A pastel de nata is a Portuguese custard tart that is a national delicacy in Portugal. I first tried one when I visited the famous bakery Antiga Confeitaria de Belem, which is located in the Lisbon district of Belem. The bakery is renowned for their pasteis de nata which they call pasteis de Belem. The famous bakery uses the original recipe for the tarts (a closely guarded secret) that was created in the 19th century by monks in Belem.
A few years ago, while staying near Lisbon, my husband and I ventured to the famous bakery in Belem on recommendation from my Lonely Planet guidebook just to try these reputedly heavenly tarts. When we arrived, there was a queue of locals and tourists outside the door, all there with the same intent. The short wait was well worth it when we got the chance to savour the warm custardy delight that is the pastel de Belem.
After another more recent trip to Portugal, my memory of these delicious tarts was reignited and it inspired me to try baking them for myself at home. Essentially they are custard baked in pastry with a little cinnamon added for flavour. Since the original recipe is a closely guarded secret, there must be something more to these deceptively simple looking tarts so I did a little online research to discover if anyone had cracked the centuries old secret.
A quick google search landed me on David Leite’s impressive blog site Leite’s Culinaira where I found a recipe for Portuguese Pasteis de Nata. After a quick tour of his site, I discovered that David is an American food writer with Portuguese ancestry who also has an award-winning cookbook called ‘The New Portuguese Table’ (which I subsequently downloaded to my iPad from Amazon). His cookbook also includes a recipe for pasteis de nata and he mentions visiting the famous bakery in Belem while writing his book. I figured if anyone outside of the famous bakery knew how to make pasteis de nata, it would be this guy.
I decided to use the recipe from David’s cookbook as it uses frozen puff pastry (it is different to the one on his blog site). The recipe uses two logs of frozen pastry to make 24 pasteis using mini muffin trays. I made 12 tarts for my family and then I popped the remaining pastry and custard in the fridge. The following day, I made another 12 tarts for friends. As the tarts are best served warm, I figured there was no point in making up 24 in one go. The recipe is quite lengthy as there are a number of different steps, which can be daunting, but the tarts were surprisingly easy to make and absolutely delightful to eat.
The light and flaky pastries are filled with custard, flavoured with lemon zest and vanilla, then dusted with confectioner’s sugar and cinnamon while warm. They are absolutely heavenly and so dainty looking, it’s hard to eat just one. My guests all had more than one and my toddler loved his tart so much he was smacking his lips in appreciation.
The pasteis de Belem characteristically have burnt spots on top of the custard due to the heat of the ovens in Belem, which is hard to replicate in a home oven. My homemade tarts look different in appearance to the pasteis de Belem but they are absolutely fantastic in flavour. If you’ve never had one, I highly recommend trying one (or two) , whether it is homemade or baked in Portugal. They are simply lovely little pastries.