Custard Cream Tarts
Pastéis de Nata
Makes about thirty 2½-inch tarts
As the story goes, over 300 years ago, in Belém, a district of Lisbon, the nuns of the Jerónimos monastery used egg whites to starch their habits, resulting in an abundance of egg yolks. These yolks were used to make pastries to sell to the public, including the delicious custard tarts now famed around the world. Eventually, the monastery closed and the recipe was passed to the owners of what is now Belem Pastries, a short walk away which is frequented by locals and tourists alike. The recipe is said to be so secret that it is known only to a few, but that hasn’t stopped pastry chefs from trying to recreate these delicious tarts. Some make the filling with eggs and cream and others make a white sauce egg-yolk filling, as in this recipe, which I learned from Chef Albert F. Cunha.
They are known as pastéis de nata (cream pastries). The official label of Pastéis de Belém (Belém pastries) belongs to those made in the Belém factory, and for those, you will need to travel to Portugal. I guarantee you won’t be able to resist them long enough to bring any home.
The pastry dough requires patience; it must be chilled between each of six rollings, and must be made a day in advance, though as a shortcut, you can substitute ready-made puff pastry (the pastry will not p much, but they will still be delicious). The tarts must bake quickly at a very high temperature—as high as your puff up as oven will go. Commercial bakeries bake them at 600°F, which is not attainable with a home oven, so do not be disappointed if your tarts don’t caramelize in quite the same way.
Thin rolling pin without handles or a long 1-inch dowel
30 to 32 pastry tins, 2½ inches in diameter by 1 inch deep (not fluted)
Large baking sheet
Makes about 2½ lb puff pastry, enough for 30 pastries
2½ cups (11. oz) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
1¼ cups (5½ oz) cake flour (see Note)
1¼ cups ice-cold water, or as needed
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons lemon juice (added to relax the gluten)
4 sticks (1 lb) unsalted butter, chilled, firm but not hard
1 cup (8 oz) soft margarine
FILLING AND ASSEMBLY
½ cup (2¼ oz) all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons table salt
1 cup plus 6 tablespoons whole milk
2 cups (14 oz) sugar
1 cup plus 1½ tablespoons water
5 large egg yolks, room temperature
1 whole egg, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla or lemon extract
Ground cinnamon and/or Beirão brandy, to serve (optional)
Note: Because American flour is different from the flours used in Portugal, various formulas attempt to replicate the old-world flavor and texture of the puff pastry. Bakers commonly use all bread flour (12% protein). You can use half bread flour and half pastry flour or, if you do not have access to pastry flour, use a ratio of three parts all-purpose flour to one-part cake flour.
Day 1, make the dough
Sift the flours together into a large bowl or in a mound on your work surface. Make a well in the center of the flour. In a cup, combine the cold water, salt, and lemon juice together. Gradually pour the liquid into the well in the flour, using the outstretched fingers of one hand to draw the flour into the liquid, turning the ingredients gently to mix. Continue mixing until you have a rough dough; it should not be smooth at this point. (Be careful not to overwork the dough, which can toughen it.) Shape the dough into a ball and place in a bowl. Cover and set in the refrigerator to rest for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the butter: Make sure the butter is chilled and firm, but still pliable. Unwrap the butter and lightly dust with flour. Place the sticks side by side on a sheet of waxed paper or plastic wrap on a pastry board. Using a long 1-inch dowel or thin rolling pin, gently flatten the butter, shaping it into a neat 6-inch-square block. It should end up being about 1 inch thick. Set aside.
On a generously floured surface, roll out the dough into a 10-inch square, about 1-inch thick. The object is to enclose the butter in the dough. Place the block of butter diagonally on top of the dough so the corners of butter fall inside the edges of dough. Fold the corners of the dough over the butter to meet at the center. Pinch the seams together, making sure the butter is completely enclosed by the dough.
To roll out the dough: Keep your work surface and rolling pin well-floured. Place the block of dough in front of you. Use a rolling pin without handles. Begin at the end of the block farthest from you and gently press into the dough with the rolling pin. Next, press the rolling pin into the middle of the dough, and then the end closest to you. Continue making horizontal ridges at even intervals (like speed bumps). This spreads out the butter and dough evenly. Using small strokes, roll out the dough, extending it in one direction (away from you) to about three times the length of the original block of dough, to a thickness of ½ inch. Using a pastry brush, dust off any excess flour. Fold the dough into thirds: first fold one-third over. Brush off any excess flour. Fold the other end over, aligning the sides to make a neat rectangle. (If the dough seems to be getting too soft, chill for about 20 minutes before continuing.)
Roll out the dough in this manner four more times, for a total of five times, chilling in between. Begin each rolling with the rectangle of dough extending lengthwise away from you. After each roll out, make light impressions in the dough with the tip of your finger to remind you how many times you have rolled out the dough.
On the sixth roll-out, roll out the dough to ¼ inch thick rectangle, about 22 inches long. This time, do not fold. Instead, turn the dough so that the long edge is closest to you. Spread a thin layer of margarine over the surface of the dough, covering it. Starting from the long edge farthest from you, roll the dough towards you, creating a long jellyroll shape. Keep the rolling even and firm. (If it is difficult to manage, cut the roll in half and roll each half separately.) The diameter of the final roll should be about 2½ inches, to match the bottom diameter of the tart tins. Wrap the rolled dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours.
Day 2, fill and bake
Unwrap the pastry dough and, using a very sharp knife, slice the dough into scant ¼-inch-thick slices (about a thumbnail’s width). Place one slice over the top of each ungreased pastry tin and let rest for 20 to 30 minutes.
For the filling
In a 2-quart saucepan, combine the flour and salt. While stirring, slowly pour in 6 tablespoons of the milk, whisking to blend thoroughly, creating a thick slurry.
Heat the remaining 1 cup milk in a 1-quart saucepan until it is quite hot, but not scalding. Slowly, while stirring quickly and constantly to avoid burning, pour the hot milk into the slurry. Place the saucepan over medium heat and simmer the white sauce for 2 to 3 minutes to cook the starch. Remove from the heat and set aside, keeping it hot.
Next, make a sugar syrup: In a separate 1-quart saucepan, combine the sugar and water over medium-high heat. When bubbles start to form, reduce the heat to medium-low. Do not allow the mixture to color, but heat until the sugar dissolves and the syrup reaches the pearl stage (230°F), dripping slowly from the spoon like honey. Remove from the heat. Pouring slowly, fiercely whisk the hot syrup into the hot white filling. Simmer for 2 to 3 minutes over medium-low heat. Remove from the heat, set aside, and allow the filling to cool for 30 minutes.
Complete the filling and assembly
Return to the pastry cups. Moistening your thumb with water, press the center of each slice of dough straight down into the middle of the pastry tin, making sure the bottom is very thin (⅛ inch) without bumps, otherwise it won’t bake completely. Keeping your thumb slightly moistened, pull the dough against and up the sides of the tin to the top edge, forming a lip just above the edge (it will shrink slightly during baking). Repeat, working your way around the tin, each time pulling from the center outward, until the tin is evenly lined with the pastry dough.
The pastry should look as though even rings line the tin. Place the lined tins on a large baking sheet, leaving an inch between them. Cover with plastic and let them rest, chilled, for another 30 minutes.
In a medium bowl, lightly beat the egg yolks and whole egg. Just before filling the lined tart tins, make sure the reserved white sauce is quite warm. Quickly whisk enough of the warm sauce, a little at a time, to temper the eggs. Once the yolks have become quite warm, immediately whisk them fiercely into the remaining sauce, stirring constantly to blend thoroughly. Stir in the vanilla or lemon extract. You should have about 4 cups of filling. Cover with plastic wrap, pressed onto the surface of the filling, and refrigerate until completely cool.
When you are ready to bake
Arrange a rack in the middle of your oven and preheat to your oven’s highest temperature (500°F to 525°F). Using a small ladle, fill the shells so they are just over three-quarters full. Take care not to over-fill them, or to spill any of the filling on the edges of the pastry, which will prevent the pastry from puffing.
Place the pastries immediately onto the middle shelf of the preheated oven. Bake until the pastry is a rich golden color and the custard is semi-firm, 18 to 20 minutes. (The filling will puff up during baking and deflate as it cools.)
Cool for about one minute then remove the tarts from the pastry tins—if they are allowed to cool too long, they will stick to the tins. These tarts are best served warm or at room temperature. The most luscious way to serve them is slightly warm, with a dusting of cinnamon and a little splash of Beirão, Portuguese brandy. The tarts can be refreshed in toaster oven the next day, then flavored with brandy or cinnamon, as desired.
Recipe reprinted with permission from Interlink Books.