Tarte Tatin was born at Hotel Tatin, in the Center region of France. Sachertorte was born at Hotel Sacher and Demel bakery in Vienna. Pasteis de Belem were born in the district of Belem, in Lisbon, Portugal.
But the main difference between all these delicious pastries is that the recipe for pasteis de Belem has remained a secret for almost 200 years now. This is the reason why these delicious Portuguese custard tarts can only bear the original name if they are made at the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, the original bakery that has been making these golden delicacies since 1837. Everywhere else, these Portuguese desserts are called pasteis de nata. The same way Cognac is called brandy outside of Cognac or Champagne is called sparkling white wine outside of Champagne!
What is the origin of pasteis de nata?
Pasteis de nata have first been made by Catholic nuns based in the Monastery of Jerónimos (Mosteiro dos Jeronimos) during the 18th century. The religious institution is a highly ornate monastery that is situated in the Belem district, about 3 miles west from the center of Lisbon. This magnificent religious building has historically been associated with the early Portuguese explorers. It was actually there that Vasco da Gama spent his last night before his voyage to the Far East, and it is also his resting place. It is those explorers who actually brought those egg tarts to China, where they are called dan tat. The Chinese egg tart, which is very popular in Hong Kong, generally does not feature the burnt top though.
The nuns at the Monastery used to bake these sweet pastries as a method of raising extra funds for the upkeep of the monastery. As we first explained in our article about cocada amarela which was brought to Angola by the Portuguese, there is a tradition of egg yolk based desserts coming from Portugal.
Indeed, the tradition of doces conventuais or “sweets made in convents” dates back to the fifteenth century. At the time, it was common for those Portuguese convents to use egg whites for starching and pressing the clothes. The nuns thought to use the leftover egg yolks in their desserts. And this is how the tradition of doces conventuais was born.
In the wake of the Liberal Revolution that started in Porto in 1820 and with the expulsion of the religious orders, many monasteries faced closure. The monks at Monastery of Jerónimos started selling the patented egg tart pastries at a nearby sugar refinery and bakery.
The Casa Pasteis De Belem bakery was the first place to master the secret egg tart recipe from the monastery, and this is how the legend of those deliciously golden and silky Portuguese egg tarts started. Since 1837, locals and tourists alike have visited the chaotic café and bakery to get one of the more than 10,000 pasteis de nata that come out of the 750-degree oven every day, and typically sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar.
How to make pasteis de nata
Although the recipe for pasteis de Belem is still a secret to this day, many people have tried to replicate those rich custard tarts. The original custard filling may only feature hints of cinnamon, but there have been a multitude of variations including a custard slightly flavored with lemon or vanilla aromas, much to the discontent of purists.
The dough that is used for the pastel de nata is laminated dough. Laminated dough is very similar to puff pastry, and puff pastry, ideally homemade, is definitely a good substitute. To make perfect homemade puff pastry, you would however need a low moisture butter called dry butter, as we explained in our millefeuille recipe.
Mastering the emblematic burnt top on the pastel de nata is definitely an art.
It’s no surprise that the Guardian ranked pasteis de Belem as the 15th tastiest delicacy in the world. I think my kids, who devoured those delicacies in less than a day, would agree!
- 4 cups whole milk
- Rind of a lemon
- 2 sticks cinnamon
- 1½ cups sugar
- ⅔ cup flour
- 12 egg yolks
- 1 lb puff pastry
Preheat the oven to 450 F / 240 C.
- In a pot, add the milk, lemon rinds and cinnamon sticks.
- Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat.
- In a bowl, combine the sugar with the flour.
- Add the mixture to the hot milk, and stir.
- Remove the lemon rinds and cinnamon sticks and let cool for 10 minutes.
- Add the egg yolks. Stir until forming a homogeneous custard. Put on low to medium heat, and stir constantly until thick.
- Roll the puff pastry and cut circles the dimension of the individual molds.
- With the help of your thumbs, press the puff pastry and spread the dough to the edges of the mold.
- Pour the filling into the molds and bake for 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve warm, and sprinkle some cinnamon (optional).