It's true... The Portuguese definitely have a sweet tooth!!! If you wander around Lisbon, chances are you will pass at least one or two pastry shops... And, when it comes to pastries, nothing is more traditional than pastéis de nata, sweet egg-yolk and cream based custard tarts created by nuns in the seventeenth century. The most famous pastéis de nata in the world are the Pastéis de Belém. In 1837, the monks from the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém (a neighborhood of Lisbon), opened a little shop nearby to sell a variation of the delicious pastry, as a way to gather extra income for their upkeep. It quickly became a favorite destination, and today this bakery makes in excess of 12,000 pastéis every day!!! The recipe to these special pastries is said to be a secret, only fully known to 3 people!!
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
When I googled recipes for pastéis de nata, I found many variations, both in ingredients and methods, so I settled on an easy recipe from M. Lourdes Modesto, a famous Portuguese cook and published writer. To simplify and save time, I replaced the dough recipe for puff pastry. Here is my adaptation:
PASTÉIS DE NATA (yields 12)
1 box (2 sheets) puff pastry
1 pint heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup sugar
7 egg yolks
1 cinnamon stick
First, let the puff pastry thaw out for about 40 minutes. Starting with the first sheet, unfold and, from the longer edge, start rolling all the way to the end. Then, add the second sheet and continue to roll. Once you have a rolled log, cut 12 slices about 3/4" thick. Each of these slices will be the base for our tarts (I used a 12-muffin pan). With your thumbs, spread the dough all the way up each muffin hole, making sure it remains fairly thin all throughout.
For the filling, mix all the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil, in medium low heat, stirring frequently. Remove from heat once the mixture comes to a boil (it will have thickened to a custard) and let cool, making sure to remove cinnamon stick and lemon peel. Fill the tart bases with this filling, and place in middle rack of a pre-heated oven at about 475 F.
Here is where I had to make some adjustments to the original recipe... First, all I have is non-stick pans (ideally these tarts should be cooked in regular silver tins), so I adjusted by lowering the temperature by about 20 - 25 degrees (it asks for about 500 F or 250-300 C). Also, to prevent the puff pastry from burning, I placed the muffin tin on top of a cookie sheet. If your oven has a setting where only the top burner is on, that may help prevent the puff pastry from burning. This is what I did: I cooked the tarts at 475 F for about 10-12 minutes, then, without removing from oven, switched from oven to broiler at 450 F for just a couple of minutes, in order to give it a browned look. Let cool in pan, then remove carefully with a knife. As with everything else, it's all about trial and error, as every oven is different! I promise you it is totally worth it!!
The best way to eat these pastries is still slightly warm (even though they are perfectly delicious when cold), sprinkled with powdered sugar and even some cinnamon...