Pastéis de Nata (Father’s Day Portuguese Custard Tarts)

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Harry: There are two kinds of women: high maintenance and low maintenance.

Sally: Which one am I?

Harry: You’re the worst kind; you’re high maintenance but you think you’re low maintenance.

Father, I hope you are reading.

Just over a week ago I left my phone at home and returned to find two missed calls from my dad. Unable to get hold of me he had then called my husband to deliver the (clearly time critical…) message that he had tasted his first Portuguese custard tart and “did I want to make him some for Father’s Day”. I naïvely thought top trumping the tart he had in the coffee shop would be a case of comparing a few more authentic recipes on the internet and whipping up a filling for the puff pastry in my freezer. As it turned out, the original recipe was only initially known to a handful of nuns, has never been written down since, and has been described as the best kept secret in Portugal since the nineteenth century – hmm.

Despite my disappointment at this not being the easy win I had in mind, the story was actually fascinating. These tarts originate from a small village called Belém. Portugal would historically produce large quantities of eggs, whose whites were put to the good use by monasteries and convents of clarifying wines, and the slightly less exciting use of starching clothes. As a result, many egg yolks were leftover and a whole host of sweet pastry recipes were born, one of which is now rated fifteenth in the top 50 delicacies in the world. The recipe is closely guarded with a large number of people in the factory working on individual parts but only three people in the “secret room” privy to the full details. The recipe remains unchanged almost 300 years later and the original store where the nuns sold the pastries to raise funds for the monastery after the Liberal Revolution now sells up to 50,000 of these mysterious cups of custard a day.

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When one of the previous generation of pastry chefs wanted to retire and pass on the recipe, rumour has it the requirements for his replacement included being tall and a non alcohol drinker – I have no chance. Having finally accepted I will not be making an authentic Pastéis de Bélem, my attentions went to the many variations out there for the general version; Pastéis de Nata. The options are plentiful, but most agree on the use of lemon zest, sugar, flour, egg yolks, milk and/or cream, cinnamon and vanilla in varying proportions and a slightly altered puff pastry. My first version tasted good but a little bit too healthy (yes really) to be the real deal – I think this is due to using all milk and no cream or not enough egg yolks. The second attempt was a lot better, although the pastry needs to be thinner still. I upped the egg yolk count and made half of the batch with milk, the other half with a mix of milk and cream. For each version I tried two different cooking temperatures (250°C and 220°C). At 250°C the browning was a lot better initially but the custard split, 220°C required a bit more patience but seemed kinder to the custard. For me the mix of milk and cream cooked for longer at 220°C was the winner, recipe below. Happy almost Fathers Day! S

Recipe (makes 15):

250g rough puff pastry (halve the quantities in the recipe here)
25g plain flour
260ml whole milk (split into 200ml + 60ml)
80ml double cream
225g golden caster sugar
6 large egg yolks
175ml water
1 cinnamon stick
1 thin strip of lemon peel
1/4 tsp vanilla bean paste (or 1/2 tsp vanilla extract)

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Method:

Preheat the oven to 220°C

Step one: Make the puff pastry (recipe here). Once rested in the fridge, cut the pastry into 4 sections, and roll each one into a spiral and return to the fridge for another 10-20 minutes.

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Step two: Cut each spiral into sections of about an inch wide.

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Step three: Working with a small amount at a time on a lightly floured surface (you can leave the rest in the fridge until you are ready to use it), place one of the small sections spiral side up and roll into a circle of c. 1mm thickness 10cm diameter. Place the discs back into the fridge while you make the filling

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Step four: Whisk the flour (25g) and milk (60ml) until smooth

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Step five: Combine the water (175ml), sugar (225g), cinnamon and lemon peel in a saucepan and heat to the boil (100°C) without stirring to make a syrup, remove from the heat and leave to stand for 30 minutes

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Step six: Warm the milk (200ml) and cream (80ml) in a separate saucepan

Step seven: Add the milk and cream mixture to the flour mixture from step four and whisk until smooth

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Step eight: Remove the cinnamon stick and slowly add the syrup to the milk/cream/flour mixture, whisking as you go

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Step nine: Add the 1/4 tsp vanilla paste and continue to stir until the heat starts to come out of the mixture

Step ten: Whisk in the six egg yolks one at a time to form a thick custard. Return to a low heat and stir constantly until the mixture thickens. Don’t be tempted to rush this part, it can take around 15 minutes. Some recipes call for straining but mine was already smooth from all the whisking so I covered it with cling film and set aside

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Step eleven: Place the pastry discs into a baking tray (mine is 2.5 inch diameter) and fill 75% with the custard mix (the custard will inflate and then sink back again when cooked). Before I placed each rolled disc in the tray I pressed a 9cm diameter cutter over them to neaten them up.

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Step twelve: Cook for around fifteen minutes – You want the edges to be browned but not burnt. These turn quickly so keep an eye on them

Step thirteen: Cook in a wire rack, dust with icing sugar and cinnamon to serve

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