Pastéis de nata (Traditional Portuguese Custard Tarts)
by Jeremiah Duarte Bills
Pastéis de nata or pastés de Belém (Bethlehem tarts) are the most famous and iconic of all Portuguese pastries. Originating in the 18th century at the Jerónimos Monastery in the Belém neighborhood of Lisbon, the original recipe developed by monks is a well guarded secret. However, because of its popularity there are many wonderful recipes which come close to the original. Which recipe to choose? I did the research for you! I studied over a dozen recipes in Portuguese and English comparing ingredient ratios and techniques to bring your a pastel de nata that matches my memory of the perfect tart. To be honest my favorite version isn’t in Lisbon but in Porto at the Confeitaria Petulia. Their custard was richer in egg yolks and was an unforgettable experience! I combined the most common and popular ingredient ratios with more egg yolks to create my version which will hopefully transport you to Lisbon (or Porto)!
Why are they called cream (nata) tarts when there isn’t any cream? My understanding is that the finished custard is so rich and smooth just like cream.
I have included a recipe to make your own puff pastry but you can also use store bought pastry. I would recommend taking the time to make the pastry if you can. It can be done days before and is incredibly rewarding. Many Portuguese recipes use margarine but I do not care for the flavor. If you use a high quality European style butter if will definitely outshine any store bought pastry and the flavor will have you dancing the chamarrita!
Makes 36 small tarts (you may use a mini-muffin pan if you do not have the traditional tins)
Total time to make with homemade puff pastry: 4 to 4.5 hours (active time is less!)
Using store bought puff pasty: 1 to 1.5 hours
(adapted from Chefe Silva and Nueza Costa)
242 grams (1 cup) whole milk
30 grams (2 tbsp) all-purpose flour
125 grams (0.5 cup) water
250 grams (1.25 cups) sugar
2 large strips lemon zest
1 cinnamon stick
100 grams (5 large) egg yolks
0.25 tsp fine sea salt
cinnamon for sprinkling
powdered sugar for sprinkling
(adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum)
Note: This recipe makes twice as much as needed for the custard. I believe if you’re going to go through the work make extra in order to have some left over. It keeps very well in the fridge or freezer. Alternatively, you can double the custard amount to make 72 tarts.
454 grams (2 cups) unsalted European style (high fat) butter (preferably organic, straight from the fridge cut into small cubes)
454 grams (3 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour (I recommend King Arthur)
236 grams (1 cup) water, room temperature
11 grams (2 tsp) lemon juice
1 tsp fine sea salt
490 grams (1.1 lb) store bought puff pastry sheets
- Measure all ingredients.
- Whisk two tablespoons of the milk with the flour.
- Slowly add the remaining milk while whisking constantly to avoid lumps.
- Pour milk and flour mixture into a medium sauce pan and bring to the boil while whisking constantly. It will thicken as it reaches the boil. Turn off the heat once it boils.
- In another medium saucepan combine the water, sugar, lemon zest and cinnamon stick. Turn heat to medium/high to high stirring until the mixture comes to a boil. Once it reaches a boil do not stir. Boil the mixture until it reaches 230 degrees F.
- Slowly drizzle syrup into milk mixture while constantly whisking.
- Strain mixture through a fine mesh strainer to remove any lumps, the lemon zest and the cinnamon stick. Leave to cool until slightly warm or room temperature.
- Whisk yolks and salt together in a large bowl once the milk mixture has cooled.
- Slowly whisk the milk mixture little by little into the yolks.
- Place finished custard into a measuring cup with a spout, small pitcher or depositor. You may store in the refrigerator covered until needed. Make sure to bring it back to room temperature before baking.
Homemade puff pastry:
- Measure out all ingredients.
- Add 60 grams (4 tbsp) of the butter to the flour. Add 60 grams (4 tbsp) of the flour to the butter.
- Place the butter (with the small amount of flour) into a stand mixture fitted with the paddle attachment.
- Beat on low (speed 1) to smooth out the butter and incorporate the flour. Scrape down as necessary. Be careful to not whip air into the butter.
- Place butter into a ziplock bag that measures roughly 6 inches by 6 inches. You can also make a pouch out of parchment paper.
- Once butter is in bag, seal and smooth to an even thickness. Place in the refrigerator while making the dough.
- Return to the large bowl of flour with the small amount of butter. Using your fingertips rub the previously added butter into the flour until it is well incorporated. Sprinkle salt over the mixture and add to the mixing bowl which you used to mix the butter (there is no need to clean the bowl).
- Add the water and lemon juice then mix on low using the dough hook attachment until ingredients begin to come together.
- Increase speed to medium low (speed 4) until the dough cleans the sides of the bowl.
- Dump dough out on the counter and knead gently to finish bringing the dough together. Do not overwork dough or it will become tough when rolling and will effect your finished product.
- Cover the dough and let it rest at room temperature for 20 minutes.
- Using your fingers stretch and then roll the dough to a 7 to 8 inch square.
- Place the butter pouch diagonally on the dough square making sure it fits inside. Using a ruler or the back of a knife, mark the outline of the butter on the dough then set the butter aside.
- Roll the dough flaps on the outside of your marked edge to extend them.
- Cut butter free from ziplock pouch and place back onto dough.
- Stretch and place each corner of dough over the butter block completely encasing it in dough.
- Roll dough with seam side up until it measures 8 inches by 15 inches. Use flour to dust the counter conservatively when rolling. You do not want the dough to absorb too much flour.
- Brush off excess flour and fold dough into thirds like a business letter. Make sure your corners are square. If they are rounded use your ruler or bench scraper to reshape them.
- Turn so that the closed end faces the left and the open end the right.
- Roll again to a rectangle 8 by 15 inches and perform another letter fold brushing off any excess flour. Make sure to use a ruler or bench scraper to constantly keep your lines straight and edges square. If at anytime the butter gets too warm or the dough becomes hard to handle place it in the refrigerator for 5 to 10 minutes. A cool kitchen is and cool counter top is preferable when working with puff pasty.
- Indent the dough with two knuckle prints (as a mark of two turns), wrap in plastic wrap and place into the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Do not leave it longer or the butter will loose its plasticity and break while your roll. If you do happen to leave it longer let it sit out for a short time to slightly soften.
- Place dough with the closed side to your left and roll to 8 by 15 inches.
- Perform another letter fold. Mark with 3 knuckle prints.
- Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
- Roll and fold one more time for a total of 4 turns (For this recipe, I use only 4 turns to prevent the pastry from puffing too much and becoming thick while baking. Generally puff pastry will have up to 7 turns).
- Cut dough in half. You will only need half for the amount of custard in this recipe. Alternatively you can use the full amount of pastry and double the custard amount.
- Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Rolling homemade/store bought puff pastry and baking:
- Roll homemade dough to a rectangle one quarter of an inch thick. Roll store bought dough until one quarter of an inch thick.
- Lightly dampen the surface of the dough and starting from the long end roll the dough into a roll (like a jelly roll). My roll measures 9 inches long with a 2 inch diameter.
- Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours until very firm.
- Depending on the size of your tins cut slices of the dough and place in each tin or mini-muffin pan opening. I cut my slices 2 eighths of an inch thick to find my traditional tins.
- Place tins in refrigerator until dough has firmed again.
- Using your thumb gently push the center of the dough into the base of the tin.
- Using your thumbs press the rest of the dough against the sides until it’s is very thin an eighth to sixteenth of an inch thick. It will rise higher than the ridge of the tin.
- Refrigerate for 20 to 30 minutes to relax the dough and firm up the butter.
- Preheat oven to 500F. Place rack in the lower third of the oven.
- Pour or deposit custard into lined tines filling 75% full.
- Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until pastry is golden brown and custard has brown and or black spots which is the traditional look of these pastries.
- Using tongs remove pastries from the tines and cool on a wire rack.
- Let cool until no longer hot but still warm.
- Sprinkle with cinnamon and or powdered sugar.
- They are best eaten the day they are baked or the following day after being warmed.
Tips and Troubleshooting:
- Always test one or two pastries first to see how your oven effects the finished product.
- If the visible pasty burns but the custard doesn’t brown you need to move your baking rack down lower in your oven.
- If the base of your pastry burns place your tins on two stacked sheet pans instead of one.
- If your custard won’t brown/blacken, broil briefly before serving.
- If the tops burn but the base and sides aren’t cooked, try a lower oven temperature or move your baking rack down.
- If your pastry shrinks, your pastry dough roll was too narrow, you didn’t let the dough rest enough while rolling and lining the tins, or the dough wasn’t cold enough before baking.
- Keep dough cold at all times.
- You can store lined tines in the refrigerator or freezer to fill and bake when needed.