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Pastéis de Nata

December 9, 2011

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.  

18 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2011 12:06 PM

    One of the few trips my parents took sans bebes was to Portugal, and they fell in love. My mom always wanted to return so that we could all go as a family, but that never did happen. Their favorite part, of course, was the food, and your description echoes theirs. It was like listening to my mom gush all over again 🙂 I must try this soon!

    Have a wonderful weekend, Jean!

  2. December 9, 2011 12:10 PM

    I ate hundreds of natas whilst at university (in London, not Portugal). There is just something about them that makes me feel all warm and cozy. Don’t tell anyone, but the best ones are from Nando’s!!!

  3. December 9, 2011 12:32 PM

    Jean, I’m so honored that you liked the recipe and you enjoyed my book. The pastéis look incredible. You did a wonderful job!

  4. December 9, 2011 12:32 PM

    These look so dainty and delicious; I love simple pastries like these, much less daunting a project than making a good mille-feuilles from scratch!

  5. December 9, 2011 1:00 PM

    These are beautiful! I’d love to try these 🙂 great recipe post!

  6. December 9, 2011 1:04 PM

    I love everything with any sort of custard. These tarts looks so perfect and dainty. I wonder How many I could eat in one go.

  7. December 9, 2011 4:32 PM

    What beautiful photos, Jean. These sound amazing and they’re so adorable looking. I hope to visit Portugal some day. Have a lovely weekend 🙂

  8. December 9, 2011 6:22 PM

    Both sides of my family are half Portuguese so I might try making these as part of the dessert spread for Christmas!

    Thank you for the Portuguese recipe! 🙂

  9. December 9, 2011 6:47 PM

    Such lovely little tarts! I cannot resist a dessert when custard is involved…mmmmmmm.

  10. December 9, 2011 7:30 PM

    I’m thinking about putting a little jam in the middle and enjoying them warm. Can’t explain why…

  11. December 10, 2011 8:27 AM

    I am so excited to see this recipe! Ryan and I went to Lisbon for our honeymoon. I can’t wait to recreate these for him. Thank you for sharing this recipe!

  12. December 10, 2011 1:05 PM

    I love Portugese custard tarts and yours look so light and lovely, I am definitely going to make them. Thanks so much for sharing. Love your blog!

  13. December 10, 2011 1:22 PM

    What beautiful photos Jean! I would adore to go to Portugal someday soon. This book sounds amazing and these Pasteis de nata sound and look divine!!!! You are making me SOOOO hungry. Hope the holiday season is treating you and hubby well. 🙂

  14. December 10, 2011 8:18 PM

    Hi Jean-Your photos are just lovely and this looks delicious:)I must check out David’s book. I know it’s fabulous!:)xx

  15. December 11, 2011 8:14 AM

    For all my Lisbon tour guests past present and to come this is for you to remember, enjoy and anticipate. When we cannot get into the famous -Obama on his official visit at a NATO conference had the Portuguese president send out for a take away box of the little creamy darlings!
    I have a cunning plan – that is to take you to the next best thing the Cafe that won this years best Pasteis de Nata on the other side of the pink Presidents residence. The nominate a new winner each year here in Lisbon. If you’re coming to Lisbon check out my tours Happy munching from Mary, your Brit in Lisbon

  16. December 12, 2011 8:36 AM

    I have never met anyone saying they didn’t enjoy Portuguese cuisine. It has a way of getting to your heart and warm your tummy.
    These mini cups are another proof. They look amazing and I bet they taste even better.

  17. December 19, 2011 10:37 PM

    I LOVE these. I loved taking the tram out to Belem, and getting a pack of six tarts in a paper tube. This is one of the things I always think I’ll be making very soon and yet…

    I love anything that reminds me of my two trips to Portugal, I just loved travelling in there–the architecture, being by the sea, everything.

  18. December 25, 2011 3:29 PM

    Woah! when I saw “pastéis de nata” I felt so proud! I’m glad you liked my country and that you loved the pastries so much that you decided to make them at home!
    loved the recipe and I always love your photos!

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