Elegant custard tart called pasteis de nata is more than worth the effort

  • Pasteis de nata and cinnamon sticks. (Colter Peterson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

Have you ever watched “The Great British Baking Show,” seen something that looked good and said to yourself, “I have got to try to make that?”

And then you never did, right?

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I watched an episode recently (I’m about a year or two behind), told myself “I have got to try to make that” — and then I actually made it.

It was wonderfully, spectacularly, magnificently amazing.

The bakers on the show had to make a Portuguese custard tart called pastéis de nata. The contestants were baffled, because they had never even heard of them before. I had certainly never heard of them. Co-host Prue Leith apparently had not heard of them, either.

I’m not even sure that a lot of people in Portugal have heard of them.

Pastéis de nata, according to “The Great British Baking Show” and a number of online sources, was created sometime in the 1600s or before at a monastery in Lisbon. The story is that monasteries at the time used egg whites to starch their clothes, which left a lot of yolks.

The monks figured out a great way to use those yolks: Make a sweet custard with which to fill small tarts with a puff-pastry crust.

The tarts are pretty, too, a bright yellow center inside a flaky, golden brown crust. The cheerful yellow custard is traditionally mottled with small brown spots. To me, brown spots mean the custard was burned — but apparently, it’s the way they sell them in Portugal.

And as it turns out, the mottling helps. Without it, the tarts are just a little too sweet. The browning adds just enough depth to offset some of that rich sweetness and introduces an intriguing new level of complexity.

Pasteis De Nata

Yield: 12 servings

For the rough puff pastry:

1 1/3 cups (150g) all-purpose flour, see note

Pinch of salt

2 tablespoons (25g) unsalted butter, diced and chilled, see note

2 to 3 ounces (4 to 6 tablespoons) ice water

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick or 60 g) unsalted butter, frozen

For the custard:

1 1/2 cups (375 ml) whole milk

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (45g) all-purpose flour

2 strips of pared lemon zest

1 cinnamon stick

1 3/4 cups (375 g) granulated sugar

7 large egg yolks

Note: If you have the time, place the 1 1/3 cups of flour for the pastry in the freezer for 30 minutes or so before using. If you have strong fingers, also place the 2 tablespoons of diced butter in the freezer at the same time.

1. For the pastry, mix the flour and salt together in a bowl. Rub in the 2 tablespoons of chilled butter, until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Gradually add just enough ice water (about 4 to 6 tablespoons) to form a dough. Do not use too much water.

2. Roll out the dough to a rectangle on a lightly floured work surface. Grate half of the frozen butter over the bottom two-thirds of the dough. Fold down the top third and fold up the bottom third as if folding a letter.

3. Turn the folded dough 90 degrees and roll it out into a rectangle again. Repeat the process, grating the remaining frozen butter and fold as before. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and leave to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.

4. Roll and fold the pastry twice more, each time wrapping the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerating for 30 minutes.

5. Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured work surface to a rectangle measuring 8 by 12 inches. Starting from the short side, roll the pastry into a tight log. Cut the log into 12 equal discs.

6. Place 1 disc into a cup of 12-cup muffin pan, swirl-side up. Using lightly wet fingers, carefully press the pastry up the sides with your fingers, working from the center outward, until the pastry reaches the top. Avoid tearing the dough on the bottom. Repeat with the remaining pastry discs. Chill for 20 minutes.

7. For the custard, pour the milk into a pan and whisk in the flour. Add the strips of lemon zest and the cinnamon stick. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, whisking continuously. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes until thick. Remove from the heat.

8. Dissolve sugar in 3/4 cup of water in a small pan over medium heat. Increase the heat and boil until mixture reaches 223 to 235 degrees (if you don’t have a candy thermometer, it is the right temperature when a drop placed in a glass of water forms a thread). Gradually whisk the boiling syrup into the milk mixture.

9. Put the egg yolks in a large bowl and strain the milk mixture over the top, whisking to combine. Cover the surface with plastic wrap and allow to cool.

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10. Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Pour the custard into the pastry cases, leaving a slight gap at the top (you will have enough custard for 2 batches). Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until the pastry is golden and crisp and the custard is bubbling with tiny brown spots. Cool the tarts in the pan for 5 minutes, then gently transfer to a wire rack to cool almost completely.

11. These are best served the day they are cooked, preferably still a little warm from the oven. If desired, sprinkle lightly with powdered sugar and cinnamon.

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