It seems every food magazine or colour supplement I pick up these days has a version of these famous Portuguese custard tarts - called Pastéis de Nata in their home country.
And it’s only rarely that I see them sold in bakeries here and almost never in cafes.
Being a big fan of the traditional Egg Custard tarts you most definitely can buy in cafes, bakeries and even supermarkets, I was intrigued to know what the fuss was all about and the difference between the two.
On the face of it, not a great deal, yet they are totally different.
The common custard tart in the UK is made with a sweet short pastry filled with an egg custard flavoured with freshly grated nutmeg, and baked in a moderate oven.
The Portugueses custard tart is made with thin crispy flaky pastry, filled with an egg custard subtly flavoured with cinnamon, vanilla and lemon, and baked in a searingly hot oven until caramelised on top.
The UK custard tart is crumbly and gentle to eat while its Portuguese cousin is crispy, sweet and yet with a taste of caramel. I now know what all the fuss is about.
You can make your own pastry which would mean lots of layers (lamination), and time consuming chilling (the pastry, not you) after rolling and folding each layer. While it’s a great to be able to do this technique, unless you’re trying to impress your in-laws, who happen to be chefs, I never think it’s worth it. Especially when you can buy such good quality all-butter puff pastry these days.
The secret here is to roll the puff pastry very thinly - about 1mm thick - to achieve the crispness you need.
Making the filling is similar to making a custard. That is whisking just-boiled milk with flour and cornflour, adding flavoured sugar syrup, then whisking in egg yolks. The custard shouldn’t be thick.
I know you are supposed to bring the stock syrup and egg yolks/milk up to specific temperatures for a perfect custard, but I don’t bother. I did it as I’ve just mentioned and the texture was great.
If I can get away with less faff and get the same results, that’s a winner of a recipe for me.
320g ready rolled all-butter puff pastry sheet
For the sugar syrup
250g/9oz caster sugar
150ml cold water
1 cinnamon stick
strips of peel from half a lemon
For the custard
25g/1oz plain flour, plus extra for dusting
300ml/10½fl oz milk
4 egg yolks, plus 1 whole egg
seeds from one vanilla pod or 1 tsp vanilla paste
300g/10½oz ready-made all-butter puff pastry
To make the sugar syrup, boil all the ingredients in a saucepan and simmer for about 10 minutes. (photo 1)
Leave to cool , then remove the lemon peel and cinnamon stick.
Mix the flour and cornflour together in a heat-proof bowl and add a little milk to make a paste. (photo 2)
Put the rest of the milk in a saucepan and bring to a boil. As soon as it reaches boiling point, add it to the flours in the bowl, whisking all the time until smooth and slightly thickened.
Slowly pour the cold sugar syrup into the flour and milk mixture, whisking to combine. (photo 3)
Add the vanilla (seeds or paste), egg yolks and whole egg and whisk until very smooth and lump free. Set aside. (photo 4)
Roll out the puff pastry sheet as thin as possible - about 1mm - and roll up tightly from the longest edge brushing with a little water as you go. (photo's 5,6,& 7)
Cut the pastry into discs about an inch wide and place in the holes of a mini muffin tin. (photo's 8, 9 & 10)
If you prefer bigger tarts - say the size of a normal muffin tin - cut the pastry into 2 inch discs.
Wet your finger or thumb and press down on the pastry disc, smoothing it up the sides of the tin making sure you don’t make any tears in the pastry. The bottom should be a bit thicker than the sides.
Give the cold custard mixture a quick whisk, then pour into the pastry cases to just below the top.
Bake for about 25 minutes, by which time the custard will have charred a little and the pastry shells caramelised here and there.(photo's 11 & 12)
Remove onto a rack, and cool for about 10 minutes, before biting through the crisp outer shell into the creamy custard inside. They will lose some of their crispiness after a day, but still taste wonderful.