Portuguese custard tarts (Pastéis de nata)

IMG_0977 (600 x 450)Before we came to live in Turkey, when I had a proper grown-up job, I was working on a major project just outside Lisbon in Portugal.

One morning, after a particularly lively night out in Lisbon with some members of the British press, we asked a taxi driver to take us to wherever was his favourite place to have breakfast. It was a life-changing moment – and one from which my figure may never recover. The place the taxi driver took us to was Pastéis de Belém – a famous pastry shop in the Belém district of Lisbon, right on the bank of the River Tagus.

Passers by having a sneaky bica and Pateis de nata on their way to work

The shop had a large seating area, lined with fabulous hand-painted blue and white ceramic tiles, where probably more than a hundred people were tucking into Pastéis de nata, the bakery’s most famous product, washed down with bica, tiny cups of strong black coffee. Within seconds, we were seated with a plate of pastries, a shaker each of cinnamon and powdered sugar, and coffee that would put hairs on your chest. Reader, I confess, we had more than one round…

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(Photo: Heather Cowper)

I think that was probably somewhere around the millennium and I’ve been trying to perfect the recipe ever since.

Coincidentally, when we bought our house in Warwick three years ago, we discovered there was a tiny Portuguese bakery just along the road – and their speciality (of course) is Pastéis de nata. I tentatively asked the very nice lady behind the counter whether the recipe was a secret – of course it was. However, I showed her my recipe and she kindly tipped me the wink that perhaps I needed to increase the amount of egg yolks – Eureka.

The tarts are traditionally served with cinnamon and sugar, but it’s not entirely practical stowing all of that kit in your backpack or beach bag, so I was interested to come across a suggestion, I think on Jamie Oliver’s website, that you could incorporate the sugar and cinnamon into the pastry itself. I tried it and it worked a treat. Before anyone writes in, of course I know this is not authentic, but once you’ve tried them you will forgive me.

Tonight, I cheated and I had the oven on a slightly lower temperature than they really need, because I was baking bread at the same time, so mine haven’t caramelised quite as much as they usually do. I suspect that won’t mean that they will hang around for any longer than usual though, especially as we have family arriving from the UK around midnight tonight, who will have been travelling since just after eleven this morning. I rather suspect the box may be empty by breakfast time…

Pastéis de nata (Portuguese custard tarts)

Makes 12

You will need a 12-cup muffin tin

Ready rolled puff pastry (mine was two sheets of 10cm x 20cm – you may need to cut yours accordingly)
1 whole egg
3 egg yolks
200ml double cream
200ml whole milk
120g sugar
2 heaped tablespoons cornflour (the white squeaky stuff, not yellow cornmeal)
A good splosh of vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon and 2 teaspoons ordinary white sugar, mixed, for sprinkling
A little softened butter for greasing the muffin cups

Sprinkle the sugar and cinnamon mix over each piece of pastry.

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Roll each piece of pastry, as tightly as you can, from the short end.

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Cut each roll into six pieces.

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On a floured surface, turn the pastry so that the spiral is facing upwards, and roll into rounds of approximately 10cm. Don’t worry if they are not totally round or if they have sticky-out bits – nobody is going to examine them for long enough to carry out any kind of quality control.

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Give the rolled out pastry a bit of a pat to get rid of any excess flour and then press each one into one of the muffin cups.

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Refrigerate for at least half an hour – longer is good.

Meanwhile, make the custard. Put the milk and cornflour into a non-stick pan and whisk until smooth. Add the egg, egg yolks, cream, vanilla extract and sugar and give everything a good whisk until well combined. Over a medium heat, bring just to a boil, stirring all the time – one of those nylon whisks is a good tool, as they don’t scratch your pan. The custard should be quite thick as it reaches boiling point. Remove from the heat and press a sheet of baking paper or microwave film directly onto the custard to stop a skin forming while it cools. Allow to cool completely.

Pre-heat the oven to 200C.

Once the pastry has rested and the custard has cooled, spoon the custard into the pastry cases. Each one holds about a dessert spoonful.

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Bake the tarts for 20 – 25 minutes until you get nice dark brown patches on the top. You will see the custard rise up alarmingly as they bake – keep the faith, they WON’T boil over, even though they look as though they are about to do so. Allow to cool in the tin for a few minutes, then slide a small table knife down the side of each one and lift onto a rack to cool. They should be served at room temperature. Feel free to sprinkle over more cinnamon and some icing sugar if you have them to hand. Best served with strong black coffee – espresso would be perfect.

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Bom apetite!




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