Pastéis de nata: when baking almost becomes science


I have probably wrote it already once or twice, baking is not only an art but to a large extent a science. Baking requires the same precision, experimentation and ingenuity as science and trying and testing a recipe is in many respects like optimising a protocol for a scientific experiment. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I like baking so much.

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For some recipes this affinity appears more clearly than others and to me this delicious sweet is one of those. I started to realise the full scale of the project from the beginning when I started looking into recipes. I could not find a single recipe in any of my cook book so I had to turn to the mother-ship of all food-blogger: the world-wide-web. First of all I had to decide which exact name to use for the search, it could seem trivial but “Portuguese Custard Tarts” would have limited my search only to English written recipes and although a quick look couldn’t hurt I wanted the real deal , original recipes from Portugal. And even there it looks like a consensus on the name of this patisserie wonders have not been reached yet: pasteis de nata or pasteis de Belem? Were they actually the same thing or should I have looked only for one of them.

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After some reading I reached the conclusion that in fact they are the same thing so my search for proper recipe could start. And there a whole world opened onto me. Being Italian I know that an official single recipe for a traditional and classic recipe does not exist. Even two families living next door to each other might prepare the same traditional food but with slight changes but this was something else. Everybody seems to agree on the puff pastry base and on the original way to make the small shell to create a spiral effect in the bottom. But the range of recipes that you can find for this relatively simple custard filling is incredible: huge differences in the ration between egg yolks and cream, in the use of cream or milk, in the amount of sugar, in the thickening agents, I have even found a recipe that uses water instead of cream! How can you make something called cream pastry with water instead of cream?!? No need to say that recipe was binned at the speed of light.

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So for the custard, very scientifically, I applied my tried and tested protocol to get the best recipe from the internet: 1. Google the recipe of interest, 2. Pick up the first 10 recipes, 3. Write down in an excel file all the ingredients and remove the 5 outliers (the ones that really seem to have very dodgy ration among ingredients in the group) and 6. Make an average of the remaining 5.

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This is the very first time I make this recipe so, like any scientific experiment it may or it may not work, to me it looks like a decent attempt that may require some tweaking but overall I think the recipe is quite good. I reserve the right to modify this page in the future should a better recipe come my way. I didn’t want to take chances with the puff pastry so for that I referred to my pastry bible, Michel Roux’s Pastry, which, as expected, did not let me down although I still have to practice to master the folding and rolling techniques.

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These are literally little jewels and are the perfect example of why baking can be so very rewarding. I hope my Portuguese friends will approve of them!

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For the puff pastry:
250g Pastry flour
12g salt
50g Melted butter
400g Cold butter
200ml Ice cold water
25ml White wine vinegar

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For the custard filling:
750ml cream
7 egg yolks
200g caster sugar
30g corn flour
1 vanilla stick
Cinnamon to taste

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Prepare the pastry first. Place the four in a big bowl or on a flat surface, make a well in the middle, put salt vinegar water and melted butter and bring everything together in a homogeneous dough. Work the mixture with your hands until smooth and elastic, then make into a ball, cover with cling film and rest in the fridge for 2 hours.

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Bash the cold butter with the rolling pin to have a sheet of butter a couple of centimetres thick. If the butter warms up during the process cool down in the fridge before proceeding. Roll the pastry place the butter on the pastry and cover so that the butter is completely enveloped in the pastry.

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Lightly flour the work surface, start rolling the pastry away from you to make a rectangle shape. Folds the end over to make a 3-layer dough and repeat 2 times the same rolling and folding procedure. Cover in cling film and let the pastry rest in the fridge for 1 hour. Repeat the procedure 2 times, the pastry is now ready to use or it can be kept in the fridge for a few days or stored frozen for a few weeks. Make sure it is always cold when used.

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Roll the pastry out in a large sheet 2-3mm thin. Starting from one end wrap the pastry in a roll and cut slices about 1cm thick. Helping yourself with a small rolling pin roll out the discs of pastry to obtain a spiral pattern in the middle and with each of them line mini muffin tins. Put to rest in the fridge.

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Prepare the custard. Take half glass of cream and add the corn flour, mix gently and set aside. Put the rest of the cream in a pan add sugar vanilla and cinnamon and bring almost to boil. Add the cream and corn flour mixture and cook on a very low heat until it thickens. Take off the heat and let slightly cool.

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Warm the oven at maximum temperature, if possible 280C. Add the egg yolks to the cream by mixing thoroughly. Take the tins off the fridge and fill them with the custard, leave about half a centimetre of pastry shell unfilled. Put in the oven and bake for about 10 minutes or until the custard had browned thoroughly and the pastry is dark gold. Cool the pastries in their tins for a few minutes then removed them using a blunt knife. Eat cool or slightly lukewarm.

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