My first experience with a pastel de belém (trans. “pastry of Bethlehem”) in Brazil was a disappointment. I was expecting a lemon curd filling, because that’s what it looked like! The rather plain egg custard certainly didn’t satisfy my craving for a tart, sweet dessert fix. Over time, though, I came to love the pastéis and often ordered them for a quick snack with juice. They’re sweet, but hearty and filling. After returning to Canada, I found them in every Portuguese bakery in my Toronto neighbourhood (though they never tasted as good as what I remembered from down in the tropics – isn’t it always like that?!). Here, they’re called pastel de nata or just nata(trans. “cream pastries”).
I found a recipe in “Home Baking” by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, and made a batch this weekend. Much to my delight, they turned out wonderfully! I used store-bought puff pastry (I didn’t have time to brave their homemade version!) and the wonderful free-range eggs that I buy from my friend Kim’s farm. As a result, the custard was brilliantly yellow and very yummy; I licked plenty of it off the spoon as I cooked! These will definitely become a regular recipe in my house.
Portuguese (or Brazilian!) Egg Tarts
3/4 lb store-bought puff pastry, scant 1 cup sugar, scant 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, pinch of salt, 1-3/4 cups whole or reduced-fat milk, 2 drops pure vanilla extract (optional), 6 large or extra-large egg yolks, preferably free-range
Set out one 12-cup muffin tin. Roll out the pastry to a very thin square, about 10 inches across. (I didn’t have to do this with mine; it already came in the right dimensions.) Using a glass or plate as a guide, with a very sharp knife, cut out 5-inch circles. Place each circle over a muffin cup and gently press down to slide it into place. Repeat with the remaining dough. Wrap the muffin tin in plastic and put in the freezer while you prepare the filling.
Place a rack on the upper third of the oven and place a baking stone on the rack, if you have one. Preheat to 475 F. Mix together the sugar, flour, and salt in a bowl; set aside.
Heat the milk and vanilla almost to a boil in a heavy saucepan. Sift the flour mixture over the milk and use a wooden spoon to stir it in. Cook over medium-low heat for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent sticking, until the mixture thickens and coats the spoon. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Place the egg yolks in a bowl and whisk until smooth. Stir in a little (about 1/2 cup) of the hot milk mixture, then gradually add the egg mixture to the saucepan, whisking to keep it smooth. Transfer to a jug or large measuring cup with a spout.
Remove the pastry shells from the freezer. Pour the filling into the shells, nearly to the top, and immediately place on the baking stone, or on a baking sheet, in the over. Bake for 7 minutes. Turn the oven to broil and cook for another 2 to 4 minutes, until the filling is well touched with dark brown patches. Tip the tartlets out onto a rack and let cool. These are best eaten warm or at room temperature, within 24 hours. If keeping for longer than 6 hours, refrigerate, covered.