Ever since I came back from Lisbon, the question haunts me.
What is a perfect pastel de nata?
Well for me, now more than ever, that depends on who you’re asking.
If you were from the Asian parts of the world as I am, growing up, this wildly popular pastry since the 90’s actually came from, and have always been, more as a Macao thing. Sure it’s known as the Portuguese-style egg tarts from Macao, the former Portugal colony famed for its many Portugal-influenced hybrid foods, but notice that it is NOT called pastel de nada, not even Portuguese egg tart, but ambiguously, “Portugese-STYLE” egg tart. Style? The name itself oozes deniability, suggesting that on one level or another, these tarts can’t be expected as a 100% identical replica of the originals, but a mere adaptation of some sort. Therefore with time, as the popularity of these tarts swept through every bakeries in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even KFC (yes, they sell these at KFC here…), the Portuguese association sort of fell irrelevant, and the gold standard on what is a great pastel de nata, in Asia at least, is set on however it is made in Macao. And really, most people don’t have a clue on what the real thing is like.
But I’ve always wondered about this. I mean is “Portuguese-style egg tart” even a thing in Portugal? Do people even actually eat this stuff there or is it another freaky fortune cookie-phenomenon? And if they do, the question isn’t if it was the same from Macao, because I know there was no chance in hell that they’re the same. But the question is, how different?
So a couple months ago when I finally visited Lisbon for the first time, I was on a quest for truth. I didn’t know what to expect, but almost as immediately as we landed at the airport, truth no 1 revealed itself. Pastel de nada is definitely a thing in Portugal. I mean, they were everywhere, as common as bagels in NY or surfers in L.A. Well great, fantastic, because it allowed me to conduct an in-depth and thoroughly tasted investigation on truth no 2, which is, how different are the real things from Macao’s? Well, this was where the troubles began. They are, as expected, quite different on many textural levels, and now…
I’m completely torn.
I ASSURE YOU THAT THIS CONCLUSION, WHETHER YOU AGREE WITH IT OR NOT, CAME AFTER MUCH TORMENTS, SELF-REFLECTIONS AND EVEN SOME SOUL-SEARCHING ON WHO I AM AS A SENTIENT PASTRY EATER… (BUT THE ANSWER TO) WHAT IS ULTIMATELY A PERFECT PASTEL DE NATA?
WELL, A HYBRID
First of all, I must stress on the “textural” part, because at a glance, Portuguese pastel de nata looks extremely similar to its cousin in Macao. But once you bite into it, things get interesting. In Lisbon, the pastel de nata has a significantly crispier shell that shatters more briskly upon impact; whereas the Macao’s tart-shell resembles more as puff-pastry, perhaps more delicate but with a less satisfying crunch. Custard wise, Lisbon’s has a denser and more thickened filling that for me, can be overbearingly sweet at times; whereas Macao’s filling is more supple, with a flan-like texture that wiggles.
Which one do I like more?
Can we ask a less complicated question like how do we actually put Matt Damon on Mars?
I assure you that this conclusion, whether you agree with it or not, came after much torments, self-reflections and even some soul-searching on who I am as a sentient pastry-eater… But, I have made my choice, or, more of an answer to my own question if you will. What is, ultimately, a perfect pastel de nata?
Well, as it can only be, a hybrid.
A strategically modified combination that embodies all the best parts in both worlds. First, the audibly crispy tart-shells from Lisbon, which cannot be substituted with store-bought puff pastry and must be hand-made, but fortunately, can be easily done as long as you have a pasta-machine. That’s right, a logical extension to my pasta-machine cruffins, which allows anyone to make a super shattering laminated dough without any folding, re-folding, or any mid-process chilling in between. In fact, you can finish making this dough in under 2 hours. Then for the custard, it now steers towards the Macanese version, with that gently sweetened, wiggly and flan-like filling that I’ve grown too attached to switch sides. Compared to Lisbon’s, it uses less flour to thicken, with a mixture of whole milk and heavy cream to reach that perfect balance between decadence and lightness.
I started the first step at 3 pm, and by 7 pm, coming from the deep end of the kitchen, there was one impolitely loud crunching sounds after another. The laced tart-shell cracked through its own maze-like layers. The custard was steaming hot and fluid, almost suckable as I tried to master such art without burning my lips. I practiced my upmost restraint to leave a few untouched, and was delighted to find out in the next morning, that the crispiness and awesomeness remained.
Perfect pastel de nata? Well, if you’re asking me, fucking hell yeah.
Adapted from many recipes combined. You'll need a pasta machine for this recipe.
- 1 cup (240 grams) whole milk
- 2/3 cup (160 grams) heavy cream
- 3 tbsp (45 grams) granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 tbsp (12 grams) flour
- 3 large egg yolks
- 3 tbsp (57 grams) sweetened condensed milk
- 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 8 tbsp (113 grams) unsalted butter, room-temperature
- 1 cup (146 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1/2 tbsp (7 grams) unsalted butter
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 5 tbsp (76 grams) water
- MAKE CUSTARD: Combine milk, heavy cream, granulated sugar and flour in a pot and set over medium-low heat. Whisking constantly and cook until the mixture starts to simmer and thickens slightly. Turn off the heat, and continue to whisk for 2 more min to make sure it's lump-free, then set aside. In an easy-to-pour container, whisk together egg yolks, sweetened condensed milk and vanilla extract. SLOWLY pour the hot milk-mixture into the yolk-mixture (so you don't scramble the yolks), whisking constantly, until evenly combined. Cover and chill in the fridge for at least 2~3 hours until cooled. Can be made the day ahead.
- MAKE TART SHELL: It's important that the butter is completely softened to room-temperature. Placing cold butter (cut into chunks) in the oven with the lights on for about 1 hour, does the trick for me. Meanwhile, Knead together all-purpose flour, 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter (this is separate from the 8 tbsp), salt and water, for 3~5 min until a smooth dough forms. The dough should be soft and very supple, but not sticky. If your feel the dough is too dry/hard, wet your hands and knead the extra moisture into the dough. Wrap it with plastic-wrap and let rest in the fridge for 1 hour.
- After resting, dust the dough and the working-surface well with flour, then cut the dough in half. Roll the first portion out so it fits the entire width of your pasta-machine, then pass it through the machine on the thickest setting. Dust it well again with flour, then feed it back to the machine, but this time, loop one end over the other and press it down so they stick. You're creating a "conveyer belt" so to speak, which allows you to finish rolling the dough without re-feeding it back to the machine. Now, keep the dough well dusted with flour inside-out the whole time, and keep rolling it until you've reached the thinnest setting.
- The dough will be very delicate at this point so work gingerly. Cut the dough near the pasta-machine then roll to release it, then cut again length-wise in half (or if you had a super long counter-top, you can keep it whole). Lay them flat on a well dusted counter-top, then use your fingers to spread 1/2 of the room-temperature butter evenly across the entire surface. Start rolling the dough from one end to the other. You'll notice that in the beginning, it forms long tapered tips on both sides (see photo). Once they get too long, simply tuck in both tips and keep rolling (see photo). Once you finish rollin the first sheet, place it over the second sheet and keep rolling. While rolling, gently pull the log towards you to get a tighter roll.
- Wrap and chill the first log in the fridge while you repeat with the second portion (see NOTE on doing it in one go). Same steps, roll it to fit the width of the machine... make a conveyer belt... roll to the thinnest setting... cut and release... then rub the remaining butter evenly across. Now take the first log out of the fridge and place it on one end of the new sheet, and roll again. You'll notice that the sheet tends to gather at the centre of the log. Don't worry. Simply push the tips in and use your hands to push/smooth the dough from the centre towards the tips to make it even (see photo). Wrap and freeze the log for 1 hour until hardened. Periodically, take it out and roll it to get it as round as possible.
- The trick to shaping the tart-shell is to cut the log while it's cold, but shape it once it's softened slightly so it stretches well without cracking. So, remove the tips of the log, then cut into 12 disks about 1/3" (8 mm) thick then place in the centre of the tart mold, and wait for 10 min to soften. Dip your thumbs in water, then start by smoothing the cut-side of the dough outwards to fit the mold, then push it from the centre outwards until the dough is pushed up slightly higher than the rim of the mold. Aim for a thinner bottom with a thicker rim. Dip your thumbs with water whenever it sticks, and repeat with the rest. Once finished, flash-freeze for 30 min to harden (or keep in the freezer until needed), and *preheat the oven on 500 F/250 C.
- Place the mold on a large baking-sheet that allows them to loosely fit. Pour the custard into the shells to fill them all the way to the top, then bake on the middle-rack of the oven for 10 min. Then switch to top-heat (if available) and bake for another 5~7 min until golden browned and caramelised.
- Let cool inside the mold for 5 min, then transfer to a cooling-rack. They're fantastic while hot, and still fantastic once cooled. Dust with cocoa powder or ground cinnamon if preferred.
I divided the rolling/buttering of the doughs into 2 steps because I have limited counter space. If you had a large counter space, you can roll both portions of the doughs out all at once, butter them in one go, then make the log.
You can also bypass making the tart-shell yourself, and just use store-bought puff pastry. But it won't be as crispy, and it becomes soggy faster.