My brother and I spent three days in August exploring Lisbon’s cobblestoned streets and winding alleys, stopping to gape at entire buildings tiled in blue and white designs, and eventually taking a tram 30 minutes outside the city to the coastal suburb of Belém.
16th century Portuguese sailors traditionally spent their last night praying at Belém’s Jerónimos Monastery before embarking on the voyages to South America and Africa that made Portugal the envy of Renaissance Europe. The monastery is enormous, Gothic grandeur meets improbably intricate lace confections of stone, and a state-funded testament to riches gained from Portugal’s exploits abroad.
Conquest and religion. An awkward combination, though unfortunately not an uncommon one.
The traces of Portugal’s colonialism are evident all over their tables, where West Africa’s ground chili piri piri features alongside cloves, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon and star anise, the world’s spices plying the seas and carving out a multicultural cuisine. This article credits Portugal with introducing hot chilis to Asia, tea to England, and tempura to Japan. It is likely that an earlier Viking trade route exchanging cod for salt gave Portuguese sailors ample practice in salting fish, an essential skill for long months at sea and the inspiration for an enduring love affair with bacalhao.
Belem’s monastery was good for a circuit around the cloisters, but I was much more curious about the nearby Fábrica de Santa María de Belém, a crowded pastry shop that claims to have the original recipe for Portugal’s iconic pastéis de nata.
Imagine: layers of flaking pastry dough formed into a tiny tart shell, which is then filled with a custard of egg whites, cinnamon and sugar, and baked to caramelized perfection at 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
Today pastéis can be found in bakeries throughout Lisbon. My brother and I averaged three a day. I have zero regrets. In the past, I associated custards with plane snacks passed out during long flights to the Philippines. Not bad, but clearly not mind blowing.
Pastéis de nata, on the other hand…
According to the Fábrica de Santa María, enterprising nuns at the monastery invented pastéis in order to use egg yolks left over from starching laundry with egg whites. Through the 1820s-30s Portugal warred between liberals hoping to install a constitutional monarchy and decrease the political power of the Church and royalists loyal to the traditional order and divine right of kings. In 1834 a secularization policy closed monasteries and confiscated church property. Forced out of Jerónimos, one renegade monk offered to teach the original pastéis de nata recipe to people at the Fábrica de Santa María, then a sugar refinery and general store.
I’ve experimented with pie crusts, scones, and once with hot cross buns. After experiencing the culinary heights of pastéis de nata, I decided it was time to at least attempt the flaky, buttery layers of tart dough necessary to bake a custard, and surprisingly the process went… OK.
The key point seemed to be the importance of keeping the butter cold enough that it doesn’t melt into the dough, and warm enough that it remains spreadable.
First, I rolled out a simple flour and water dough into a square-ish thing (the recipe said an 18-inch square, but that didn’t happen).
Then, I poked little holes with a fork into ⅔ of the square, spread butter over the holes, folded the right unbuttered third of the dough over a third of the buttered portion and the left third of the buttered portion over that section, leaving me with a piece of dough ⅓ its original size.
I rolled out the whole dough piece back into a square, and repeated the process three times. Leaving about an inch of dough unbuttered around the edges prevents the butter from squeezing out as you re-roll. That part done, I rolled the dough into a log that more or less resembled a burrito, and chilled it in the refrigerator for 2 hours.
The custard was a surprisingly simple combination of granulated sugar, flour, milk, vanilla, egg yolks and a cinnamon stick. Lacking the cinnamon stick, I measured out two tablespoons of ground cinnamon into my milk and sugar, and then immediately panicked that I had made a terrible mistake. While the ground cinnamon gave my pastéis a brownish tint (woops), it actually tasted pretty similar to what I remember in Portugal. Phew.
While traditional pastéis recipes call for a scorching 500+ degrees, I found a few varieties online that promised similar results with 450 degrees. It’s still pretty hot in New York. I went with that and baked the custards for 16 minutes on the bottom shelf of the oven, or until the custard set and the crust browned slightly around the edges.
I’m going to be honest. I was pumped about this experiment… but I did not anticipate success. To my shock, the tarts emerged looking and tasting recognizably like pastéis de nata, with layers of flaking dough and subtly cinnamon sweet filling, despite their unorthodox coloring. In the future, I would bake the pastéis on an upper rack, since the bottoms of the tarts were slightly burnt.
- Remind me next time that baking is a science.
- But also, if you go slightly off-script it might just work out fine?
- Extra filling? No worries. Make a crustless Portuguese custard.
- About that colonialism… in Belém, the absences speak loudest of all.
- On a happier note, check out Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, aka an early feminist, ridiculously smart, and well-read Mexican nun who shared an affiliation with the Order of St. Jerome whose sisters invented pastéis de nata. I’m particularly taken with her composing poetry in the Aztec language of Nahuatl, holding salons in her convent rooms, and engaging in a published war of letters with the local bishop.