26 September 2023

Portuguese tarts

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By Christine Salins.


Four decades ago, in her cookbook, Traditional Portuguese Cooking, Maria de Lourdes Modesto said pastel de nata, better known to us as custard tarts, were “probably the most important Portuguese speciality ever sold”.

Today, they remain the national symbol of Portugal and are sold in many countries, Australia included, although I find the quality here can be very variable. Today’s recipe is an adaption of one dating back to the 16th century, when they were made in monasteries and convents all over Portugal.

The palm-sized tarts have a melt-in-the-mouth, fragile, flaky crust and a not-too-sweet custard that is caramelised and darkened in spots. In Portugal, locals visit their neighbourhood pastry shops in search of the best-tasting pastel de nata.

Visitors are often on a similar quest, although I didn’t have to search far during my visit because the Lisbon hotel we stayed in served an afternoon tea with the most divine custard tarts that nothing I have tasted since comes close to.

Portugal is one of the hottest destinations for food lovers, or at least it was pre-pandemic when more than 22 million people visited each year. The country’s incredible culinary legacy is forged by centuries of world exploration, its natural bounty combined with techniques and ingredients discovered along 16th-century trade routes in South America, Asia, and Africa.

Its gastronomy is every bit as rich, flavoursome and varied as that of neighbouring France and Spain, something which is highlighted in Portugal: The Cookbook, published by Phaidon (RRP $79.95).

This definitive collection of 450 classic and contemporary recipes, including the one here for custard tarts, encompasses breads, soups, vegetables, fish, shellfish, poultry, game, pork, beef, veal, savoury cakes, rice dishes and desserts.

Each recipe indicates its regional origin, from the mountainous north to the southern beach resorts of the Algarve and the island outposts of Madeira and the Açores. Recipe icons indicate whether dishes are gluten free, dairy free, vegetarian, vegan, can be prepared in 30 minutes or less, and/or use 5 or fewer ingredients. You can speed up the process for making the custard tarts by using shop-bought puff pastry.

Author Leandro Carreira cut his teeth at Andoni Luis Aduriz’s Mugaritz in Spain before coming to London and working at Viajante as head chef before opening his first restaurant, Londrino, in 2017. Diving into his Portuguese identity and reconnecting with his home country while working on the cookbook was a three-year project.

Mário Ambrózio and Rafael Rodrigues, both Portuguese nationals, did the sumptuous photography, while the gorgeous, textured cover is drawn from traditional Portuguese tile­work.

Portuguese Custard Tarts

Makes 35

For the filling:

320g caster sugar

½ cup plus 2 teaspoons cornflour

4 egg yolks

600 ml whole (full-fat) milk

1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped out

pared rind of 2 lemons

For the puff pastry (or use ready-made puff pastry):

4¾ cups plain flour

480g unsalted butter

sea salt

To finish:

icing sugar, for dusting

ground cinnamon, for dusting

To make the puff pastry, put the flour into a mound on a work counter. Put 320 ml water into a measuring jug and season with a pinch of salt. Make a small well in the middle of the flour and pour in the water. Start mixing the flour into the water to form a smooth dough, then cover with a tea towel and leave to rest for 30 minutes.

Divide the butter into three equal portions of 160 g. Lay a large piece of food wrap on a work counter. Cut the first portion of butter into thin slices and lay these on the food wrap in a 20 cm square. Put a second piece of food wrap on top of the butter and use a rolling pin to flatten the butter into a thin 20 cm square sheet. Repeat with the remaining two portions of butter so that you have three sheets of butter. The butter needs to be cool but pliable when added to the dough, so chill the sheets and remove each one from the fridge only 5 minutes before using it.

Roll the dough out on a floured work counter into a 21 cm square. Put a sheet of butter in the centre of the dough, leaving a 5 mm border. Fold the dough and butter in half by folding the top half down, then fold in half again by folding from left to right. Roll out into another 21 cm square, then transfer to a baking sheet, cover and rest in the fridge for 25 minutes. Repeat with the remaining two sheets of butter. Rest the dough each time you add the butter. When you have used up all the butter, roll the dough into a rectangle 32 x 20cm. Roll the dough tightly into a cylinder, starting from the long edge. Cover the dough in food wrap and leave to rest in the fridge for at least 1 hour or overnight. If using ready-made puff pastry, roll the pastry out to a rectangle 32 x 20cm. Roll the pastry tightly into a cylinder, cover and rest in the fridge for 1 hour.

To make the filling, put the sugar into a saucepan with 320 ml water and heat over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Turn up the heat to medium and boil for 8 to 10 minutes until it reaches 116°C on a thermometer.

Meanwhile, put the cornflour, egg yolks, milk, vanilla bean and seeds and lemon

rind into a large bowl and whisk until smooth. Once the sugar has reached temperature, remove the pan from the heat and whisk the syrup into the milk mixture. Mix well, then pour the mixture back into the pan and put over a low heat and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, or until it thickens. Remove and discard the lemon rind and vanilla pod, then strain through a sieve into a clean bowl and leave to cool. Cover and chill until needed.

Using a sharp knife, cut slices from the dough cylinder, about 5 mm thick, making a

downwards cut and not slicing. Each portion should be about 25 g, but this will depend on the size of your pans or pan.

Have a bowl of cold water nearby. Arrange all the cake pans on several baking sheets and keep them in the fridge. One at a time, place a circle of pastry in the bottom of each pan, making sure the layers of butter are seen when viewed from above. This ensures the pastry will rise outwards and upwards as it bakes. Wet your thumb in the cold water and press the dough towards the outer edge of the pan, filling up to the rim. Repeat with all the pans, then put them back in the fridge to rest for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 240°C.

Fill the lined pans with the filling, almost to the top. Bake in the oven for 13 to 15 minutes, or until the filling is almost set with browned spots on the top and the dough is crisp and golden. Remove from the oven and dust with icing sugar and ground cinnamon. Serve warm or cold. These tarts are best eaten on the day they are made.

Note: The cake pans used to bake these tarts are not the same as muffin pans – they are smaller and flatter. You can find them online or use a 10 cm round cake pan that is 2 cm high.

Recipe from Portugal: The Cookbook, by Leandro Carreira, published by Phaidon, $79.95.

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