April 10, 2016 — Birthday Party

Pastel de Nata – Portuguese Tarts

  • 1 hour
  • 12 PEOPLE
  • medium

‘…Dad took trip to I Love Nata without me 🙁 and he said they were beautiful! Since then he’s been trying to master the secret recipe. I must say Dad’s version is almost as close as you can get without taking a trip to Lisbon and pinching the famous recipe!’

'Dad and I had a couple Pastel de Nata after lunch from Canela, they were amazing! Although I was advised by a friend to go to I Love Nata...'

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What you need

500g ready-made plain puff pastry (not all butter)

500ml single cream

2 tbs very fine semolina flour

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

2 whole eggs

6 egg yolks

100g caster sugar

1 tsp corn syrup

40g butter

Shallow muffin tray – ideally metal, not non-stick

9 cm circular cutter


Dad's Recipe Tales

Making a pastel de nata isn’t rocket science – or is it?

I’ve been making endless tarts, experimenting with my own recipes. They’ll all delicious. The trouble is they’re not natas…

Genuine natas are made by Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon Portugal following an ancient secret recipe. So we can’t get any help from there. I Love Nata in Seven Dials bakes their natas on the premises but the filling is imported from Portugal. I asked for a recipe – they smile politely, but say they don’t have it. Canela, the Portuguese cafe and restaurant did once make their own nata, but even they had to admit it was easier to have their tarts imported by a specialist Portuguese supplier. I have the telephone number of the company, but can’t imagine them giving me the keys to nata fortune.

Something fishy is going on here. Why is it so difficult to replicate the tarts? I think there is industrial/chemical culinary science going on here (if not rocket science!). Unfortunately, for us home cooks the most sophisticated science we can use to unlock the secrets of this kind of recipe is trial and error. Here are some of my trials – and errors…

A nata is not an English custard tart

So if you follow one of these types of recipes the result will be very nice but not a nata. What’s different? The custard – it’s custard, but not as we know it.

What’s in the custard?

Natas have a smooth emulsified consistency, they are paste-like but still wet and soft. They don’t have that delicate wobbly, jelly-like consistency of baked custard. Indeed, they have a kind of set reminiscent of panna cotta (but don’t try cooking your cream for a nata – it doesn’t work). Nata also remind me of the Greek custard pastry galaktoboureko – the key ingredient of which is semolina flour. The other taste I get is the old-fashioned vanilla slice – basically a creme pat between sheets of pastry. The creme pat has corn flour or flour as a main ingredient and also includes butter. Several online sources use milk and heated sugar syrup – this might be similar to making a sabayon for ice cream but the hot sugar is not added to the eggs so I do not see the benefit. Other ingredients could include milk powder, egg white powder, or UHT milk or cream all of which are used to ‘stabilise’ egg mixtures and corn syrup which gives bakes a moist consistency. I have tried corn flour, normal flour and semolina. I settle on semolina as it gives a better taste and texture although it makes a slightly cakey top to the tart. I also use butter and corn syrup.

Would Pastéis de Belém really use this much cream and eggs?

Some recipes call for cream and huge amounts of egg yolks. But I wonder how it is possible to sustain such quantities of precious raw materials for a mass produced product, let alone justify the reckless waste of egg whites. My recipe incorporates a slightly more balanced use of eggs.

What about the heat?

We understand the tarts are cooked at 250C which is a little beyond what domestic ovens can achieve – or even what some non-stick muffin tins are safe to bake at. The tarts cook in 10-15 minutes at this temperature will develop the characteristic burnt tops. However, my pastry expands and pushes the contents over the edges of the pastry case. So I have baked the pastry blind. I have also tried a lower heat method, but the high heat seems to cook the custard to a finer texture. I have suggested both methods in the recipe.

And the cinnamon?

The pastels are traditionally served with icing sugar and cinnamon sprinkled over the tarts. I have tried putting cinnamon in the tart but it doesn’t give the right taste. It’s best to add the cinnamon after.

The perfect nata?

I have no doubt I will eventually be able to replicate a genuine nata – but not without a hundred more eggs and several gallons of cream…

So it is time to stop. My latest version has a good consistency and taste and is sufficiently different to a custard tart for me to confidently say I have made a damn good nata.

How Dad Cooked It

Makes 24 Pastel de Nata – Portuguese tarts

Preheat the oven to either 240C Gas 9 – or 180C Gas 4, depending on temperature method below. Take the eggs and pastry out of the fridge to come to room temperature.

  1. Prepare the cream. Pour the cream into a heavy based stainless steel saucepan. Add the semolina and vanilla. Whisk to combine. Using a square-ended wooden or silicon spatula stir the cream mixture continuously and heat gently to a boiling point. Take off the heat and stir occasionally as you make the egg mixture.
  2. Prepare the eggs. Put the egg and the yolks into a bowl, add the corn syrup and sugar and whisk to combine.
  3. Make the custard. Very slowly add the cream mixture to the eggs whilst whisking. Return to the pan, via a sieve if necessary, and heat on very low heat. While stirring continuously, bring the mixture up to a hot temperature but not near boiling. Take off the heat and stir stir in the butter. Keep stirring until there is no risk of the eggs curdling from the heat of the pan.
  4. High heat method. Cut the pastry into quarters. Dust a surface with flour and roll out a quarter of pastry to a thickness of 2.5mm (thicker than a 10p coin and thinner than a pound coin). Using the cutter cut out discs from the pastry (you should get five discs). Repeat with another quarter. Roll out the scraps to make another two discs. With a kitchen towel lightly oil the muffin areas on a metal muffin tray. Take a disc in your hands and brush off the flour and then using your thumbs push into the the middle of the disc to make it slightly thinner. Put each disc into the muffin areas and press into place evenly. Using a fork make perforate the base part of the pastry. Cover the tray generously and loosely with cling film, using two pieces if necessary and push a pile of baking beans into each disc. Cover loosely with tin foil – piercing some steam holes around the sheet – and place in the middle of a gas oven or turn down the heat of an electric oven to about 220C. Bake blind for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and turn the heat back up to 240C Gas 9. Pack away the beans, ensure the pastry is still lying  flat and re-pierce with the fork if necessary. (This rather elaborate process is designed to keep the pastry from expanding and pushing the custard out of its cases.) Fill the cases three-quarters full with custard mix and bake in the top of the oven for 10 – 15 minutes. Watch like a hawk to ensure they do not burn too much. Remove from the oven and cool briefly before lifting out the tarts to fully cool on a wire rack.
  5. Low heat method. Fill the muffin tray as above with pastry discs, prod with a fork and fill as above with custard mix. Put the tray on a shelf just above the centre of the oven and bake for 20 – 30 minutes until browned.  Cool the tarts as above.
  6. Serve the tarts. These are traditionally served warm sprinkled with icing sugar and cinnamon. However, I would recommend letting the tarts settle for an hour and then eat them at room temperature or gently warmed.
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