Pastel de Nata – Portuguese Custard Tarts
As explained to me on a lively on-line cooking course, these little items of rich sweet deliciousness are more than Portuguese, they are fully international. Chef João Batalha from the Lisbon Pastelaria Batalha taught us that the Portuguese sailors and explorers took the recipe with them and versions are now found throughout China, South America and Europe. The difference to the custard tarts of English heritage is the flavouring – these use lemon and cinnamon instead of vanilla.
Chef João Batalha, being a proper cook, made his puff pastry from scratch. Me, being an imperfect cook, used the bought rolled puff pastry, and they turned out great nevertheless. I have João’s permission to use his recipe – many thanks for sharing, João! I’m sure everyone will appreciate how easy these are and how super tasty. They are eaten for breakfast with a cup of strong coffee, as a snack or for dessert. They do use a LOT of eggs, but you can always use up the whites in meringue, add to a quiche filling or fluff up an omelet with them.
I took these round my Senior’s Lunch Club group, along with mince pies for the Christmas treat, as we do have some dried-fruit dislikers in the group. We had a lovely Christmas Party audio conference call, discussing what we were looking forward to at Christmas – mainly it was seeing what relatives we’re allowed to meet. Anticipating the crispy fluffy roast potatoes and the boozy trifle was also a popular theme. It seems you don’t lose your zest for festive meals in your 90s! We wore home-made paper hats, shouted “BANG!” in chorus, groaned at some truly dreadful cracker-jokes and played a few rounds of Christmas-character Who Am I? Frosty the Snowman was quite easy, but Rudolph defeated our guessing capability.
Makes 15 tarts. Timings - 30 minutes preparation, 15 minutes cooking, then cooling time.
Take the pastry out of the fridge, remove it from its cardboard wrapper and the plastic wrapper and leave it on the worktop, still in its greaseproof paper wrap, to warm a little bit while you start the custard.
Put the milk in a pan. Add the cinnamon stick/cassia bark and the piece of fresh lemon peel. Heat the pan strongly to bring the milk to the boil.
Sieve the flour and sugar into a bowl.
When the milk is heated, just before boiling, take it off the heat and add in the flour/sugar, a little bit at a time and whisking to avoid lumps. Put the pan back on the heat and cook until the mixture is getting thick, stirring all the time. It doesn’t take long to reach a texture like cream. Take the pan off the heat and leave it to cool. It needs to be about body heat before you mix in the eggs.
Now deal with the pastry. A key feature of Pastel de Nata is the puff pastry laminations can be seen on the bottom of the tart like the rings in a tree trunk – they run in concentric circles. This is partly why the tarts are so crispy, so it’s important to get right.
Unroll the pastry to a flat rectangle – keeping it on its own greaseproof paper square. Taking the long side, start to roll it very tightly into a long sausage shape. You might need to really pinch the first roll or two to make sure there are no air spaces trapped inside the roll. Roll up the whole thing quite tightly, wrap it back up in the greaseproof paper it comes in and put it back in the fridge to chill.
Heat the oven to quite high – you need a good hot air circulation to encourage the pastry to rise up and crisp and the custard to puff up, so if you have both fan and top/bottom heating, use both, and take it to 240°C. Get the oven good and warm, let it reach temperature fully and give it another few minutes.
Take the pastry out of the fridge and cut the sausage shape as equally as you can into 15 little roll-shaped sections.
Take a section of pastry and put it cut side down in the tart tin. You can use special individual Pastel de Nata tins, which are non-stick, and have a slightly flared shape. If you use a 12-cup bun tin, you will need to be quite agile with the forming of the pastry, but it can be done.
Have a bowl of cold water to hand. Dip your thumb into the water and then press it into the middle of the pastry section, squashing down the pastry to the bottom of the little tin. Using your thumb, and turning the tin as you go, squish the pastry up the sides of the tin, until it comes up over the edge. You need it higher than the edge, to hold in the filling. And you are fine if it’s quite thin on the base, as that will make it crispier. Keep on doing this until all your tins are filled with pastry.
Now add the egg yolks to the cooled milk/flour mixture and remove the lemon peel and the cinnamon/cassia. You will notice that the flavouring has entered the custard and is very delicate. (well, you will if you’re like me and can’t resist licking the custard off the cassia piece.)
Fill each pastry case with the custard mixture to about 1/2cm below the rim. Put into the oven for about 6 minutes, then turn the tray round to cook the tarts evenly and cook for another 5-6 minutes, keeping an eye on them. You want the custard to cook on the top and form those lovely caramelised light burn marks but you don’t want it to catch and go darker brown.
Take out of the oven when the custard has only the slightest wobble.
Leave in the tins to cool down, then put on a wire rack to cool fully. They are utterly delicious eaten luke-warm – but you’ll burn your mouth on the hot sugary custard if you don’t leave them a while – they hold the heat a long time!
You can sprinkle them with a very light dusting of cinnamon sugar if you like but they really need nothing more than a good cup of coffee.
A Hug from the Kitchen
Healthy, hearty, happy food, for good times and bad. Cheer yourself up, or spread the cheer around your family and friends.