Sometimes my recipe research leads to nuns. When I was tracing the origins of one of our favorite dim sum desserts—Portuguese egg tarts—I read Rachel Khong’sfascinating All About Eggs, which came out earlier this year. In one chapter, Anna Ling Kaye traces their history (buy it! read it!), which begins with the 16th century Portuguese nuns who used egg whites to “starch” their habits and had, as you would imagine, a growing surplus of egg yolks. So they did what any sensible, waste-fearing people would do, they made desserts.
One of the most beloved of the holy yolk-based Portuguese desserts (and there are many) is the pastel de nata. Its creamy sweet custard is perfumed with cinnamon, vanilla, or lemon, baked in a shatteringly crisp pastry shell, and eaten by the dozen all over the world. But just to be clear, these aren’t the same Portuguese tarts you’d find in an Chinese bakery. Portuguese colonists brought pastel de nata to Macau, and over the years it has evolved into its own particular tart influenced by the British custard tarts that were brought over to Hong Kong. (Macanese tarts look very similar to pastel de nata but are usually less sweet, more eggy, and often the crust is made with lard.)
When I started my quest to re-create this custardy treat, I wanted to make it as easy for the home cook as possible. Over in Portugal, bakeries there make a dough called massa folhada, Portugal’s equivalent to France’s puff pastry (pâte feuilletée) and hand press them into individual pastel de nata pans that are baked in 800° ovens to get those flaky layers and the brûléed tops. Obviously that wasn’t going to happen. So I spent two weeks making tarts (my coworkers didn’t seem to mind very much), either with store-bought puff pastry, puff pastry shells, pie dough, rough puff… you get the point. The only thing that works for the pastel de nata is Portuguese puff. It has the same ingredients as the French one (flour, water, salt, and butter), but a completely different method for putting it together. The Portuguese method is a lot less fussy!
The other pastries I tried to use got too soggy from the custard, burnt from the high heat, or puffed the custard right out of the pan. And, even more disappointing, none of them had that signature “crunch” of the Portuguese puff. My absolute favorite thing about this tart is the sound of biting into the pastry shell. It sounds like you’re smashing a bag of potato chips! It’s so buttery and so flaky and has the most satisfying sound of any pastry I’ve ever eaten. So I had to make it.
Everything about creating this recipe was counterintuitive to what I know about pastry. It was like trying to cook in Bizarro World. Baking a custard in a wet pastry dough without blind baking seems like a really bad idea, but the eggs didn’t curdle in a fiery hot oven and the crust didn’t sog out. After a lot of trial and error, I found that the tarts baked best in a 500° oven on the top rack on a preheated sheet pan. I decided to use a standard, 12-cup muffin tin, because, let’s be honest, no one is going to buy special tart pans for this recipe. And to get the shells to brown and crisp in the 15 minutes that it takes for the custard to set, you need a super-thin dough in a super-hot oven. The preheated sheet pan instantly heats the bottom of the muffin tin, melts the butter between the layers of dough, and begins to “fry” the crust.
The simple syrup and the flour in the custard keep the eggs from separating in the high heat and give those beautiful brûlée marks on the top (no torch necessary!). Baking them on the top rack allows enough heat to actually create those brown spots. If you bake them in the middle of the oven, they’ll still cook through but will keep more of their buttery yellow color.
The recipe for the crust makes 24 shells so you have enough for a second batch of pastéis (plural of pastel) or your favorite mini quiches! In case you haven’t figured it out, I LOVE this crust and you will too. Make these tarts!