The first time I had a Portuguese custard tart, I was hooked. This was some time ago and, unlike now, they were a rare find. We use to trek all the way to the Lisboa Patisserie on the Goldborne Road and have one as a treat, and you can imagine how much of a mission that journey was from south-east London in the pre-Overground days. I would buy one to have there and then, and one to keep me awake on the Hammersmith and City line as it trundled, painfully slowly, towards my connecting station.
Now, of course, times have changed and you can buy them in more or less every London neighbourhood. The boom in street food markets has made them even more available, and now it seems that all of London is enraptured with the pastel de nata. Londoners’ love affairs with certain baked goods are well-documented: we went nuts over the cupcake, briefly flirted with the cronut (or whatever you’re allowed to call them without infringing copyright) and now it seemed that this little treat from Lisbon is king.
I have heard that the best example of the pastel de nata can be found in its birthplace, more specifically in a bakery called the Fabrica de Pasteis de Belem. Apparently, these tarts are so good, people go on pilgrimages for them. With no trip to Portugal on the horizon, I instead decided to make my own. I’ll be honest, these are not the easiest thing to make. Flaky pastry is always a bit temperamental and requires a lot of time and care to get right. The custard is relatively straightforward, but as with anything that combines hot milk, hot sugar and eggs, there is often a potential for it to go wrong. You could, of course, use shop-bought pastry to save time and effort if you wish. I have tried these tarts with both shop-bought puff pastry and the homemade flaky pastry in the recipe below; and, of course, the latter is better, but it also takes a considerable amount longer.
The recipe below is the most straightforward of those I’ve tried. The key is to chill the pastry overnight, anything less and it will be difficult to work with. If you have better skills than me, you could replace the pastry below with an all-butter puff.
Pastel de Nata
For the pastry
225g plain flour
¼ tsp sea salt
225g unsalted butter, at room temperature
For the custard
3 tbsp plain flour
310g whole milk
265g granulated sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 strip lemon peel
1 strip orange peel
½ tsp vanilla extract
6 large egg yolks
Start to make the pastry the night before you want to finish the tarts. Combine the plain flour, salt and water in the bowl of a freestanding mixer. Using the dough hook, mix until the dough forms a smooth ball, about 30 seconds. Place the dough on a floured surface and pat into a six-inch square. Cover with clingfilm and let it rest for 15 minutes.
Roll out the dough until it forms a large square – it should be about half a centimetre thick. Take one-third of the butter and spread it across the left two-thirds of the dough, leaving a border of 1inch around the edges. Neatly fold over the unbuttered part of the dough, then fold over the left third in an envelope fold. Pinch the edges closed using your fingers.
Turn the dough 90 degrees so that the long edge is facing you. Repeat the buttering and folding process again. Pinch the edges closed using your fingers and turn the dough 90 degrees once more.
This time, roll the dough out into a rectangle with the shorter edge facing you. Spread the butter over the whole surface, again leaving a border at the edges. This time, roll the dough away from you in a tight log. Cut the log into two halves, wrap in clingfilm and chill in the fridge overnight.
To make the custard, whisk together the flour and 65ml of the milk in a large bowl and set aside. Place the sugar, water, cinnamon, lemon peel and orange peel in a small saucepan and bring to the boil without stirring. At the same time, scald the remaining milk in a separate saucepan. Keep an eye on both.
Whisk the hot milk into the flour mixture. Remove the cinnamon, lemon peel and orange peel from the saucepan and slowly pour the sugar syrup into the bowl, whisking constantly. Add the vanilla and let the mixture cool for a few minutes before whisking in the egg yolks.
Preheat the oven to 250ºc and grease a 12-hole muffin pan. Remove the chilled pastry from the fridge and roll out to the thickness of a £1 coin. Using a large cutter, cut out circles of the pastry, removing a small section so that they can be pushed into the muffin tin without any excess. This should look like a pie with a wedge missing or like ‘pac man’. Push the pastry into the muffin tin and seal any gaps. The pastry should reach the top of the hole.
Fill each cup ¾ full with the warm custard. Bake in the oven for about 10-12 minutes until the pastry has browned and the custard is puffed up and a little coloured on the top. Allow to cool in the tin for half an hour and then transfer to a wire rack.