As much as I love shell-on crab and don’t mind the slow process of extracting the meat from the legs and body, it’s something many people dislike, saying it is too much trouble. I can count on one finger the number of people I’d be willing to de-shell a crab for, and it’s only to stop him complaining.
This dish is for people who like their crab to be neat and tidy because it uses shelled crabmeat. If you are a more generous and patient soul than me, and don’t mind taking the meat from the shells, use fresh crabs – these tarts will taste much better. (You’ll need at least two smallish crabs to get enough crabmeat.)
The best commercially available shelled crabmeat comes frozen (often it needs to be cooked before it is used; just blanch it in boiling water until it turns from opaque to white). The second best is sold chilled, in cans. Far behind is the shelf-stable unrefrigerated crabmeat.
All the components of this dish can be prepared in advance. Partially bake the tart shells, blanch the asparagus, mix it with the crabmeat and put it in the fridge, and whisk together the eggs and cream for the custard filling.
About 30 minutes before you want to serve the tarts, preheat the oven, fill the shells with the crab/asparagus mixture, pour in the custard and bake.
For the chilli flakes in the pâte brisée (shortcrust pastry) and the filling, I use gochugaru (Korean chilli flakes), but use whatever type you prefer.
Make the pâte brisée so it has time to chill. Put the flour, salt, sugar and chilli flakes in a food processor and pulse to combine. Cut the cold butter into 1cm (7/16 in) chunks, add them to the food processor and pulse until they are the size of small peas. Transfer the ingredients to a large bowl.
(If you don’t have a food processor, combine the flour, salt, sugar and chilli flakes in a large bowl. Cut the cold butter into 1cm (7/16 in) chunks, add them to the bowl and use a pastry cutter to cut the butter into pieces the size of small peas. Proceed with the rest of the recipe.)
Drizzle the iced water over the ingredients, adding just enough to create a dough that’s neither sticky nor dry. Mix lightly with your fingertips to make a shaggy dough, then knead it briefly. If it seems too dry, drizzle in a little more water.
Shape the dough into a disc, wrap it in cling film, then refrigerate for at least an hour.
Unwrap the dough and place it on a lightly floured work surface, then dust it with more flour. Use a rolling pin to roll out the dough into roughly a square shape about 3mm (⅛ in) thick. As necessary, use more flour on the work surface and on the dough to prevent it from sticking.
Brush off the excess flour from the surface of the dough, then cut it into four pieces. Gently fit the dough into four individual tart pans with removable bases, each about 8cm (3⅛ in) in diameter and about 2cm (⅞ in) deep. Settle the dough into the contours of the pan, taking care not to stretch it. Double over the dough at the edges, pressing firmly with your thumbs to thin it out evenly and make the layers adhere. Trim off the overhang so it is flush with the top edge of the tart pans.
Use a fork to poke holes in the bottom crust, then refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 220°C (430°F). Cut four squares of aluminium foil large enough to fit in the tart pans with some overhang. Press the foil over the dough and add uncooked rice (or uncooked small beans, or pie weights) to act as a weight so the crust doesn’t puff up.
Place the tart pans on a baking tray, then put it in the oven and immediately reduce the heat to 200°C (390°F). Bake for 10 minutes, then turn the heat down to 180°C (350°F) and cook for five minutes. Remove the rice and the foil and continue to bake the tart shells for about five more minutes, or until they are set and starting to turn pale gold around the edges. Take the tray out of the oven and cool to room temperature. If baking the tarts immediately, leave the oven on.
To make the filling, put the saffron threads in a small bowl and add 15ml (1 tbsp) of boiling water. Set aside to soak while preparing the other ingredients.
Cut off 4cm (1½ in) tips from four of the asparagus spears, then cut the tips in half lengthwise. Slice the remaining asparagus into rounds about 5mm (¼ in) thick. Boil a pan of salted water and blanch all the asparagus for 30 seconds. Drain, rinse with cold water, then drain again. Lay the pieces on a kitchen towel to soak up the excess moisture. Mix the round pieces with the crab.
Mince the shallot and garlic.
Heat the oil in a skillet, add the shallot and cook over a low flame until soft. Add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds. Stir in the saffron and soaking liquid, then turn off the flame.
Whisk the egg yolks with the cream and chilli flakes, then season lightly with salt and pepper. Whisk in the shallot/saffron mixture.
Divide the asparagus rounds and the crab meat evenly between the four tart shells.
Carefully pour in the egg yolk/cream mixture and top with the reserved, halved asparagus tips, placing them in a criss-cross pattern.
Bake at 180°C (350°F) for about 20 minutes, or until the filling is set and just starting to puff around the edges. Serve warm or at room temperature, with a herb salad, if you like.