a blog by Gemma Thomas.
Of all of my many food obsessions, it is my love of a good pastel de nata, or Portuguese custard tart, that consumes me the most. Bizarrely enough, this love began, as many things do, with a quest for alcohol
When I first moved to London ten years ago, curiosity and the love of a good cocktail led me to Made in Brazil on Camden’s Inverness Street where I first discovered the caipirinha. The twenty-something girl from Southampton, where this cocktail had not made its way on to the menus yet, found it all a bit exotic and exciting. Since then I have tried many of the city’s caipirinhas (the good, the bad and the ugly, if you like) as they are now as ubiquitous as the mojito or the margarita; but if somebody asks me where to get a good one, I always recommend Made in Brazil.
For some unknown reason, probably when drunk, I got it into my head that I could also make these cocktails at home, despite having little cocktail making experience and almost no bar equipment. Off licenses, much like cocktail menus, had a far smaller range of goods ten years ago than they do now, and the only place you could buy cachaca, the main ingredient in a caipirinha, was in the Portuguese delis around the Goldhawk Road. Of course, I don’t need to tell you that the caipirinhas I made at home were pretty awful (or that I broke my flatmate’s blender trying to make enormous quantities of crushed ice); but I did discover that those little yellow pastries in the window were the best thing I had ever eaten in my life.
Pastel de nata, much like the ill-fated cachaca, were much rarer in those days. Now you can buy them at just about every cafe, bakery or farmers market; but back then you would have to trek out to a specialist deli for one, which I did on many occasions. I would always buy two: one to eat on the tube home, and another for later that evening (although often they got scoffed on the tube, particularly if I had a hangover). If you’ve never had one, you might not understand what the fuss is all about.
The UK has its own version of custard tarts, of course, which are a deep shortcrust pastry case filled with set egg custard. They are most commonly found in supermarkets and almost always have a little sprinkle of nutmeg on top. They are perfectly nice, but their Portuguese counterparts blow them out of the water. They originated, so I am told, in a bakery called Fabrica de Pasteis de Belem in Lisbon; and legend is that the tarts here are so good, people actually go on pilgrimages for them.
A standard pastel de nata is shallower than the English tart and uses a flaky pastry instead of a shortcrust. The custard, which is always barely set and slightly charred on the top, is made using a sugar syrup infused with cinnamon, orange peel and lemon peel which is added to scalded milk and then later thickened with egg yolks. With so many good examples in London, it hardly seems worth making your own, but they are expensive when bought individually, so if you are making them for a crowd, it is far more economical.
This recipe is one that I have tried, tested and adapted a few times. The pastry is the most time-consuming part, however if you are pushed for time you could skip this part and use shop-bought instead. The type of flaky pastry detailed in the recipe below is not really available to buy; the closest would be puff, which would be fine, if a little inauthentic. The one thing I have struggled with is getting the blistered black top that these tarts are so famous for, even with a hot oven I never achieve anything more than a light golden bubble. It does not affect the taste, but it is mildly annoying. Last night a chef friend told me that this is achieved by adding more sugar to the custard, but I have not tested this yet. I will keep you posted!
Pastel de Nata (Portuguese Custard Tarts)
Originally posted at http://www.theboozyrouge.com
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.