Portuguese Egg tarts (Nata)

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They may not be pretty, but they are oh, so good.

A few years ago now I had the opportunity to spend close to three weeks in Lisbon.  The trip was unexpected and I had done almost no research.  Portugal was not on my “must see” list and I certainly hadn’t expected to be there for as long as I was.

I was enchanted and beguiled by the cobbled streets, the tiled buildings, their grilled food, and the pastries.  The pastries were so good in fact that I had a hard time wrapping my head around how I had been able to grow to adulthood without being clued into the deliciousness I discovered there.  I’m not joking.  So incredibly good.

Everyone I know has likely heard me go on about the food in Lisbon, I’ve tried to incorporate a few recipes and techniques into my home cooking like grilled fish, which you can read about here.  I started cooking cod fish which has a lovely texture and buttery taste (hello chardonnay lovers, probably a perfect pairing), but I never got around to the pastry.   If I bake I also eat it and the older I get the more likely it will be that whatever I make will stick to my hips indefinitely, but the egg tarts never really fell off my radar.

These custard tarts were apparently created by monks in the Jerónimos Monastery which still stands in/near Lisbon.  As I understand it, egg whites were used for startching clothes and the egg yolks went into the proliferation of pastries, including the nata. Whatever their origin story, they were everywhere in Lisbon and sadly much harder to find here.

Well my soon to be son-in -law happened across this recipe in a newspaper column and forwarded it to me as a request- he had heard me mention them enough that he was quite willing to help me find a recipe. I got to level up on a few skills for this.  I’ve really never worked with puff pastry, I’ve never made a custard, and I’ve never used a cinnamon stick for anything other than Christmas crafts.  What could go wrong?

Not a lot actually, there were new steps but they were easy and they turned out beautifully.  I never would have guessed that cinnamon was what the secret flavor that made them pop, but there you go. The recipe says it makes 18, and it did, but my next time out I will either increase the amount of custard or reduce the amount of shells to 12 to give them a deeper custard.  I was able to score some eggs with a deep orange yolk and it truly helped the custard to take up the same comforting appearance and taste as the originals in Lisbon.

These are delicious and worth giving a try.  Oh Lisbon, I do miss you.

I wish I was right here.

Ingredients (Makes 18)

  • 1 10-inch-by-15-inch (25-cm-by-38-cm) sheet all-butter puff pastry, store-bought or homemade, thawed according to package instructions if frozen
  • Butter, for greasing
  • All-purpose flour, for rolling
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 3/4 cup full-fat milk, warmed
  • Ground cinnamon, for dusting

Preheat the oven to 500 F with the rack in the top third of the oven.

Roll the puff pastry sheet to a 1/4-inch thick, 10-inch-by-15-inch rectangle. Roll it up from the short side into a tight log 10 inches long. Wrap tightly with cling film and let it firm up in the refrigerator, about 25 minutes.

Trim the uneven ends of the log and slice the log crosswise into 1/2-inch) thick disks. You should have about 18 disks. Roll each disk to about 4 inches in diameter. Grease 18 muffin tins or 18 egg-tart tins with butter or coat with cooking spray. Fit the dough rounds into the muffin cups and use your fingertips to work the pastry around the edges, just shy of the rim. Prick the dough a few times with a fork. Refrigerate the dough while you prepare the custard filling.

In a small saucepan, combine 4 tablespoons water, sugar and cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved, about 1 minute. Remove the simple syrup from the heat. Scoop out and discard the cinnamon stick and stir in the vanilla extract. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks and, whisking constantly, add the warm milk in a steady stream. Whisking constantly, drizzle in the simple syrup. Return the mixture to the small saucepan and place over low heat. Cook, using a spatula to stir and scrape the bottom of the pot constantly, until thickened to the consistency of heavy cream, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a liquid measuring cup with a spout.

Ladle the custard mixture into the shells in the tins, filling the cups about three-quarters of the way. Place the tins on a baking sheet to protect the bottoms of the pastries from burning. Bake for 10 minutes, until the custard is golden brown. Turn on the broiler to high and cook until the custard has caramelized and blackened in spots, 3-5 minutes. Allow the tarts to cool in the muffin tin for 5 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack. Cool for 10 minutes more before removing tarts from their tins. Dust with cinnamon and serve warm.

Adapted from Breakfast: The Cookbook by Emily Elyse Miller (Phaidon).

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