Pastéis de Nata (also known in English as custard tarts) are a quintessential Portuguese treat – and probably my favorite one. I always make them when I’m feeling homesick or to treat my friends to a Portuguese classic. Not the most glamorous looking dessert in the world, but surely an incredibly delicious one…
Invented by monks in my hometown, Lisbon, before the 18th century, the original Pastel de Belém can still be enjoyed very close to its original creation place. This recipe for the traditional Portuguese custard tart follows the original method. Despite the Portuguese name literally meaning cream pastries, there is no cream involved: they got this name because people were so impressed with the creamy and velvety consistency of the filling that they thought it was made with cream. That said, the English translation is not as accurate either, because it’s not exactly a custard. Egg tarts would probably be the more precise description, but it doesn’t sound as appealing.
For those who might have never seen or tried these, pastéis de nata consist of a custard-like filling in a shell of flaky and slightly crunchy puff pastry. Here is how to make them:
Preparation Time: 60 min | Cooking Time: 12 min per batch | Serves: 10-12 tarts
What you’ll need (for 10-12 tarts):
- 300g puff pastry
- 150g sugar
- 75ml water
- 250ml whole milk
- 30g plain flour
- 1 lemon peel
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 4 egg yolks
- Ground cinnamon and icing sugar (to serve)
Custard tarts are not difficult to make, but have a few crucial steps and rules, so I will divide this recipe in four parts to make it easier to read and plan ahead. Don’t worry, they are a little tricky but if you follow the recipe you won’t run into any problems. Also, they are surprisingly quick to make! There is also more information on the notes.
Part 1: pastry
- Before anything else, preheat your oven to 250ºC. Custard tarts are usually baked in very hot (professional) ovens, but domestic ones usually only reach 250ºC, so it’s important that you have it turned on for quite a while to ensure maximum temperature.
- Start by spreading your pastry – if you are working with store bought pastry, this should be easy as the pastry is already spread with the right thickness and is usually cut in a rectangle. Roughly measure your pastry and, if necessary, cut it to achieve a 19-20cm by 33-35cm rectangle (see notes for some pictures and more information).
- Sprinkle some water drops over the rectangle and use your hands to damp the pastry. Now we have the first trick: gently roll the pastry as if you were rolling up a camping bag until you get a compact cylinder of rolled pastry.
- Cut small sections with about 2cm thickness (the cuts are perpendicular to the length of the roll). Place each of these sections vertically on each of your tins (see notes for more information). Use both of your thumbs (if the pastry is sticking to them, get them a little damp) to push the pastry on to the edges of the moulds, creating a slightly thicker edge.
- Now that your pastry is on the tins, chill them until it’s time to fill.
Part 2: syrup
- Now, let’s make the sugar syrup. In a small saucepan, gently dissolve the sugar in the water. Bring this to a boil and as soon as it starts boiling, count 3 minutes (see notes for more information). Once the 3 minutes are up, turn the heat off and reserve. It’s very important that under no circumstances you stir, mix or touch this syrup, as sugar can crystalize and it will ruin your tarts.
Part 3: milk cream
- Add a dash or two of the milk to the flour and stir until combined. It’s very important that this mixture is all dissolved with no lumps, as this too can ruin your tarts and destroy the consistency they are so famous for.
- In another saucepan, warm the milk with the cinnamon sticks and the lemon peel. Once the milk is about to boil, ladle a bit of it to the flour paste and stir again. Keep doing this until you have a liquid with the consistency of single cream, always making sure there are no lumps.
- Put the floury liquid on the pot with what is left of the milk and whisk until it’s thick.
- Once it’s thick, turn the heat off. Slowly and in a thin string, add the syrup to the milk cream, whisking continuously. You will achieve a slightly thick, shiny and whitish liquid. Let it cool for about 10-15 minutes and give yourself a quick coffee break.
Part 4: Eggs and filling
- Now that the mixture is cooler, ladle a little bit of it into a bowl with the egg yolks. Stir with a fork to combine – this will prevent the eggs from cooking. Do this a couple of times and then it’s safe to put the now tempered eggs into the cream. Whisk through to combine and then sieve the filling to get rid of the lemon peel, cinnamon and any accidental lump. Your custard tart filling is now done!
- Remove the tart shells from the fridge and fill them (about ¾) with the mixture you prepared.
Part 5: Baking and serving
- Your oven should be very hot by now, so bake the tarts for about 11-12 minutes. Depending on the oven and on how well done the filling is, you may or may not achieve the characteristic burn marks on top of the tarts. Even if you don’t, they will still be delicious – and Portuguese people usually have a preference on how burnt they like their tarts to be.
- After baking them, they will be inflated but that is perfectly normal. Allow them to cool down and they will look just fine once they’re colder. You can eat them warm or cold, but make sure to sprinkle them with a generous amount of ground cinnamon (and icing sugar, if you’d like).
- These tarts have a special tin that is quite difficult to get outside of Portugal. It’s more shallow than the usual muffin/cupcake tin and it doesn’t have straight walls. However, you can buy disposable ones online, just like the ones you can see on the picture below. If you want to be adventurous, you can also try with a muffin/cupcake (or even Yorkshire pudding) tins, but they won’t look as flat and as conical as the traditional ones.
- Store bought puff pastry, as opposed to homemade one, can sometimes shrink a little when cooked, so don’t be alarmed if they are a little smaller or more compact than expected.
- The sugar syrup needs to achieve what we call a ‘pearl point’ in Portuguese candy-temperature lingo. The syrup reaches 108ºC and if you use a small spoon to gently drop the syrup, the last drop will stick to spoon and create a small pearl-like ball. You can be as precise as you want, but with this sugar-water ratio, 3 minutes after boiling is perfect.
- Don’t forget the crucial points: rolled up pastry; 3 minute/pearl point sugar syrup; no lumps in the milk cream (allowing it to cool down for 10 minutes after); tempered eggs before adding them; and finally, a hot oven.
- At last, some pictures of how to roll up and cut the pastry: