The oldest known recipe for Portuguese pastéis de nata and how you can make them (thank me later)

If you’ve been to Portugal in recent years you’ve probably seen them and eaten at least one, savouring the crispy buttery outer layer and the creamy sweet custard-like filling. I’m talking about pastéis de nata, of course. With the recent touristic boom felt in Portugal (mostly in Lisbon) these delicious treats are now enjoying a special place under the spotlight. Ten years ago, pastéis de nata were almost everywhere and now… you can bet they *are* everywhere! From big chain Portuguese cafés to the small bakery down the street, everyone sells them and you can even take part in workshops to learn how to make them!

Maybe you’ve heard of pastéis de Belém: they’re kind of cousins with pastéis de nata and, essentially, not very different from each other. The thing is pastéis de Belém are produced only in their shop in Belém since the 19th century and, apparently, still following the original secret recipe. Pastéis de nata are baked virtually everywhere and a 5-minute browse on the internet will provide you with several slightly different recipes. 

But what if I tell you that pastéis de Belém are not the oldest known form of a pastel de nata? And what if I share with you a recipe from 1729?

The oldest known written recipe for pastelinhos de nata (literally, little cream pastries) comes from the Convent of Santa Clara in Évora. Unlike modern recipes it includes no flour or starch whatsoever, no lemon or cinnamon: just cream, yolks and sugar. The recipe was written by Abbess Sóror Maria Leocádia do Monte do Carmo and, obviously, doesn’t have the kind of information and detail we’re used to having in modern recipes. 

I know I’m a bit of a nerd but one of the challenges (and one of the fun parts) of working on a recipe like this is trying to do all the steps like the nuns would have done in 1729. That means no fridge, no way of knowing the exact temperature inside the oven and having the most authentic ingredients. All this being said I used store bought puff pastry! 😀 I honestly have no time (or skills) to make my own puff pastry. Besides, there’s no way of knowing how puff pastry would have looked like in 1729. If, however, you want to give it a try I suggest following the recipe and helpful tips from Jeremiah Duarte Bills regarding the specifics of puff pastry for pastéis de nata.

Enough chit-chat. Shall we bake?

Ingredients for pastelinhos de natta

750 ml double cream

15 egg yolks

375 gr sugar (the original called for “açúcar fino”, literally, “fine sugar”. Today that means powdered sugar, but did it mean the same back then, when sugar was neither as white nor as powder like as today? Probably not, so I used a mix of white and light brown sugar and gave it a whiz on my coffee grinder)

The original recipe is very simple: cook all ingredients until the creamy mixture thickens. When it’s lukewarm pour into tins with puff pastry. Bake in a hot oven until they’re golden. Serve warm.

By today’s standards this is vague, to say the least. So, what did I do? I mixed all the ingredients in a pan and let it cook under low heat, stirring frequently. It took about 10 minutes for the mix to have a custard like consistency. I turned off the heat and let the custard cool down a bit.

In the meanwhile, I prepared the crust. If you’re making yours from scratch or if you want it to look like the puff pastry you usually see in today’s pastéis de nata, I suggest you follow Jeremiah’s guidelines (see above). If you’re feeling adventurous / nerdy like me, here’s what I did: grab a roll of puff pastry (you should need about 3 if you’re making the whole recipe) and cut slices, one for each tin (already buttered). Spread the dough from the inside out, rolling the tin around at the same time. It should be as thin as possible. After a while you’ll notice the dough feels a bit like old playdough (those with kids will understand what I mean. Ah!). Ideally, I should have put the puff pastry back in the fridge for a while before continuing. The thing is, there were no fridges back in 1729! How did the nuns pull this off? No clue! 

Once all the tins have puff pastry in them, and while the custard is still lukewarm, pour custard into each one. Remember the dough will shrink while it’s baking, so use less than you’d think is needed.

I had my oven set for 180 °C and as soon as I put the pastries inside and closed the oven door, I changed the temperature to 250 °C. After some 15 minutes the pastry was looking nice and golden and the custard seemed OK, with some of the pastries having dark spots (they’re caramelization spots which are appreciated today but we have no way of knowing if they were expected to happen back then).

Once all my pastéis had been removed from the oven I let them cool for 5 minutes on a wire rack. After that I ran a butter knife between the pastries and the tins to take them out.

Final verdict? Although they looked a bit like roadkill pastéis de nata they tasted amazing! As you can imagine I’ve eaten pastéis de nata all my life – most good, some amazing and a few not so great. What can I say about this recipe? The custard has a more intense flavour, much richer than the modern version, and it has a slight caramel taste which I absolutely loved.

I can’t wait to bake these again – for the sake of nerdy experimentation only, of course! Will you be giving this recipe a try?

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The website: http://www.beyondlisbon.pt/

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