Ask and you shall receive. Thank you to everyone who contributed insights on my question about Portuguese-Chinese egg tarts. They are a Portuguese treat called pasteis de Belem (a.k.a., pastel de nata) that were brought to Macau and adopted quite heartily by the Chinese. The Chinese, particular those in nearby Hong Kong created a riff by making their own Hong Kong-style egg tarts in the 1940s. The resulting Cantonese dahn taht has become ubiquitous with Chinese bakeries and dim sum houses.
Many of you submitted Portuguese egg tarts tips, such as where I can get them in the Bay Area, such as the bakery in Milpitas Square off the 880 freeway, in the 99 Ranch Market shopping center. Amy Sherman of CookingwithAmy.com gave a link to her post on the famous Portuguese egg tarts from the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém pastry shop in Lisbon, Portugal. That bakery was the one that commercialized the tarts in 1837. Before then, Portuguese egg tarts were made and sold by the Catholic nuns of the Jerónimos Monastery. (Praise the sisters!) Others pointed to the Macao institution that’s renowned for their Portuguese egg tarts – Lord Stow’s bakery. Stowe's cross between the English and Portuguese versions is the benchmark for Portuguese egg tarts in Asia. Egg tart fever hit Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan in the late 1990s.
I looked up Stow’s and found this YouTube video which was incredibly enlightening. Watch it and in the first minute, catch how the pastry is rolled up into a cylinder and then pressed into the tart shell! For those of you who have the Asian Dumplings cookbook – that cylindrical treatment of dough is the same as what’s used for Chinese flaky pastry on page 120 to make things like Malaysian curry puffs. I now wonder if the Chinese got that from the Portuguese? I’ve not seen that technique applied to puff pastry in other cuisines.
By using a cylinder of rolled up puff pastry-type dough (some describe it as a Swiss roll) for the pastry, the tart shell naturally pushes upwards as it bakes in the oven. All that hot air forces the custard to puff up like a mushroom cap and when things deflate after baking, you get the characteristic undulating top. I know this because I went about five rounds with baking the tarts to develop my own Portuguese egg tart recipe.
Super hot oven required?
Fellow Asian cookbook author and baking fanatic Nancie McDermott led me to a terrific Portuguese egg tart post by Portuguese food expert David Leite, the author of The New Portuguese Table. For that 2004 post on Leite’s Culinaria took a pilgrimage to the Belem area located on the outskirts of Lisbon, Portugal, and reported that the original Portuguese egg tart recipe is a well guarded secret at the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém pastry shop. The Belem pastry shop claims to bake their Portuguese egg tarts in a super hot oven – 400C/750F for 20 minutes to get the crème brulee like finish. Right. Leite suspected that they were jiving him to dissuade him from trying to crack the code. He went back to New York City and obtained a recipe from a noted Portuguese chef Francisco Rosa of Alfama restaurant. Interestingly, the layered pastry in Leite’s recipe is rolled up into a cylinder and nuggets of the dough are pressed into their molds. Sounds just like the Stow’s video and what Chinese chefs do to make dahn taht egg tarts!
In addition to Leite’s Portuguese egg tart recipe, I found a number of other ones and tried them out. No, cheese is not needed as Chris Tan pointed out in his comment on my original query about what you may know about Portuguese-style egg tarts. The cheesy funk is likely due to dairy gone bad. Baking at 550F like Leite recommends in his Portuguese egg tart recipe nearly burnt my tarts. I needed to reduce the heat. After trying many baking methods and custards, I came up with this Portuguese egg tart recipe for you to try. It is not what you’ll get at the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém pastry shop but they are magnificent. The shell is light and crisp, filled with a delicate custard accented by lemon peel, cinnamon and vanilla.
Portuguese Egg Tart
Poh Taht, Pateis de Belem, pastel de nata
Baking at a moderately high heat and then switching to broil results in the crème brulee like top. The puff pastry (I used all-butter Dufour brand sold at many high-end grocery stores) makes for a super light shell. You can use your favorite brand or ask a nearby bakery to supply you. Or instead of puff pastry, try a short pastry crust for a tender, rich crust. I used the one that I developed for Singaporean spiced pineapple filled pastries (kuih tart, page 195 in Asian Dumplings). Omit the annatto as that causes the dough to overbrown. If you use this short pastry dough, bake the tarts at 375F for 10 to 12 minutes and then broil them for 3 to 5 minutes. The custard will not puff up like with the puff pastry but the flavor will be just as lovely.
Makes 20 small tarts
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup half and half, or 1/2 cup cream combined with 1/2 cup whole milk
3 tablespoons sugar
A pinch of salt
3 large egg yolks
1 1/2 inches cassia or cinnamon stick
2 strips lemon peel, each 2 to 3 inches long and 1/2 inch thick (use a vegetable peeler to remove)
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
10 ounces frozen puff pastry, thawed according to package directions
1. To make the custard, put the cornstarch into a small, heavy bottomed saucepan. Whisk in a few tablespoons of the half-and-half to dissolve the cornstarch. Then add the sugar, salt, and egg yolks. Whisk to combine. Add the remaining half and half, then whisk to blend. Drop in the cassia and lemon peel.
2. Cook the custard over medium heat, stirring frequently with the whisk or a spoon, for about 8 minutes, until very thick. When the custard gets hot and steam wafts from the pot, stir constantly to ensure even cooking. When done, it should jiggle a bit when you shake the hpan. Remove from the heat, stir in the vanilla extract.
Transfer to a bowl, loosely cover with a piece of parchment or wax paper, making sure the surface touches that of the custard; this prevents a skin from forming. Set aside to cool. (The custard can be prepared up to 3 days in advance and refrigerated. Return to room temperature before using.) Makes 1 1/4 cups.
3. Work with the puff pastry when it is cold as it is much easier to manipulate. Take it straight from the refrigerator and put it on an unfloured cutting board. If necessary, roll it out into a rectangle that is a generous 1/8 inch thick. Pick up one of the longer edges and roll the pastry up into a log that is about 1 inch thick. Roll the log gently to seal well. Tap the ends in to flatten them. Put the log on a parchment paper lined baking sheet, loosely cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 15 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, position the oven rack about 4 inches away from your broiler. Preheat the oven to 400F. Have ready a nonstick mini-muffin pan; each of the 12 wells in such a pan is about 2 inches wide and 5/8 inch deep. Nearby have a small bowl of water and the custard.
5. Remove the pastry log from the refrigerator and cut it in half. Work with one half at a time, keep the other one covered and refrigerated.
Cut the log into 10 even pieces. Put one, with one of the cut sides facing up, in each of the muffin pan wells. If the pastry is hard, let it soften for a couple minutes. Wet one of your thumbs with water, then push it straight down in the center of the dough spiral as if you’re making a thumbprint cookie.
7. Fill each well about 3/4 full. A scant 1 tablespoon is what I typically use. Too little custard and the baked tarts show too much of their tanned shoulders of pastry. Too much custard and the custard will spill out and form a funny looking lava-like flow. Regardless, your tarts will taste great.
Then use the thumb to flatten the pastry against the bottom of the well and then up its sides. Aim for an overall thickness of about 1/8 inch. Work the corner of the well with your index finger as it’s an area where the dough tends to be gather. Then gently push the dough above the rim about 1/8 inch to form a lip. The dough will sink back down as it sits but try your best. If the dough seems too elastic and resists your will, refrigerate the muffin pan for 15 minutes to relax the pastry before giving it another try.
8. Slide the muffin pan into the oven and bake for 12 to 13 minutes, until the custard has puffed up into a mushroomlike dome and small cracks form. Then switch on the broiler and broil the tarts for about 3 minutes, monitoring them carefully, until the tops have acquired little caramelized burnt spots. Remove from the oven, let cool for 5 minutes, then unmold by slipping a dinner knife between the pastry and the muffin well. Return the oven temperature to 400F.
The ones that aren't puffy were made with short crust from
the Singaporean spiced pineapple pastries recipes in Asian Dumplings.
Let the muffin pan cool, then wipe clean (wash and dry the pan should it be extra dirty). Repeat with the remaining pastry. You’ll have some custard left, which can be eaten right off the spoon.
10. Serve the tarts warm. Leftovers can be reheated in a preheated 300F toaster oven for about 5 minutes, until warm.
You can serve these with a sprinkling of powdered sugar and ground cinnamon.