Pastel de nata
Portugal has a clear sweet tooth, which is visible while walking along most city streets. Bakeries and pastry shops are as ubiquitous as Dunkin Donuts shops are in the Northeast US, and it seems like every other window is pulling hungry eyes towards cakes, bread, custards, and other delights. While visiting Lisbon, however, there is one sweet in particular that must be tried: the pastel de nata.
Pastel de natas are a traditional Portuguese pastry that can best be described as a kind of egg tart. They look a bit like little nests, with a thick outer layer of flaky pastry dough and a filling of rich yellow custard. The top of the custard is caramelized, with dark brown or black spots and a slightly different texture than the filling beneath it.
The term pastel de nata is Portuguese for “cream pastries.” Pastéis is the plural form of the word for pastry, so if you hear or see pastel de nata instead, it’s just referring to one pastry instead of several.
WHERE DO PASTEL DE NATAS COME FROM?
The recipe for this country favourite dates back over 300 years to Belém, a civil parish located west of Lisbon. Pastéis de natas were created by monks in the Jerónimos Monastery, a major tourist attraction today and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At that time, the nuns and monks used egg whites to starch their clothes, and the left over egg yolks became a major ingredient in desserts.
The monks began selling pastel de natas when the need erupted for income to support the monastery. When the monastery eventually closed in 1834, the recipe was sold to the eventual owners of the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, which opened in 1837 and is still the most popular place to buy them around Lisbon. Otherwise known simply as Pastéis de Belém, the shop is located a short three-minute walk from the Jerónimos Monastery, and offers both take out and sit in services. Either way, expect a bit of a wait because there is always a line going out the door.
There’s another reason why pastel de natas are sometimes called pastel de Belém: they were invented—or at least perfected—in this area of Lisbon. As the story goes, the monks at the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém were the first to make and distribute the iconic egg tarts. The monks used egg whites to starch clothing and fabrics, and were left with an excess of leftover yolks. Instead of wasting them, they often used them to make cakes and pastries.
After the Liberal Revolution of 1820, the monks were faced with a problem. Religious institutions throughout Portugal were being shut down and no longer had funding. To bring in some extra cash, they started selling pastel de Belém to the public.
HOW ARE PASTEL DE NATAS MADE?
Pastel de natas are certainly a simple pleasure: buttery pastry, creamy custard, and not much else. However, it takes much more effort and expertise than one might expect to achieve the ideal pastel.
CRAFTING THE PERFECT CRUST
First of all, there’s the dough that forms the pastry crust. If you’ve ever tried to make your own pastries, you know how delicate this process can be. After mixing the ingredients, you have to work the dough into the right consistency, adding butter as you go to create the perfect texture.
This takes a while, and there are no shortcuts if you want to end up with the real thing. Amateur chefs might be tempted to use store-bought pastry dough, but the result—while still delicious—won’t be nearly as impressive or authentic.
CONCOCTING THE CREAMIEST CUSTARD
After perfecting the dough, it’s time to make the filling. This involves mixing together a few essential ingredients: flour, milk, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, and—of course—egg yolks. But don’t think you can just throw it all in a mixing bowl, whisk it up, and call it a day. Creating custard that’s both creamy and light is a delicate process, involving careful heating and timing.
Once that’s done, the tarts are assembled and baked. This is where the magic happens: the filling thickens, the crust gets crispy, and those distinctive golden brown spots appear on the top of the custard. Once out of the oven, they’re dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar. And just like that, the star of Lisbon’s bakeries is born.