These perfect dessert bites were the affliction of many of us that month in Portugal. They are incredibly flaky, with a soft custard and take only two to three bites- just enough to make you want more.
These were invented by monks in Belem. I briefly thought of taking a vow of chastity and poverty just to be a better pastry chef, but I couldn’t trade chastity for gluttony. Oh well.
The thing about these pastries is that the monks made them and cooked them in an oven well over 800 F. The blistered spots come from the wood-fired oven, similar to a pizza oven. It’s a bit hard to recreate in a home oven, but you can get pretty good results. If you turn up your oven all the way up and use the broil setting, you can get the crispy, browned tarts. You’ll see why lines of people wait for these monk invented tarts in Belem. The recipe is still kept in a vault. Those monks weren’t playing around.
This was the first recipe I wanted to dive into making my Portugal cookbook. Its one of the best things of Portuguese cuisine and they have traveled across the Atlantic most often, seen in my local Portuguese bakeries. If you are going to introduce Portuguese cooking to friends or family, start with this intro! You won’t have to do any convincing.
So I’m going to be honest with you, you can take the shortcut and buy puff pastry. But, I will save you the disappointment I felt when I tried it. The puff pastry is actually too “puffy” and pushes the custard right out the dough.
My advice is to make the “rough” puff pastry, which doesn’t involve all the fuss that the French put into their puff pastry. Instead, it’s an easy to prepare, 30 minute dough. But, I do recommend making it the day before and chilling it in the refrigerator overnight for best results. I also make the custard the day before just because I’m doing the kitchen thing.
And one word of caution, when they come out of the oven, resist from taking a bite right away. They are super hot inside and will burn you pretty good. Another tip from someone who’s done it! Saving you the burn. But, they do taste best warm so be sure to bake them right before serving.
Pasteis de Nata
(adapted from Allrecipes, thanks Chef John)
Ingredients: (12 servings)
Prep time: 1 hour (overnight best) Cook time: 15 minutes.
- 1 cup flour
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ⅓ cup cold water
- 1 stick (8 Tablespoons) high-quality unsalted butter, softened
- ¾ cup sugar
- ¼ cup water
- 1 cinnamon stick (optional), or ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 lemon, zested in large strips (optional)
- ⅓ cup flour
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 ½ cup whole milk
- 6 large egg yolks
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- First make the dough. If you have time, make this the night before, or allow at least 2 hours in the fridge. Combine the flour, salt, and water in a bowl. Knead for 1-2 minutes. The dough will be sticky, so use a little flour if needed to handle. Let the dough rest for 15-20 minutes. Cover with a damp towel or wrap in plastic wrap.
- After the dough has rested, roll to ⅛ inches thickness, dusting with flour as necessary. You made need to use a good amount. Roll the dough into a large square, at least 9” across.
- Spread ⅓ of the softened butter with a brush or spatula on the rolled out dough. Leave a ½” unbuttered portion on the bottom. Then, roll up the unbuttered portion a ⅓ the way up, like you are folding a letter. Then, fold top part over to form a rectangle. Turn 90 degrees to the right. Then, roll out to a similar size rectangle. Spread another ⅓ of the softened butter over the entire rectangle except the lower ½”. Fold in thirds again, starting from the bottom. Then, wrap loosely in plastic wrap and chill for at least 10 minutes.
- Once chilled a bit, turn the dough 90 degrees to the right, then roll into a ⅛” rectangle. Spread with the remaining butter. Then, turn dough one last time and roll out into a rectangle. Now, starting from the bottom, roll as tightly as possible to form a small log. It should be around 12 or more inches long. Chill the log for 2 hours, or ideally overnight. Jump to making custard while resting.
- It’s a little unusual to start with the sugar syrup, but bare with me. Prepare your sugar syrup by combining the ingredients for sugar syrup: sugar, water, cinnamon stick and lemon. Bring to a boil for 2-5 minutes or until sugar is dissolved and is bubbly. Set aside.
- In another sauce pan, make the custard base. Combine the flour, salt, and milk. Cook over medium heat, whisking consistently until thick, about 5 minutes. Then, set aside for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, whisk in the egg yolks and vanilla extract. Also, strain the sugar syrup and add it to the custard as well. Just to be sure, I like to strain the whole custard base one more time to make sure not flour spots remain, but this is optional. This mixture can be chilled for 3 days if not using immediately.
Assembly of the tarts
- The fun part where you get to be a kid a little bit. First, preheat the oven to the hottest setting, 525F or more. Put the rack to the upper third part of the oven.
- Butter a mini muffin pan with softened butter.
- Take out the dough log and score it in 12 pieces. Then, cut. Place little rolls in each muffin tin.
- Get a little bowl of cold water. Using your thumbs mostly, push the dough circles down into the pan and spread the dough up the sides, about ⅛” above the rim. The sides should be thinner than the bottom. Dip your fingers in the cold water to make it easier. Repeat this for all 12 rolls. Then, chill the tray in the refrigerator for 10 minutes.
- After 10 minutes, pour the custard ¾” up the side of the tarts. Using a measuring cup with a pour spout makes this easiest. Then, place in the oven for 8 minutes and watch carefully. Tarts bake a total of 12-15 minutes but I rotate them in between. After 12 minutes, I put the “HIGH” broil setting on to get the blistered spots typical an authentic pasteis de nata. Careful, pastries will brown quickly and will need to be watched every second. Take out when a little blistered. Wait to cool 10 minutes before eating. Dust powdered sugar and cinnamon on top before serving.