Pastéis de Nata: On the Way to Perfection

I am utterly amazed to announce I have nearly, nearly made the perfect Pastel de Nata!
And it didn’t even take too many experiments, only a lot of reading of both Portuguese and English blogs. I can’t quite believe how far from the real thing some of the famous chefs recipes are! I’m sure they are lovely custard tarts. But that wasn’t what I wanted. I want the real deal. A delicious crispy pot of creamy goodness. My perseverance paid off!

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Or shall I say resilience? My aunt has just started a new blog all about it.

My research led me to this excellent blog that is packed with traditional portuguese recipes for professional bakeries. The only trouble is their rather vague instructions. I combined their ingredients with all my other research. A big part being puff pastry, which I had never made before.
I will add a list of wider reading at the end of this post, but everything I found useful will be here.

I should also mention I was not alone in this quest for the perfect Nata, my trusty sister was by my side all the way and is actually much better than I at shaping the pastry. I am half way through my first solo attempt while I write this (pasty is currently in the freezer resting after first fold). I hope they come out as good!

Now is probably a good time to share a photo of our first go:

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What was wrong?
The pastry wasn’t flaky at all and it was way too thick. During this experiment we also established that deep muffin trays are without a doubt the way to go. Scrap cupcake pans, they are way too shallow. You need all the room you can get for all the custard.

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When making the pastry we got a little carried away with the folds and made too many. You really only want two, after the butter that is. Its interesting that it puffed up beautifully on its own, just not as a tart.

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Next time we made just two folds after the butter, admittedly like the instructions say. I think the reason this works better is that there is a thicker layer of butter in between each layer.
We had a mixed bunch with our second attempt, but some of them were perfect, really, we couldn’t believe it!

What makes a perfect Nata?

Crispy flaky pastry (it actually cracks in your mouth and goes everywhere)
A spiral on the bottom
Silky custard
A dappled burnt top

Natas should be cooked at 300 – 350c, domestic ovens only go to about 240c normally, what should be baked in 10mins takes 25mins. It makes all the difference to the custard, it needs the high heat in order for the milk protein to burn without the custard beneath overcooking, you’re never going to get exactly the same result as a Portuguese bakery without that kind of heat.

We were so pleased with how our second batch came out! It was late, the light was terrible, I decided I’d take photos the next day. There were plenty of Natas left after we all had one. Mum and I settled down and watched a film, my sister F went out. Somewhere durning our film, another of my sisters (there are three and a brother) ate six of the Natas. Not only that, she ate the perfect first batch. The second hadn’t come out so well as I had made them hurriedly before dinner. I couldn’t believe it!
I am yet to speak to her about it, she is yet to mention it. I like to think the silent treatment works better than going mental (this is my first attempt).
These were the best ones left after the… the massacre!
Believe it or not, these were far from the best. And before you ask, no, my third solo batch didn’t quite match up to them 😦
Just look at the flake!

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So like I said, my solo attempt wasn’t as good as the perfect unphotographed Natas that were.
But they certainly weren’t bad.

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I think the main problem was not filling them up quite enough custard and I’m not sure why the pastry wasn’t as flaky. Perhaps I rolled it a little too thin when around the butter?
I will give them another go soon, they are so delicious!

Here’s the recipe so far, I’ll keep you updated on any progrss!
I am yet to work out the exact pastry/custard ratio. The original recipe makes way too much pastry compared to custard, but its not like extra pasty is a bad thing!

Recipe
Makes about 20

Custard
50g plain flour
250g sugar
500ml milk
6 egg yolks

Pastry
500g plain flour
1tsp salt
250ml water
250g butter

Begin with the custard.
Heat milk to boiling point, don’t let a skin form. Mix flour and sugar together and add to milk, mixing continuously bring it back to boiling point and take it off the heat. Once cooled completely add egg yolks and mix well. Set aside while making the pastry.

Mix the flour, salt and water together, knead into a soft ball that springs back when pressed. This takes about 10mins and you may need a little more water. Wrap the dough and pop it in the fridge for 10mins.

Roll the dough out into a rectangle.
Place the butter between two sheets of baking paper and hit it with a rolling pin to flatten it to the exact size of one third of the pastry rectangle.
Place the butter in the centre and fold each side over. Its important that this all fits together perfectly so the butter is evenly distributed. Place it in the fridge or freezer until very cold.

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Take it out and using the rolling pin again, hit it a few times. This flattens the dough and the butter uniformly and keeps the rectangle shape. The roll it to maybe 1/2cm thick.
Fold it back into thirds and pop it back in the fridge again. This was the first fold.

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Repeat the process once more. So thats two folds. After another 10-20mins in the fridge, roll it out. You probably want to divide the mixture at this point which gives you a good opportunity to admire your layers.

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Roll it out really thin. To about 30x50cm, using a pastry brush or your fingers wet the surface lightly and then roll it up into a sausage, from the wider edge. The best pastry so far had quite a floury bottom and I wonder if the water and flour mixing in between the spiral made a diference. Maybe an extra layer of some sort… Roll carefully to get even ends or cut them off. Its up to you.

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Now the very important pastry shaping part:

Slice about 2cm piece of the sausage.
Using your thumb press the centre of the spiral down.
Use your thumb and fore finger to shape the pastry into a kind of small bowl, this happens quite naturally due to the circular layers.
As the pastry gets thinner it gets flatter.

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The object is to keep the spiral visible. When you can no longer get the pastry any thiner with your hands, use the rolling pin.
You should almost be able to see your hand through it.
Gently press the pastry into your well buttered muffin tray.

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This is very time consuming but its worth it.
I tried a few different methods and this one was by far the best.

Here is my diagram of how I kept track:
End Part: I wondered if using the end of the roll made any difference. Didn’t appear to.
Hand Roll: as described above.
Hand Roll + Cut: as described above, edges trimmed once in muffin tin. I wondered if this would achieve the flaky edges some natas have. I had mixed results. Not sure if its worth the hassle (I used scissors!)
Hand: made solely by hand.
Rolled: pressed with thumb then rolled out, no hand shaping. This did work pretty well.

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The Natas still in order:

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So once the pastry cases are all done, fill them with custard to about 3/4, on my last try they were a little low which is a real shame:

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Bake them at the top of the oven, as high as your oven goes! In my mums oven’s case: gas mark 9. Like I said before, these should be baked at about 300c!
They take about 25mins, keep an eye on them though. Your looking for crispy golden pastry and those tale tell burnt patches on the custard.

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So, thats my Nata adventure so far! I would love to hear of anyone else’s attempts? Any tips or tricks you have to share would be greatly appreciated!

Further reading:
Kitchen Tigress shares some interesting knowledge of how the custard works although she uses cream and one of the ironic things about Pastéis de Nata is that they arn’t made with any cream although the translation is ‘cream tart’.

Joe’s Pastry makes his custard with a sugar syrup.

Sonia uses a much more buttery pastry and a different folding method.

As minhas receitas makes there custard with cream too!

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