How good could it possibly be? I mean, it's a dessert that contains no chocolate. So went my thinking, after all I'd read and heard about the Portuguese cooked custard and filo-thin pastry-crusted tarts, pasteis de nata.
I'll admit, I was smitten with the food in Lisbon, at first bite. In my experience, the food in Portugal -- the basic, raw ingredients -- have more flavor than one would ever expect, a phenomenon with which I was quite familiar from all of my time spent eating up and down the Italian peninsula. Call it culinary terroir. I ate a simple boiled potato in a simple casual lunch spot, served alongside a piece of carrot, broccoli florets, cabbage, and a few octopus tendrils...and it was one of the most flavorful potatoes I've consumed, all earthy, spuddy goodness. Ditto its veggie and aquatic sidekicks.
I dined on some salted and grilled sliced Iberian pata negra pig for dinner, and it was the single best piece of pork I've ever eaten (and I've even butchered my own locally raised hog in Italy). Even the plump, smoky grilled sardines we bought from street sellers during a patron saint festival were packed with briny flavor like nothing else. But somehow, the idea of these little pastries didn't thrill me.
So one Saturday afternoon in June, my friends and I hopped onto Lisbon's canary-yellow streetcar to head out to Belém, the western Lisbon neighborhood that boasted many tourist sites and a gorgeous view of the Teja River, the other side of the city, and west to the Atlantic. We shared a delicious seafood lunch outdoors in the shade, walked along the water, visited Cathedrals and towers and the tomb of Vasco de Gama.
At the end of the afternnoon, we stopped in to the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém,founded in 1837. I'd been told by various sources that this was a must-try. And the thing to get, of course, was the pastel de nata, here called pasteis de belem, as they were supposedly invented in a monastery a few doors down from this pastry kitchen. So, we waited on the ever-present line. We pointed to the pastries and held up 4 fingers, and the mandarin-sized pastries were put on cardboard, wrapped in the signature blue-and-white paper, and placed in a bag with some packets and napkins. We got back on the tram and once I sat down with the bag on my lap, I realized the pastries were still warm from the oven. This started to entice me.
We returned to our apartment to relax, shower, and freshen up before cocktail hour, World Cup viewing, and dinner. We unwrapped the pastries, and I admired their eggy yellow custard fillings and golden, blistered tops. I realized the colorful packets they included in our bag were powdered sugar and cinnamon. We sprinkled their contents on top of the pastries and as I picked up the pastry, some of its crispy shell flaked off and fell to the plate. And then I had a bite....and another. A few more bites and the pastry was gone. I looked up at my friend who had just devoured her pastry as well. And then my friend Matt, who wasn't interested in trying them. Wow. They were ethereal, light, full of flavor and the crackling outer pastry shell was an amazing textural contrast to the sweet, creamy custard contained within. Matt simply said "It looks like I may be hopping on the trolley tomorrow morning to get these for breakfast, ay ladies?" At the very least! I replied: "I'm thinking of sending you back right now." What a treat.
Though nothing beats these pastries fresh out of the oven of Antiga Confeitaria de Belem, the recipe below has been adapted from NYC's Alfama restaurant, and approximates the pastry. You know, a placeholder while you plan your trip to Lisbon...
Portuguese Pasteis de Nata RecipeThe secrets to a crispy, flaky pastry are to make sure the butter is evenly layered, all excess flour is removed, and the dough is rolled very thin and folded neatly. A thermometer will help you to accurately gauge the custard.
Note: Because home ovens can’t match the heat of those at the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, where these treats were first made, your pasteis may not get the beautiful golden color like those in the photo. They'll still be delicious, though, and best eaten warm, same day as they're made.
Special Equipment: a mini-muffin tin with 2-by 5/8-inch wells
- 2 H, 30 M
- Makes about 40 pastries
For the dough
- 2 cups minus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 3/4 cup plus two tablespoons water
- 16 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature, stirred until smooth
For the custard
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 1/4 cups milk, divided
- 1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2/3 cup water
- 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 6 large egg yolks, whisked
- Powdered sugar
Make the dough:
- 1. In a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, mix the flour, salt, and water until a soft, pillowy dough forms that cleans the side of the bowl, about 30 seconds.
- 2. Generously flour a work surface and pat the dough into a 6-inch square using a pastry scraper as a guide. Flour the dough, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rest for 15 minutes.
- 3. Roll the dough into an 18-inch square. As you work, use the scraper to lift the dough to make sure the underside isn’t sticking.
- 4. Brush excess flour off the top, trim any uneven edges, and using a small offset spatula dot and then spread the left two-thirds of the dough with a little less than one-third of the butter to within 1 inch of the edge.
- 5. Neatly fold over the unbuttered right third of the dough (using the pastry scraper to loosen it if it sticks), brush off any excess flour, then fold over the left third. Starting from the top, pat down the packet with your hand to release air bubbles, then pinch the edges closed. Brush off any excess flour.
- 6. Turn the dough packet 90 degrees to the left so the fold is facing you. Lift the packet and flour the work surface. Once again roll out to an 18-inch square, then dot and spread the left two-thirds of the dough with one-third of the butter, and fold the dough as in steps 4 and 5.
- 7. For the last rolling, turn the packet 90 degrees to the left and roll out the dough to an 18-by-21-inch rectangle, with the shorter side facing you. Spread the remaining butter over the entire surface.
- 8. Using the spatula as an aid, lift the edge closest to you and roll the dough away from you into a tight log, brushing the excess flour from the underside as you go. Trim the ends and cut the log in half. Wrap each piece in plastic wrap and chill for 2 hours or preferably overnight.
Make the custard:
- 9. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour and 1/4 cup of the milk until smooth. Set aside.
- 10. Bring the sugar, cinnamon, and water to a boil in a small saucepan and cook until an instant-read thermometer registers 220°F (100°C). Do not stir.
- 11. Meanwhile, in another small saucepan, scald the remaining 1 cup milk. Whisk the hot milk into the flour mixture.
- 12. Remove the cinnamon stick then pour the sugar syrup in a thin stream into the hot milk-and-flour mixture, whisking briskly. Add the vanilla and stir for a minute until very warm but not hot. Whisk in the yolks, strain the mixture into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside.
Assemble and bake the pastries:
- 13. Heat the oven to 550°F (290°C). Remove a pastry log from the refrigerator and roll it back and forth on a lightly floured surface until it’s about an inch in diameter and 16 inches long. Cut it into scant 3/4-inch pieces. Place a piece cut-side down in each well of a nonstick 12-cup mini-muffin pan (2-by-5/8-inch size). Allow the dough pieces to soften several minutes until pliable.
- 14. Have a small cup of water nearby. Dip your thumbs into the water, then straight down into the middle of the dough spiral. Flatten it against the bottom of the cup to a thickness of about 1/8 inch, then smooth the dough up the sides and create a raised lip about 1/8 inch above the pan. The pastry sides should be thinner than the bottom.
- 15. Fill each cup 3/4 full with the slightly warm custard. Bake the pasteis until the edges of the dough are frilled and brown, about 8 to 9 minutes.
- 16. Remove from the oven and allow the pasteis to cool a few minutes in the pan, then transfer to a rack and cool until just warm. Sprinkle the pasteis generously with powdered sugar, then cinnamon and serve. Repeat with the remaining pastry and custard. If you prefer, the components can be refrigerated up to three days. The pastry can be frozen up to three months.