The sweet and short history of good ol’ milk tart

There are some dishes that trigger your childhood and take you right back to family gatherings, an overflowing Sunday lunch table, and smiles all around. The reason for the smiles could very well have been from dessert – milk tart or trifle is etched in my memory. Good ol’ melktert; the Afrikaans name for ‘milk tart’; the classic, a quintessential South African dessert consisting of a sweet pastry crust, filled with a mild, creamy custard of milk, flour, sugar, and eggs, baked in a round pie tin and dusted with cinnamon after baking.

Milk tart is omnipresent in South Africa; it appears at every church bazaar, bake sale, home industry, supermarket, or bakery, and has surely featured on every South African food blogger’s blog. And let’s not forget that time when Jamie Oliver made SA’s milk tart famous on Instagram.

MilkTart2 - The sweet and short history of good ol' milk tart
The demand for milk tart flavour is so great that it’s taken on a life of it’s own and tradition has been upgraded a little. Picture from Pinterest.


Melktert is a dessert that was first made by Dutch settlers in the Cape in the early 1600s. The origins of milk tart are credited to a detailed recipe listed in Thomas van der Noot’s book, “Een Notabel Boexcken van Cokeryen” (A Notable Book of Cookery) and it is believed that milk tart was developed from the same recipe.

A few standard considerations that have stood the test of time:

The Crust

Traditionally, the crust consisted of short-crust pastry. These days, many South Africans use ready-made puff pastry dough instead. I’m certain ancestors would turn in their graves hearing that crustless milk tart has become a thing – but it’s too delicious to be malicious. Certain recipes require the custard to be baked in the crust, and others call for the custard to be prepared in advance, and then placed in the crust and chilled before serving.

MilkTart3 - The sweet and short history of good ol' milk tart
The milk tart or melktert (Afrikaans), a classic dish, was traditionally described as a shortbread crust with milky filling. Picture from Pinterest.

The Filling

The large proportion of milk in the filling is, in fact, proof that milk tart was introduced to us by the Dutch dairy farmers who settled the Cape of Good Hope in the middle of the 17th century. The custard filling is made from milk, sugar, and eggs, thickened with flour or cornflour. Cinnamon could be used to infuse the milk with flavour during preparation. Some recipes call for whole eggs, others require the eggs to be separated. The filling can vary in consistency from firm to wobbly.

The Topping

Cinnamon, introduced to Dutch settlers by the Japanese, is often sprinkled over the surface for that extra kick. It is served sliced, chilled or room temperature.


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