Pastéis de Nata - Portuguese Egg Custard Tart
In 18th-century Europe, egg whites were always in demand in convents and monasteries as they were used to starch the habits of nuns as well as to remove the tannins of the red wine made by the monks, resulting in a large amount of unused yolks. In order to consume these yolks, many convents and monasteries started creating cakes and pastries, resulting in a solid tradition of egg yolk-based desserts throughout the Portugal.
It was the Catholic monks at the Mosteiro dos Jéronimos in the Bélem neighborhood of Lisbon that created these crispy and flaky tarts filled with egg custard and started selling them at a nearby sugar refinery. In 1834, the monastery closed and the monks sold the recipe to the owners of the sugar refinery, who in turned opened the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, where to this day the people stand in long queues for these coveted sweet treats. The business is still in the hands of the same family that purchased the recipe over eight years ago but pasteis de nata are made all over Portugal and in various countries colonized by the Portuguese such as Brazil and Macau.
Makes 18-20 tarts
2 1/3 cup (325 grams) all purpose flour, plus extra for rolling out the dough
1 cup (250 ml) water
½ teaspoon salt
8 ounces (225 grams) butter, at room temperature, divded
1 ½ cup (300 grams) sugar
¾ cup water (175 ml) water
2 cups (450 ml) milk, divided
½ cup (80 grams) all purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon vanilla
6 egg yolks
Powdered sugar or cinnamon (optional)
To make the dough, mix the flour, water and salt in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until the dough pulls away from the walls of the bowl, about 30 seconds. Transfer to a well -floured surface and gather the dough into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap. Rest the dough in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
In the meantime, take 2/3 of the butter and place between two sheets of parchment paper and flatten out with the rolling pin to form a thin square of butter.
Unwrap the dough and, using a rolling pin, roll out the dough into the shape of a cross. Place the square of butter at the center and wrap the butter in the dough as if you were wrapping a gift. Cover with plastic and allow to rest in the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes. Remove the plastic and roll out the dough again. Fold the bottom third away from you. Then fold the top third towards you. Turn the dough 90 degrees to the left and cover with plastic and allow to rest for at least 10 minutes. Repeat this process two more times. Always flour the surface as well as the dough to ensure the dough does not stick to the surface or the rolling pin.
Roll out the dough into a large rectangle at least 18 by 21 inches. Spread the remaining butter all over the dough. Starting on the long side closest to you, roll the dough tightly away from to form a long log. Cut the log in half and wrap each log in plastic wrap. Allow to rest in the refrigerator for at least two hours or overnight.
In the meantime, prepare the custard. Place the water and sugar in a sauce pan fitted with a sugar thermometer. Cook the sugar until it reaches 220°F (100°C) and remove the pan from the heat.
Mix ¼ cup of milk with the flour and whisk until the mixture is totally smooth. Place the remaining milk in a sauce pan together with the cinnamon stick and salt and bring to a boil. Add the flour-milk mixture and whisk until it thickens. Add the sugar syrup gradually and whisk until you have a homogenous mixture. Remove from the heat.
Add the egg yolks and vanilla and whisk. Strain the mixture into a large measuring cup or bowl with a pouring spout. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside or in the refrigerator until ready to assemble the tarts.
When ready to assemble the tarts, arrange an oven rack in the top third of the oven and preheat the oven to 550°F (290°C). If your oven does not go up to 550°, set it as high as it will go. Just keep in mind the baking will take longer and the tarts will not get as browned.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and cut each log into ten rounds, each about an inch in width. Place each round into the egg tart molds. Dab your thumbs in a bit of water and start pressing the dough in the center towards the bottom of the mold and spread up the sides to the very top of the mold. Ensure the dough is 1/16 inch thick at the bottom and 1/8 inch on the sides the side. Place all the molds lined with dough on a baking pan. This will make placing and removing them from the oven much easier.
Pour the custard into each mold until it is about ¾ full. When all the molds have been filled with custard, place the baking sheet in the pre-heated oven and bake for about 17 minutes, or until the dough is golden and crispy and the custard has browned well. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for about 10 minutes. Remove from the molds and place on a cooling rack to cool further. At this point, if you want to, you can sprinkle some powdered sugar or cinnamon on top.
It is best to consume these the same day they are baked!
*If you prefer, you can use store bought puff pastry dough. I particularly like the DuFour brand… It is expensive but truly produces a superior result than other brands as it is made with real butter and does not have preservatives.