I, like the good monks of Belem just prior to the 1700s, ran into a conundrum: too many egg yolks abandoned as their whites were donated to bigger and better causes, whether they be starching of clothing or the pursuit of proper meringues.
Therefore, I, like the good monks of Belem just prior to the 1700s, turned to pasteis de nata as the solution to my unexpected surplus.
While these Portuguese egg tarts are, in fact, Portuguese in origin, I’ve always associated them with fond childhood memories of munching on deliciously creamy-flaky 葡式蛋挞 as a special weekend treat from the local Asian bakery. Growing up, my family wasn’t terribly into either cookies or cake (irony at its finest), so egg tarts were always our go-to to satisfy our sweet tooth.
To make these egg tarts, you will need to first procure a frozen pack of puff pastry. I know, it kind of feels like cheating, but trust me – I’ve tried making my own puff pastry once, and I have to say, it really isn’t worth the trouble. Unlike the generally superior texture of made-from-scratch cakes, the difference is negligible (especially if you buy a puff pastry containing 100% butter), but the effort most unequivocally is not. You have better things to do with your time than folding and rolling and chilling a persnickety glorified butter packet for hours on end, so please go do them instead of making your own puff pastry.
Beyond that, the only real trick to pasteis de nata is, as I unfortunately discovered after my photo shoot, to avoid curdling them. The trouble with conventional home ovens is that they just don’t go up quite as high as the original ovens of Belem (or even the industrial ovens used to bake these tarts today). As a result, you run into the rather unfortunate problem of attempting to form those lovely dark patches without causing your egg proteins to denature then form a hard, stiff network more resembling overcooked egg whites than creamy custard. After pondering the issue, I would honestly recommend just cranking up your oven as high as it goes, cooking until the tops of the puff pastry are browned but the filling has only started to inflate slightly (you’ll see what I mean as the tarts bake), then brown the tops of any bubbles with a torch a la crème brûlée for the cosmetic touch (or not at all, since they taste fantastic either way).
At any rate, if you’re feeling up to the challenge (or desperately need to rid yourself of egg yolks in a manner that does not involve scrambled eggs or lemon curd), everything else is more or less a breeze – especially since the puff pastry comes prepackaged and ready to go. Hope you enjoy!
Pasteis de Nata
Recipe from Leite’s Culinaria
Makes 12 2.5″ pasteis
1 12″ x 12″ sheet puff pastry
2 tbs flour
3/4 cup + 1 tbs milk, divided
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 cup water
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 large egg yolks, whisked
- Thaw out puff pastry just until it is pliable enough to unfold.
Tip: Flip the pastry over a few times as it thaws – the side exposed to the air will warm up much faster than the side against the cutting board.
- Roll the pastry sheet into a tube, then cut into medallions that are 1″ in thickness.
- Gently flatten each medallion with your palm, then roll out into a circle about 1/8″ – 1/16″ in thickness.
- Line each of twelve 2.5″ tart tins with a circle of puff pastry, then chill in the freezer until you are ready to filling!
Tip: You can do this step an indefinite amount of time in advance – just thaw out and fill the tart shells whenever you’re ready!
- Whisk together the flour and about 1/4 of the milk until smooth.
- Bring the remaining 3/4 of the milk to a boil in a small saucepan over medium heat, immediately removing the milk from heat when it begins to foam and bubble in earnest. Immediately whisk into the flour-milk mixture.
- Add the sugar, water, and cinnamon stick into another small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Cook down the syrup until it reaches a temperature of 220 ºF, then remove from heat and remove the cinnamon stick.
- Add sugar syrup in a thin stream into the milk mixture, whisking constantly. Add the vanilla extract and mix until incorporated. Allow the mixture to cool until it is warm enough to handle comfortably.
- Temper the whisked egg yolks by pouring about 1/3 of the milk mixture into the yolks, mixing constantly, then straining the resultant yolk mixture back into the milk, whisking until fully incorporated.
- Set aside for assembly!
- Heat the oven as high as it will go.
- Fill each tart tin to about 3/4 full with the custard filling.
- Arrange the tart tins on a large baking pan and bake for about 8 minutes, or until the custard starts to bubble and rise and the edges are browned. Allow to cool slightly and serve while still warm with cinnamon and powdered sugar as desired. Enjoy!