Pastéis de Natas

I thought that I didn’t like custard tarts. It turns out that I was just unfortunate enough to have never tried these absolutely divine creations. A rich, cinnamon and vanilla egg custard encased in shatteringly crisp, flaky pastry turns out to be just thing to make you feel better after a stressful day… or anytime to be honest.

Pastéis de nata were born of convenience. Catholic monks at the Jerónimos Monastery used egg whites to starch clothes and, as you may imagine, they got through a lot of them. To avoid wasting the yolks, the monks baked them into cakes and pastries. In an attempt to earn some money to prevent their monastery being closed the monks joined with the local sugar refinery to sell small custard tarts. The monastery still closed (in 1843) and the recipe was sold to the owner of the sugar refinery who opened the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém in 1837. Their descendants still own the patisserie to this day which is where the Pastéis de Belém, an alternative name for the pastries (but only when sold from this specific shop), can be bought.

There are two things which stand out to me about the Pastéis de nata separating it from the level of mediocraty that most custard tarts inhabit and both of them are to do with the pastry. Firstly, the pastry is a soft lamination. That is to say, the butter is not kept super cold like in classic puff pastry but is instead so soft that you can easily spread it on a very fragile dough. Secondly the lamination in the final product is vertical.

By using soft butter in the pastry, the lamination is far less pronounced than it would be for a classic puff pastry. The definition between the layers isn’t as strong because some of the softer butter is absorbed into the pastry while it is being rolled. This creates a texture which is somewhere between standard puff pastry and Danish pastry dough. The ultra-high oven temperature causes the pastry to cook very quickly resulting in a super crisp exterior and ensuring that the pastry is fully cooked despite no blind baking and only a short baking time. This also prevents the butter melting into the pastry in the oven as the flour begins to cook before it can absorb any more of the fat.

The direction of the lamination has a distinct effect on the final product. Where normal puff pastry has horizontal layers, the Pastéis de nata dough has vertical ones. This means that it expands horizontally in the oven, outwards and not upwards, which prevents it forcing the filling out and spilling. It also gives a far more beautiful final result as the lamination in the pastry walls of the tart is far more prominent than if a standard puff pastry had been used.

I know they are a bit of a faff to make but I guarantee that these pastries are 100% worth it. Let me know how they go for you!

Pastéis de Natas

Makes 24

Cook time: 15-20 minutes

Prep time: 45 minutes

Rest time: at least 4 hours

Ingredients:

270g flour

200ml water

Pinch salt

250g very soft butter

6 egg yolks

250ml + 60ml milk (the creamier the better, but don’t use actual cream!)

3 tbsp flour

265g sugar

150ml water

1 cinnamon stick

1 tsp vanilla extract

To make the pastry:

In a stand mixer:

Put the flour, water and salt into the bowl of a mixer with the dough hook attachment.

Mix and knead with the stand mixer until the dough forms a very soft bowl and starts to come away from the sides of the mixing bowl.

Heavily flour a surface, tip the dough onto it and coat in flour.

Wrap in cling film and leave for at least fifteen minutes.

By hand:

Stir the salt into the flour and pour in the water.

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Using a wooden spoon, mix the ingredients until they are combined and form a very soft dough.

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Tip onto a surface and use a pastry scraper to help stretch and knead the dough. DO NOT ADD MORE FLOUR.

Once the dough begins to get more elastic and less sticky (around ten minutes), coat it in flour, wrap in plastic and leave to rest for at least a quarter of an hour.

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If your butter is not super soft, heat it gently in the microwave, for ten seconds at a time until it begins to soften. Make sure to stir between each heating to ensure that it doesn’t fully melt anywhere. Make sure the butter is very soft before setting aside.

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This butter has been heated too much. If your butter also melts, allow it to cool in the fridge and stir it vigorously every five minutes to ensure it doesn’t set at the edges whilst remaining liquid in the centre. Continue this until the butter is a thick pastey consistency.

Generously flour a surface and turn out the dough.

Roll it into a rectangle about 18”x12”.

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Take one-third of the softened butter and spread it down two-thirds of the length of the dough. Do not spread it all the way to the edges.

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Fold the unbuttered third of the dough across and then fold the opposite side on top to create three layers. Gently press the edges to seal.

Rotate the pastry through a quarter turn and refloor the surface if necessary. The pastry is super soft and sticky so don’t be afraid to use a lot of flour at this stage.

Roll it out again into a rectangle and repeat the folding instructions with another third of the butter (half of what is left).

Rotate, roll and old again using the remaining butter.

Roll out the dough into an 20”x18” rectangle.

Roll it up into a tight log starting at the closer side to create a spiral of lamination.

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Wrap the dough up and refrigerate for at least four hours and preferably overnight.

To make the filling, whisk the 60ml portion of milk into the flour in a large bowl.

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In a heavy based pan, add the sugar, water and cinnamon stick. Heat to dissolve the sugar and bring to the boil without stirring. Leave for one minute.

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While the sugar is dissolving, scald the remaining milk. This is done by bringing it to the boil in a separate pan.

The moment the milk boils, take it off the heat and pour it into the flour and milk mix whisking constantly.

Once the sugar syrup has boiled for a minute, take it off the heat. Remove the cinnamon stick and like the milk, pour it in a thin stream into the flour mixture, whisking constantly.

In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks to break them up.

While continuing to mix, pour in the milk and sugar syrup mix in a thin stream. This is very hot and you want to avoid cooking the eggs and causing them to scramble.

Once the eggs are incorporated, stir in the vanilla extract.

Strain the filling mixture into a jug, cover and leave to cool.

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To assemble the tarts:
Preheat your oven to 260°C (500°F) or the highest setting (this tends to be around gas mark nine which is 230/240°C).

Lightly butter a 12 pan cupcake tin.

Remove the pastry from the fridge, cut in half lengthwise and place half of it back into the fridge.

If the ends aren’t straight, you may have to trim them.

Cut the log into twelve rounds and place them into the tins with the spiral of lamination facing upwards.

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Leave for fifteen minutes to soften.

Fill a small ramekin with water as you will need wet fingers for the next bit.

Using wet thumbs, gently flatten the centre of each piece of dough – do not flatten the edge, you want a sort of well shape.

Moving outwards, gently squash the dough into the shape of the tin coming about three quarters of the way up the side (there are plenty of videos online which will show you how to do this properly).

Use half of the filling mixture to fill the cases about 75-80% full.

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Bake for fifteen to twenty minutes, turning at ten minutes, until the top of the tarts has blistered to dark brown is several places. You don’t want them to be fully dark brown all over but you also want a bit of colour.

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The tarts will come out of the oven puffed up. The filling will collapse as they cool.

Take the tarts from the oven and let cool for five minutes before removing from the tin.

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These are best served still warm from the oven (but not boiling hot) and sprinkled with a little bit of icing sugar and cinnamon. The filling is delicious and the pastry is stunningly crisp. The pastry will stay crisp for about 48 hours but soften over time.

Store in the fridge where possible!

I hope you enjoyed the recipe. If you are a fan of flaky and puff pastry, be sure to check out my recipe for it – I promise that it isn’t as hard as it seems. You could even use your puff pastry to make salmon en croute or Beef Wellington.

Have a good one and I will be back next week with a recipe for a delicious roast dinner with an obscene amount of garlic. It’s wonderful.

H

Macarons

Macarons can be the stuff of nightmares. A single streak of unmixed meringue in the batter can cause the entire batch to crack, unsieved ingredients can make the macarons go lumpy and bad luck can ruin an entire tray for even the most competent baker. That being said, if you can master the art of making macarons, you can succeed at almost anything in the kitchen.

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These orange macarons were some of the best I have made (although the feet are a little more frilly than I would normally want.)

One of the most distinctive elements of a macaron is its foot. Observing the foot of a macaron can give you a good indication of how it was made. Both oven temperature and mixing techniques affect its formation. The foot should be even all the way around, either completely vertical or with a light outwards bulge, and have lots of small pockets of similar sizes. If the foot goes over the top of the shell (giving a cracked appearance), your batter is not mixed evenly; if the feet bulge massively outwards and appear as more of a skirt, you have over mixed your batter. If your macarons are consistently not developing feet, allow them to dry longer before baking as the formation of a skin over the top of the shells will encourage rising from the base of the macaron, helping with the formation of the feet. The lack of feet can also indicate that your oven temperature is too low and a skirt can indicate the temperature is too high so I would encourage investing in an oven thermometer if you wish to make macarons semi-regularly.

Everyone’s oven is different and macarons are a very good way to discover where the hot spots in yours are. If a single batch of macarons has very different results across the tray, this indicates that there isn’t great circulation in your oven. If you don’t have a fan oven, there isn’t much you can do about this but you can adapt in the future by removing macarons in hotspots early and then baking the rest for another few minutes.

The classic image of a macaron is a brightly coloured shell with a smooth filling. The colour of the shells is often indicative of the flavour. When it comes to choosing flavours, the list of things you can choose is almost limitless. I have eaten savoury macarons, I have eaten sweet macarons and there are a particularly interesting set of flavours in the middle where the macarons are sweet but use traditionally savoury flavourings. One that I tried whilst baking for this post was a rosemary and olive oil flavoured macaron and it was delicious!

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Salted caramel and dark chocolate macarons.

Once you have mastered the basic macaron, you can begin to experiment with different fillings and flavours. Why not use them as decoration on cakes or a dessert? They don’t just have to be a delicacy on their own.

I hope you enjoy baking them and that your macarons come our perfectly every time.

 

Macarons:

2 egg whites

140g icing sugar

65g ground almonds (or almond flour)

35g granulated or caster sugar

Pinch of salt

Gel food colouring

Flavourings (these could be extracts like vanilla or orange, rose water, cocoa, green tea etc.)

 

Ganache filling:

Dark chocolate:

150ml double cream

150g dark chocolate

1 tsp sugar

 

White chocolate:

100ml double cream

200g white chocolate

Flavourings

 

 

 

Place the icing sugar and almonds into the bowl of a food processor and blend for a minute.

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Push the mixture through a fine mesh sieve – this step takes time but is important if you want your macarons to have a smooth, glossy top. Once there is only a tablespoon of bigger chunks of almonds left in the sieve, you can discard these and stop. If you would like to make chocolate shells, replace one tablespoon of the mixture with one tablespoon of sifted cocoa. Use the same technique for green tea shells but with two teaspoons of matcha green tea powder instead.

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The sieved ingredients should have no large lumps.
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These large lumps will be ground down as you force them through the sieve. It just takes a little time and elbow grease to do so!

Add the egg whites to the granulated sugar and salt in a separate bowl and whisk with an electric hand beater until a stiff meringue is formed. You should not feel any grains of sugar if you rub a little between your fingers and you should be able to turn the bowl upside down without anything falling out.

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If you wish to colour and flavour your macarons, use the tip of a knife to add a small amount of gel colour to the meringue. Do not use liquid food dye as it will make your meringues collapse and will also fade in the oven. If you are using a flavoured extract, add a quarter of a teaspoon to the egg whites and beat it in.

Add half the dry ingredients and fold them in.

Once the first batch of dry ingredients starts to mix in, add the rest and continue to fold. Ensure that you use a spatula to scrape the bottom of the bowl as any unmixed in bits of meringue will cause the macarons to crack.

Macarons are surprising forgiving at this stage. You want to keep as much air in during the folding as you have to knock it out again later to get the mix to the correct consistency and this is easier when you have a lighter mix to start with – it will make sure you don’t over mix the batter.

Once the almonds and icing sugar have been incorporated into the meringue, continue to mix until you reach the right consistency. This is when you can lift some batter on your spoon and as you drop it back into the bowl, you can draw a figure of eight with it without the stream of batter breaking. The batter should be thick but still flow a little, any blobs you make on the surface should slowly ink in over about twenty seconds.

Line a baking tray with parchment paper or a silicone mat.

Pour the batter into a piping bag and pipe circles of batter about an inch and a half (about 4cm) wide leaving at least an inch (2.5) between them.

Lift up the baking tray and bang the base of it onto the surface ten times. Rotate the tray round so the other side can be banged too and repeat the ten bangs. This will remove air bubbles from the macarons which you will see popping on the surface. You can sprinkle the centre of your macaron shells with sprinkles or something related to the flavour to give a more exciting finish.

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From the top left going clockwise, these shell are for: Plain vanilla, black sesame and white chocolate, orange and chocolate, chilli chocolate, rosemary and olive oil, salted caramel, rose and finally, green tea. The shells are mostly unflavoured.

Place the macarons in a warmish dry place for half an hour to an hour until a skin has formed over the top of them (you can touch the surface of them without it sticking to you).  Some people say this step is optional and I have made macarons before without letting them dry and they did work but the best way to work out if it works for you is practice. Make a couple of batches, leave some to dry and place other straight into the oven and see how they come out!

Preheat the oven to 150°C (gas mark 2).

Place the macarons one tray at a time on the top shelf of your oven for twenty minutes or until you can lift one off the tray without it sticking. If they stick a little, just give them another two minutes and try again.

Once the shells are cooked, let them cool on the tray until you can touch them without burning yourself. Peel them off the baking sheet and place the shells onto a wire rack to cool.

 

To make a ganache filling, heat the cream until almost boiling and pour it over finely chopped chocolate.

Leave for two minutes for the heat of the cream to melt the chocolate and then stir the two together. You can add flavourings of your choice or sugar to the ganache at this point.

Let the ganache cool until it has thickened up to a thick piping consistency and is no longer warm to the touch.

Match up macaron shells of similar sizes in pairs. On one of each pair, pipe a small dollop of ganache and sandwich the two shells together.

Leave the macarons overnight in the fridge so the ganache can set fully and the flavours can meld between the filling and the shells.

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As you can see, the feet did not appear on either the rose, orange or salted caramel macarons. I am still working out why as I need to get used to my home oven again after university.

 

I hope you enjoyed the recipe. For other sweet treats, check out my list of baked goods – last time was a sophisticated chocolate and hazelnut tart – or if you are looking for something a little bit more on the savoury side, why not make yourself a classic bowl of spaghetti and meatballs.

Have a good one and I will be back next week with a recipe for another delicious soup – it’s super easy and an absolute classic.

H