Pastel de nata (plural: Pastéis de nata) is a Portuguese egg tart pastry and one of Portuguese’s most famous desserts. Also called as Pastéis de Belém, the name literally means cream tarts in English. Portugal has been seat of much revolution in Europe, and the story of the origin of the Pastel de nata forms a small part of it.
At the beginning of the 19th century in Belém, next to Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, (the Heironymite Monastery), there used to be a sugar refinery with an attached general provisions store. In 1834, Portugal had gone through the 1820 Liberal Revolution, as a result of which all convents and monasteries in in the country were shut down and the clergy and labourers were expelled.
Fighting for survival, someone from the monastery began offering pastries for sale at the General Provisions store next door. These pastries soon became very popular and began being known as Pastéis de Belém. During those times, the area of Belém was considered far from the city of Lisbon and was usually accessed by steam boats. The grandeur of the monastery and the Torre de Belém (The Belém tower) attracted lots of visitors. These visitors began savouring the Pastéis de Belém and grew accustomed to it.
It was in 1837 that the baking of the Pastéis de Belém began in the buildings attached to the sugar refinery. These bakers would follow the ‘secret’ recipe from the monastery. Passed on and known exclusively to the master confectioners who hand-crafted the pastries in the ‘secret room’, this recipe remained unchanged to the present day. In fact, the only true ‘Pasteis de Belém’ contrive, by means of a scrupulous selection of ingredients, to offer even today the flavour of the time-honoured Portuguese sweet making.
Today, Pasteis de Belém is one of Lisbon’s most historic bakeries. The airy café with blue and white mosaiks has been a magnet for fine Portuguese baking goods since 160 years. Visitors from all over the world come to relish this amazing dessert, however, the recipe for Pasteis de Belém has remained a secret and unchanged even today. A lot of similar recipes have emerged, though the original is a tightly guarded secret, quite like that of Coca-cola.
A similar recipe for about 15 tartlets would be as below:
1 vanilla pod
250 ml milk
1.5 tbsp butter
175 g sugar
A pinch of salt
20 g flour
275 g puff pastry
1 egg, 3 egg yolks
- Cut the vanilla pod open and remove some vanilla. Cook the milk with the butter, vanilla and the vanilla pod.
- Mix the sugar with the flour and a pinch of salt.
- Remove the vanilla pod from the milk.
- Add the sugar mixture and quickly bring it to boil whilst stirring.
- Take the mixture off the heat and let it cool. Stir it once in a while.
- Roll up the puff pastry and leave it to freeze until the cream is done.
- Pre-heat the oven to 240F.
- Finish the cream by mixing in the egg and egg yolks.
- Cut the dough into 15 pieces of 1.5 cm each.
- Press each piece of dough into the hollow of a muffin baking tray.
- Fill the tartlets with cream.
- Bake the pastry in the oven for about 25 minutes until the surface is golden with dark spots.
Pasteis de Nata are best when they are fresh, like they are served at the Pasteis de Belém Café. In Portugal, it is also common to sprinkle some icing sugar and cinnamon as a garnish on top.