkle with ground cinnamon and demerara sugar.

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53 Responses to “Baking from Memory: A Sweet Watercress Tart”

  1. Elle says:

    What an interesting combination! The pictures are stunning.

  2. cindy* says:

    i love family recipes…there is something about the nostalgia that just gets me. i actually found a family heritage cookbook published by one of my fiance’s relatives during the holidays and he didn’t even know that his parents had that treasure.

    and what a great farmer’s market!

  3. Nice pictures and a delightful recipe!



  4. Good for you Aran…there’s magic in baking from memory. Lovely connections here! How very unusual that tart sounds. Love the kid farmer family too; that’s too cool! Beautiful clicks…thank you!

  5. ooo goregous and very unusual, I losve sweet things with basil in them so am sure this is just as nice!

  6. Christy says:

    Aran, how beautiful!! Not just the photos and the food, but also the story behind them! Your grandfather must have been an amazing man; after all, his work inspired so many in the family to follow in his path, and be very successful at it too!!

    I was just thinking about how memories of food can haunt us for years and years. I have a taste memory of an traditional Indonesian sweet that my grandpa used to buy for me when I was little; I am now on a quest to try to find one that tastes as amazing as the ones I had in my childhood. So far, I’ve failed, and I’m too chicken to try making one in case it tastes gross. But after reading your post, I’m almost convinced that I should. So thank you, again, for the inspiration.

  7. stephanie says:

    hi aran,
    firstly, let me say i absolutely love cannelle et vanille; the photographs are breathtaking and never fail to make my mouth water. i’m going to be making your chocolate, banana and salted caramel cake ( for my boyfriend’s birthday party, and i was wondering if the layers of banana cake would become too soggy if i piped the mousse over it the night before serving. i’ve made the separate components before, but never as a constructed whole, so i’m also curious about freezing times (it will be a 10 inch cake). thanks in advance, and once again, you have a beautiful blog!

  8. Aran says:

    Stephanie- No, I don’t think it will be soggy. The mousse will not be ‘wet” when it sets in the refrigerator so the cake will be fine. Let me know how it goes.

    Thanks everyone!

  9. kate says:

    LOVE LOVE LOVE these market photos!!

  10. You have one of the best food blog I have found – your attention to the message that the food is saying is excellent and attention to detail is outstanding. I will be visiting often and I will be trying some of your creations. People like you inspire others to DO more.

  11. andybrown says:

    Wow, love the blog and the interesting take on fresh foods.

    We are a watercress farmer with the website We would love to add your recipe to our watercress recipe database, with your permission and proper credit to the author.

    Wonderful, and the first ‘sweet’ watercress recipe I’ve seen. We’ll be trying this very soon.

    I look forward to hearing back from you,


    Andy Brown
    B&W Quality Growers, Inc.

  12. nadia says:

    I love this post. I hold dear my grandmother recipe- only wish i paid more attention to little details. The photographs are beautiful aran!

  13. Hilda says:

    Hey Aran, what an intriguing recipe. I wondered how many pastry shells this would fill? Say 3″ ones (that looks like what you used?) I saw a TV program the other day where they made nettle tarts for dessert while camping out in some remote place in Britain. It looked really interesting.

  14. Seanna Lea says:

    That sounds perfect for an afternoon brunch or other light meal.

  15. Aran says:

    Hilda- I’d say this makes about 8 3″tarts. I used the leftover puff pastry I had in the freezer from a couple months ago. I need to add that link in the post. I forgot. I have never heard of nettle tarts. I will look it up!

    Thank you!

  16. I have a six year old nephew who has a chicken and “sells” us his eggs. He also bakes bread and knits! And he learned this all at school!

  17. Anonymous says:

    Arantzazu: Aitite tenía reservada la tarta de espinacas para los suyos. Lo curioso es que a todos nos encantaba pero nadie se preocupó de la receta.
    Mis recuerdos se encuentran con los momentos más deliciosos de mi vida en esta receta. La degusté dos o tres veces, y guardo las sensaciones de esos momentos: La delicia de un hojaldre bien hecho combinado con una crema maravillosa de espinacas, curiosa combinación, exquisita mezcla.
    Uno de los reductos de intimidad de aitite y amama fueron las exquisiteces con las que nos deleitaron, sin pretensiones y sin añadidos.
    Ayy… cuántas cosas nos dieron…
    Un apunte: la tarta de aitite era de un tamaño considerable y la crema desbordaba el hojaldre… Las espinacas rellenaban la crema, dándole un gusto especial.
    ¿Sabes? Aitite me dice desde el cielo.. “esta chiquilla.. qué coño hace?” y se ríe a trompicones..
    Ayy.. Arantzazu.. eres la mejor…

  18. Laura says:

    Such a fascinating idea! And your photos are particularly beautiful today. Or perhaps that they just remind me of spring..which I am SO longing for at the moment.

  19. Aran says:

    Andy- you can email me at a_goyoaga(at)hotmail(dot)com regarding the recipe. thanks!

  20. Sarah says:

    do you have a cookbook, or one in the works?

  21. anna says:

    That’s such an original idea. Your grandfather must have been amazingly creative (which is not surprising, considering the range of gorgeous pastries you turn out every week). If I saw something like this on the menu of a restaurant, I’d probably order it out of sheer curiosity. It sounds good!

  22. What a great story!! And a gorgeous recipe…

  23. leaca says:

    very cool. great photography too.

  24. Zerogluten says:

    Estoy segura que tu aitite estará muy orgulloso de tí desde donde estés.
    La receta es francamente original. Es de esos sabores que aunque intentes imaginar no puedes, hay que probarlo. Esa mezcla de berros y leche condensada hay que probarla.
    Los sabores de la niñez son sabores que uno siempre intenta buscar, espero que lo hayas conseguido y que lo puedas compartir con tu familia en breve.
    Desde España con amor, besitos sin gluten

  25. Cherie says:

    How very creative! I love these interesting falvours.

  26. Joyce says:

    Simply yummmy looking! The photos make me want to dive right in. xoxo

  27. oh Aran this is so cute, completement adorable (and i love baking with vegetables–making vegetables sweet, there’s just something about it) this makes me want spring so bad!!

  28. Tartelette says:

    Grandparents and memories! That has got be one yummy tart!!
    Love the market pictures too. That orchid pics is just gorgeous!

  29. redmenace says:

    What an interesting idea. I would love to try it! Thank you.

  30. First of all that crust looks amazing. I think the combination sounds intriguing and just spectacular. It is amazing that you are perfecting pastry just like your family. What an amazing tradition and recipe.

  31. ChichaJo says:

    That’s an interesting and delicious sounding filling! I love the sound of it though…I can imagine how the bright greens go well in the creamy cinnamon :) Wonderful too that you are reconstructing an old family recipe!

    I love that kid-farmers stall in your market!

  32. lila says:

    Hey Aran
    I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and wow, I must say this is one of the most interesting recipes I’ve come across for a while. It looks really beautiful and intriguing. I’ll definitely be trying this recipe sometime soon.
    So you don’t need to bake this tart again after you fill it? Do you just leave it to set?

  33. jill says:

    You’re always so inspiring… looking forward to trying this recipe… and the first days of spring!

  34. Aran says:

    Lila- Sorry I wasn’t very clear on how to finish the tart. First you must make the shell and bake it. The custard goes in when it is warm and doesn’t need to be baked again. It’s almost like a pastry cream or chiboust that once cooked on the stovetop, it is finished.

    Thank you!

  35. la rechula says:

    no me extraña ni un poquito tu premio al mejor blog… pero se ha perdido alguien ese pedazo de pastel de chocolate con fresas???? ummmmmm….

  36. Camille says:

    This tart is so inviting, something you’d serve a dear friend who comes for lunch. I like the flavor combination.

    Your photos at the market are great and I’m mildly jealous as I stare out the window at the bare trees of winter:)

  37. morgana says:

    Qué lástima que la receta se perdiera, me dan una pena estas cosas… De todos modos seguro que tu recreación está buenísima, nunca se me habría ocurrido usar verduras en una tarta así, la mezcla debe ser deliciosa.

    Un beso desde el otro lado del charco.

  38. Aimée says:

    Thanks for that virtual mini-break to the market. Just what I needed to beat the February blahs up here!

  39. Helene says:

    I just love those market pictures. What a beautiful tart.

  40. oh aran! (do i always start that way?) i love these photos and this story and this tart—it looks so comforting and wonderful that you’ve reinvented it…i will try it for sure (with my “special” crust)…

  41. Aran says:

    Deb- i love that you start your comments like that! makes me feel loved! what is the special crust? gluten free? share please!

  42. Y says:

    How unusual and wonderful!

  43. Jen Yu says:

    Bravo to you for trying to recreate a lost family relic. Those things are indeed precious and special. These tarts sound incredible – look even better. But can I say that I am whimpering over here at what you have at the market right now :) I hope your family gives you the seal of approval on your recipe!

  44. garance says:

    Bonjour Aran ,

    Don’t know if you speak french so i ‘ll try my english , wanted to say for a long time that your Blog is amazing , Beautiful photos , great & well explained Recipes ..
    a thing that i have been wondering , how do you get your photos to look as white, pale ? as they do ?
    they are beautiful …
    My family lives in Biarritz so i love when you write about le Pays basque …
    hope to see you may be on my french food blog ..

  45. Oh Aran, I love those kind of tarts. I do make a spinach pie that is really nice. I also truly enjoyed the market pictures….I don’t know…they just remind of Paris where I lived as a child for one year.

  46. Aran says:

    Garance- Thank you very much for your kind words. Unfortunately, my French is very very rusty. I can read it fairly well and understand some but speaking or writing is another thing! I’m from Bilbao which is on the Spanish side. Biarritz is beautiful and I used to go often when I lived at home.

    As for the photos, I make sure I use bouncers for my photos to reflect the natural color and get that “glowy” white. I only use natural lighting so sometimes, if you have noticed, my whites turn a little bit grey. Then I have to play with the exposure in my camera (increasing it). It’s a matter of knowing the light the is available to you and how to work around it.

    Thanks again!

  47. Rita says:

    Aran this is beautiful, I was a little confused though, a sweet tart with spinach/watercress? But I love unsual things, so it sounds great to me.

  48. idu says:

    Omenaldi ezinhobea aittitte-ri

  49. Foodie says:

    My Italian family all cook with their heads and never from books so I am desperate to note down all their delicious, rustic, peasant dishes from a bygone Italian era. The problem is they are so cagey about their secret recipes that it is proving to be a difficult mission. Or even worse they lie about the quantities and ingredients!!!

  50. One of my strongest food travel memories is of eating cream of watercress soup in a beautiful inn in the English countryside. So anything with watercress makes me perk up. I’m fascinated with the idea of adding sweetness. These little gems look heavenly. Can’t wait to make them.

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