When I was planning my trip to Portugal, I remember writing to my friend, Gerlinde, and telling her that there was only one thing I could not miss in Portugal: Portuguese custard tarts (pastéis de nata). Well, I certainly was not disappointed. I would have had at least one most days. They are truly delightful.
Notwithstanding pastéis de nata can be purchased just about everywhere in Portugal, I was constantly told that only the ones sold at Casa Pastéis de Belém were true pastéis de nata. Everything else were mere imitations. Alas, on the day we were in Belém, the queue was miles long (which is normal but, because I am so impatient, I couldn’t be bothered waiting) so I had to make do with the imitations.
It is believed that pastéis de nata were created by Catholic monks at the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém.
According to Wikipedia, during Portuguese medieval history, the convents and monasteries of Portugal produced large quantities of eggs. The egg-whites were used for starching clothes (such as nuns’ habits) and also in wineries (where they were used in the clearing of wines, such as Porto). It was, therefore, common for these Portuguese monasteries and convents to produce confections with the leftover egg yolks, resulting in a proliferation of sweet pastry recipes throughout the country (as anyone who has been to the Portugal can vouch).
Following the expulsion of the religious orders and, later, the closing of many of the convents and monasteries in the aftermath of the Liberal Revolution of 1820, the production of pastéis de nata passed to the Casa Pastéis de Belém which is close to Jerónimos Monastery.
I was told that pastéis de nata were impossible to make at home but I remembered that I had at least one recipe for them in of my cookbooks and there were sure to be recipes galore on the web. I knew I was going to give it a go.
Of course, when I came home, I became a wee bit obsessed with pastéis de nata.
I have made them a few times with a recipe I located on the web but I found the filling “boiled’ in the oven and curdled from the intense heat. The filling in this recipe behaved much better. I also got the typical brown spots which I have found are hard to achieve, without burning the pastry, in a domestic oven. The only difference I would make to the filling would be to omit the lemon rind and stir in 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract at the end of the cooking. Recipes appear to be divided on whether the custard should be flavoured with lemon or vanilla. You decide which you prefer.
I made the pastry this time but I have made them using commercial butter puff pastry which tasted just as good. Just make sure you use butter puff pastry. I have given the instruction on making the pastry and using commercial puff pastry.
The pastry and filling is supposed to make 24 tarts but I found the filling only made enough for 12 tarts so I froze the balance of the pastry. If using commercial puff pastry, two sheets will make 12 bases so you shouldn’t have anything left over.
The recipe is from Gourmet Traveller Tarts Sweet and Savoury.
- 175g cold unsalted butter
- 250g plain flour
- ½ tsp salt
- 2 sheets of commercial butter puff pastry
- 2¼ cups of milk
- 1½ tbs* plain flour
- 1 tbs* cornflour
- 4 egg yolks
- 110g caster sugar
- 2 strips of lemon rind (or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract)
- extra caster sugar for sprinkling
*These are 20 mils tablespoons
If making pastry:
- Sift flour and salt together and refrigerate until cold.
- Grate butter over cold flour.
- Stir in 110 mils iced water and, using a pastry cutter or butter knife, work butter and water into flour until almost combined but butter is still visible.
- Form mixture into a ball, then wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
- Roll out pastry over a lightly floured surface to form a 15cm x 35cm rectangle.
- Fold short side of pastry up over centre, then fold the top third down to cover it. Wrap the pastry in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
- Place pastry on a lightly floured surface with the long opening to your right. Repeat the rolling, folding and resting process 3 more times, finally resting the pastry in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
- Using as little flour as possible, roll out the pastry to a 30cm square.
- Roll pastry up tightly like a Swiss roll to form a log, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight.
- Trim edges of pastry log, then cut into 1.5cm-thick rounds (you will get 24 rounds).(Like I said, the filling only filled 12 holes so I froze half the pastry.)
- Place a pastry round onto a lightly floured surface and flatten using the palm of your hand. Roll out until 10-11cm in diameter. Repeat with 12 rounds.
- Place pastry rounds into the muffin holes.
- Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
If using commercial pastry:
- Cut one pastry sheet in half.
- Place one half on the top of the other half.
- Set aside to rest for 5 minutes.
- From the short end, roll pastry up into a log.
- Cut log into 6 x 2cm pieces.
- Repeat with the other pastry sheet.
- Lay each round on a flat surface, flatten slightly with your hand and then roll out each piece into a 10cm circle. Repeat with each piece.
- Place pastry circles into muffin holes.
- Whisk plain flour, cornflour and egg yolks together in a bowl.
- Add ¼ cup milk, a little at a time. Whisk until smooth then set aside.
- Combine sugar, lemon rind (if using) and ¼ cup water in a saucepan. Stir over low heat until sugar dissolves, then bring to the boil.
- Add remaining milk and bring to the boil.
- Stirring constantly, gradually ladle hot milk mixture onto the flour mixture.
- Return combined mixture to saucepan.
- Stir constantly over medium heat until mixture comes to the boil and thickens.
- Remove from heat and discard lemon rind. If you omitted the lemon rind, stir in 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract now.
- Cover with plastic wrap, pushing the wrap down onto the custard to prevent a film being formed.
- Allow to cool to room temperature.
Assembly and baking:
- Preheat oven to 230°C.
- Using kitchen scissors or a small sharp knife held horizontally, trim pastry flush with the top of the muffin tin.
- Fill pastry cases to about two-thirds full.
- Sprinkle tops with extra caster sugar.
- Bake at 230°C for five minutes.
- Reduce oven temperature to 200°C and cook for a further 12-15 minutes or until pastry is brown and filling is bubbling and browned in spots.
- Cool tarts in tins for five minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool
- Serve tarts at room temperature. They are best eaten on the day of making.