With snow still falling in mid-May in Toronto and our dreams of spring in England and Portugal up in smoke during lockdown, airline disruption and quarantine, my thoughts turn to some of the delicious sweet treats we are missing. Heavenly cream melts in your mouth. Custard tarts are crunchy and sweet at the same time. Bring on these Portuguese desserts and to heck with the waistline!
On our last dining adventure before lockdown – hard to believe it was 69 days ago today – we enjoyed a sumptuous meal at Via Norte in Toronto’s Little Portugal. To cap off an evening of excess, I demolished a parfait glass of natas do céu, which translates as ‘cream of the sky’ but is more commonly referred to as ‘heavenly cream,’ simply assembled from meringue, egg custard and crumbled Maria biscuits.
It took some searching to find the biscuits, but there they were staring at me from a lower shelf in the cookie aisle at the supermarket. These particular biscuits were imported from Spain, where they are very popular, but their origins are in Victorian England, where they were launched by the venerable firm of Peak Frean in 1874 to commemorate the marriage of the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia to Prince Alfred, the second son of Queen Victoria. In England they are still known as Marie biscuits. If you can’t find Maria (or Marie) biscuits, then Peak Frean’s even more famous rich tea biscuits will substitute. Apparently, in Portugal, this is a favourite Christmas treat, but with lockdown we need all the sweet comfort food we can get. My recipe which follows is as authentic as I can get.
Pastel de nata (plural pastéis de nata) literally means ‘pastry with cream,’ but it is so much more than that. The pastry is somewhat like puff pastry which manages to be both crunchy and soft at the same time. The cream is a simple custard, which transforms into something quite amazing when baked at very high temperatures. Try one once and you’ll be hooked. I wrote about my first experience with them in Our Portuguese Culinary Journey Begins and now I’m determined to make some for myself.
These delicious little tarts originated in a Portuguese monastery, where so the story goes, the monks had been dispossessed of their home and had to make a living by baking. The Jerónimos Monastery in Belém (Bethlehem) is just west of Lisbon where the monks lived until dissolution in the mid 1800s. Then production was moved to the nearby Pastéis de Belém bakery, which is still selling thousands of tarts a day.
Best eaten the day they are baked, they are not the easiest dessert to replicate for the home cook. However, I have been diligent in my research and experiments and I believe my second recipe will be found to offer a reasonably authentic taste, even though I use a couple of short cuts.
Natas do céu, heavenly cream
- 5 eggs
- ½ teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 cup icing sugar
- 1 ½ cups whipping cream
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 4 oz. Maria biscuits (or other rich tea biscuits) plus 4 perfect whole biscuits for decoration
Preparation and cooking
- Separate the eggs, yolks in one bowl, whites in another.
- In a double boiler, mix the egg yolks with ⅓ cup of the sugar and milk. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until thick. Cover the custard in a bowl with plastic wrap and set aside to cool, about two hours. TIP: If you don’t have a double boiler, set a stainless steel bowl above boiling water in a saucepan.
- In a large bowl, add lemon juice to the eggs whites and beat until they begin to make stiff peaks. Then gradually add the remaining sugar, while continuing to whisk. The meringue mixture will become shiny and smooth.
- In another bowl, whip the cream until stiff. Fold into the meringue mixture.
- Crush the Maria biscuits and set aside.
- In a large glass serving dish or in individual glass dishes, spoon a layer of meringue mixture, then a layer of crumbled biscuits and another layer of meringue mixture. Finish with a layer of custard.
- Refrigerate for at least two hours.
- Before serving, garnish with a sprinkle of crumbled Maria biscuits, and decorate with a single perfect biscuit.
Pastéis de nata, Portuguese custard tarts
TIPS: This recipe uses several short cuts which will enable the home cook to get the best results.
- Avoid the heartbreak of trying to make puff pastry from scratch and use the frozen product instead; all-butter puff pastry in a roll if you can get it.
- To get the oven temperature close to the searing heat of a professional bakery oven, put two baking pans (or better yet, pizza stones) in the oven, one on top and one on the bottom, with just enough room between for a rack to carry the tart tin, turn the heat up to your oven’s maximum, very, very hot, say 280°C / 535°F.
- Use a double boiler to make the custard or failing that a stainless steel bowl floating in a pan of boiling water.
- Blind bake the tarts before adding the custard filling.
- A shallow 12-hole tart tin, rather than a deep muffin tin, will make the right size tarts.
- 454 g / 1 lb frozen all-butter puff pastry, ready rolled
- 125 g / 4 ½ oz / about ¾ cup icing sugar, plus more for dusting
- 10 ml / 1/3 cup cold water
- 300 ml / 1 ¼ cups whole milk
- ½ tsp vanilla essence
- Pinch ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- 6 eggs, yolks only
- 2 TBSP unsalted butter
- Small bowl, icy water
Preparation and cooking
- Defrost the pastry roll it up, cut into 12 equal logs, wrap and return to the fridge, not freezer. (Sometimes it comes in two rolls, which will make 6 tarts each),
- Grease a 12-hole shallow tart tin with butter and cool in the fridge.
- An hour before you want to cook the tarts, preheat the oven to its maximum temperature—280°C / 536°F—and set up as above.
- Preparing the custard: In a double boiler, or a stainless steel bowl set over a pan of water on the stove, mix the milk, water, cinnamon, vanilla, lemon and sugar. Simmer over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Do not boil. Remove from heat and allow the ingredients to infuse for 5 mins.
- Separate the eggs, discarding the whites and put the yolks into a mixing bowl. Whisk until creamy.
- Add 1 TBSP of warm milk mixture to the egg yolks (make sure it’s not too hot) and whisk vigorously. Keep adding about 2 TBSP of milk at a time until it is all blended.
- Return the custard mix to the saucepan and place it over a very low heat. Keep stirring gently but constantly with a spatula, scraping around the sides to avoid sticking. Don’t let the custard burn. (If you are using a double boiler or the simple bowl in a pan method, this won’t likely happen.) Patience is required as the very thin custard needs time to thicken, up to 25 mins. If you rush, the eggs will scramble. As soon as the custard has thickened to the consistence of double cream, remove it from the heat and cover.
- Preparing the pastry: Remove the puff pastry logs from the fridge and place one in each cup in the tart tin, on end. This is the tricky bit and requires practice. Dip one thumb in the ice water, then press it in the middle of the spiral log. Push it down to the bottom of the cup. Now dip your other thumb in icy water and manipulate the pastry so that it is first flattened on the bottom of the cup and then smoothed up the sides of the cup. Try to get the pastry as even as possible all around, thicker on the sides than the bottom. It is also critical to get the pastry to rise about ¼ in above the rim. Flatten it over so it looks like an upside down hat with a brim. You can’t really hurt the pastry, so work it until it is right. Otherwise the pastry will shrink back into the cup when it is baking.
- Blind bake the tarts (ie, without their filling) for 8 to 10 mins, until golden brown.
- Remove the tray from the oven. If any of the pastry has collapsed, carefully push it back against the sides of the cup with a wooden spoon handle. Pour or ladle the custard into the pastry shells to within ¼ in of the top.
- Return to the oven and bake for a further 8 to 10 mins, until the custard has caramelised on top. Don’t worry if some of the edges are slightly charred, or brown spots appear on the custard. That is an authentic look and slightly burnt bitterness is part of their characteristic flavour.
- Remove from the oven and allow the tarts to cool in the tray for a few minutes. When safe to handle, transfer them to a rack to cool further, until barely warm. Sprinkle generously with icing sugar.
- Best served warm the same day.
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This is Nigel’s 276th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well, if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories. Here is the link to Market to Table: The Cookbook, a bargain at $11.50. The link to Gentleman’s Portion: The Cookbook will be live as soon as it is published (that is shortly after the pandemic is over).
Categories: Simply food