How a vow of poverty led to a rich, Portuguese pastry
Pastéis de nata, or egg tart pastry, was invented by the monks at the Monastery of the Hieronymites in Portugal before the 18th century. This makes perfect sense, because if you’re going to take vows of poverty and chastity, you’ll have plenty of time to work on your pastry skills.
At the time, convents and monasteries used egg whites for starching clothes, such as habits worn by nuns. It was quite common for the leftover egg yolks to be used for cakes and pastries, resulting in the proliferation of sweet pastry recipes, according to online references. The monastery eventually sold recipes to a sugar refinery whose owners in 1837 opened the Pastéis de Belém.
The descendants still own the business. This pastry is considered one of the top 15 delicacies in the world. If you have a bucket list, and it includes a pastry section, drop whatever you’re doing and add this to it.
Pastéis de nata
For the dough:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1⁄4 teaspoon kosher salt
1⁄3 cup cold water
1 stick high-quality unsalted butter, fully softened, divided
For the sugar syrup:
3⁄4 cup white sugar
1⁄4 cup water, plus 1 tablespoon
1 cinnamon stick (optional)
1 lemon, zested in large strips (optional)
For the custard base:
1⁄3 cup all-purpose flour
1⁄4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1⁄2 cups milk
6 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
Combine flour, salt and cold water in a bowl. Mix with a wooden spoon until dough just comes together and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Dough should be sticky.
Transfer dough onto a well-floured surface. Dust a little more flour over the top. Knead for a minute or two to form a round. Cover and let rest for 15 minutes.
Roll dough into a square about 1⁄8-inch thick, dusting with flour as necessary. Dough should still be sticky.
Spread 1⁄3 of the butter over 2⁄3 of the square using a silicone spatula, leaving a 1⁄2-inch border. Flip the unbuttered side over the middle of the square and fold the opposite end over it like a letter. Straighten the edges as needed.
Turn dough with a bench scraper to unstick it from the counter, dust with flour. Flip and sprinkle more flour on top. Roll dough into a 1⁄8 inch-thick rectangle, carefully stretching edges as needed. Spread another 1⁄3 of the butter over 2⁄3 of the dough. Fold into thirds. Transfer onto a lined baking sheet and freeze until butter is slightly chilled, about 10 minutes.
Sprinkle dough with flour and roll into a square a little over 1⁄8-inch thick and spread remaining butter over the dough, leaving a 1- to 1 1⁄2-inch border on the top edge. Dip your finger in water and lightly moisten the unbuttered edge. Roll dough into a log, starting from the bottom edge. Dust with more flour and polish the ends as needed. Seal with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.
Combine sugar, 1⁄4 cup plus 1 tablespoon water, cinnamon and lemon zest in a pot. Boil over medium heat, without stirring, until syrup reaches 210 to 215 F. Remove from heat.
Preheat oven 550 F. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin.
Whisk flour, salt and cold milk together very thoroughly in a cold pot. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until milk thickens, about 5 minutes, remove from heat and let cool for at least 10 minutes.
Whisk egg yolks into the cooled milk, add the sugar syrup and vanilla extract. Mix until combined. Strain custard into a glass measuring cup.
Unwrap the dough and trim any uneven bits on the ends. Score log into 12 even pieces using a knife; cutting through.
Place a piece of dough in each muffin cup. Dip your thumb lightly in some cold water. Press thumb into the center of the swirl, push dough against the bottom and up the sides of the cup until it reaches at least 1⁄8 inch past the top. Fill each cup 3⁄4 of the way with custard.
Bake in the preheated oven until the pastry is browned and bubbly and the tops start to blister and caramelize, about 12 minutes. Cool tarts briefly and serve warm.
Phil Newton is a Galveston baker/cook. He’s the owner/operator of Stiglich Corner with partner Cindy Roberts.