"As the most popular cakes in Portugal, you can find them everywhere. Until you go home from your holiday and you are left bereft."
- Lucy Pepper & Célia Pedroso, Eat Portugal
On a recent trip for work I was fortunate to spend a couple of days in Lisbon, and while this was in no way enough time to begin exploring what seems an extraordinarily beautiful city, I did manage to squeeze in a quick bakery tour of Belém thanks to the fabulously delightful Célia and Filomena of Eat Drink Walk Lisbon.
Birthplace of pastel de nata, the Portuguese tart, it is believed that these pastéis were created by monks at the local Belém monastery as a means for using up egg yolks leftover from the large quantity of eggs whose whites were used in wineries and for starching nuns' habits. To this day the district remains a mecca for hungry sweet-tooths with the nearby pastelaria, Pastéis de Belém, rumoured to produce tens of thousands of these famous little pastries each day.
A Chique de Belém is equally renowned for making some of the best pastéis de nata in the country and it was here, thanks to an exceptionally generous host, that we were treated to a tour of the kitchen along with a heavenly array of Portuguese treats.
My time there, of course, went far too quickly but, arriving home inspired and with a few traditional tricks in hand, I figured that if I couldn't enjoy the real thing then I should at least give my own pastéis a go. Most nervous about getting the pastry right a stash of homemade puff had me off to a good start, and as I moved on to the all-important custard I quickly realised that I'd managed to mess things up before I'd even begun.
Timing the boiling of milk and the melting of sugar to 'soft ball' stage at exactly the same time was always going to prove difficult, but it was the discovery that I had only raw caster sugar available that really threw a spanner in the works. You see, while this doesn't necessary affect taste that much, it is downright impossible to melt raw sugar without some form of colouration and so what should have been a gloriously yolky yellow custard instead turned out to be more of a coffee creme. Not stopping there I also managed to add further insult by overcooking them somewhat, which meant that they weren't as luxuriously smooth as the versions I'd enjoyed in Belém. But despite these few hiccups my pastéis still tasted ok and so if only practice makes perfect, then that's one burden I'm willing to bear.
What I was happy with, however, were the cases, with their beautifully layered bottoms and wonderful, crispy exterior. While their diminutive stature and flat edges left me still coveting the traditional tins, the fact that I came even close with the layering was pretty (and somewhat embarrassingly) exciting.
So simple and yet so delicious, it's easy to understand why pastéis de nata have become such a national treasure. A craft unto themselves they require great skill to produce to perfection, and while this is something I'm obviously still yet to acquire, for now I'm happy just working on it...