Thoughts of my visit to Portugal a few years ago always evoke warm feelings for the relaxed, friendly atmosphere of Lisbon, azure skies and equally blue waters of the Algarve coastline. Also vivid in my mind are the cork oaks that stood proudly along the country roads. The tree trunks were in various stages of regrowth, some recently stripped to the core for their bark which would eventually become a wine bottle stopper or some kind of decorative home item. The Portuguese citizens I met were warm and so welcoming. My trip predates my current obsession to photograph every plate of food set before me but there is no forgetting the countless bowls of cataplana (Portuguese seafood stew) I enjoyed, the plates of grilled fresh sardines I couldn’t resist from beachside restaurants but most unforgettable of all were the pastéis de nata.
Pastéis de nata are Portuguese custard tarts. The tarts are said to have been created by the Catholic nuns of the Jeronimos Monastery of Belém before the 18th century. Since the monastery’s closure in the 1820s the only source for the original tarts–pastéis de Belém–is Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, a pastry shop just outside of Lisbon. The recipe is a closely-guarded secret but it doesn’t make the tarts sold everywhere else across the country any less popular. Countless versions of pastéis de nata abound–they were available in many bakeries and sweet shops I passed by–and unsurprisingly, quality varied from vendor to vendor. Still, the excellent versions I was lucky enough to taste have had me wanting to recreate the tarts in my kitchen for the last few years.
Traditionally, the tarts are made with individual 1/3-cup forms and I had almost given up on ever trying to make the tarts until serendipity intervened recently by way of 1/3-cup muffin pans that I chanced upon unexpectedly. I didn’t even know they existed–perfect! Now how about a recipe? Several are available online but ultimately I decided to go with David Leite’s version in his book, The New Portuguese Table. Mr. Leite has shared a recipe in his site which closely represents the qualities of the original pastéis de Belém. But being the baby-step taker that I am when it comes to pastries, the book version’s offer of using store-bought puff pastry appealed to me. I reasoned that eliminating the worry of creating my own puff pastry would afford me more time to focus on getting the custard the way Mr. Leite intended for it to come out.
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried on either account. The store-bought puff pastry created perfect little tart shells. Even when I thought I had compromised my efforts by handling them less-than-carefully, the baked shells were flaky and crisp but not too delicate that they would crumble easily. The custard was, to me, just right. I find some egg-based desserts too sweet sometimes but these were perfectly balanced in flavor with the sprinkling of powdered sugar and cinnamon. Baked until just set, the custard was almost light-tasting despite an egg-yolk and cream base due to added lemon zest.
If you have tasted a pastel de nata from Portugal you will notice the absence of the slightly charred top on mine here. This is perhaps one of the most characteristic features of the original tarts and it is achieved by baking them at a very, very high temperature. I will save this goal along with preparing my own puff pastry for my second attempt with Mr. Leite’s other version of pastéis de nata. Still, these delightful little tarts transported me back to Portugal bite after tasty bite.
Pastéis de Nata (Portuguese Custard Tarts)
from: David Leite’s The New Portuguese Table
Note: While preparing this post, I realized that it would only be right to request Mr. Leite’s permission to share his recipe here. Sure enough, he generously gave me his approval but if you have never enjoyed pastéis de nata before, your first taste of these tarts should really be from his recipe here. However, the recipe in the book is special in its own right and if you absolutely must make these right away, I will share–just ask. I do recommend picking up a copy of his book, though. I have bookmarked quite a few recipes to try. Portuguese cuisine is rustic, humble but also elegant in its simplicity. It really speaks to me. Maybe it will do the same with you.