How could my Personal A to Z of Portugal not include the nation’s most famous cake, pastel de nata?
With this Portuguese sweet treat, a light, slightly flaky, crispy pastry cup holds a sweet, smooth creamy custard filling which is browned off in the oven, giving them a home-made, slightly burnt appearance.
They may not look especially appetising to the uninitiated but trust me, these little Portuguese custard tarts taste delicious and are VERY moreish.
Pastel de nata or pastel de Belém?
Many of Portugal’s best cakes were originally baked by monks and nuns, and the original recipe for pastéis de nata apparently came from the monks at the Jerónimos Monastery in Belem, Lisbon, although I learned on a pastel de nata workshop that this may be more of an urban myth.
Language note: pastéis is the plural of pastel
These days, people queue outside the most famous specialist bakery Confeitaria Antigua Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon which began producing these cakes using the monks’ secret recipe after Portugal’s monasteries and convents were closed down in the 19th century.
This establishment is the only one that is allowed to call this version of the tarts a pastel de Belém. All others are imitations and the filling is supposed to be slightly different, too.
All I can say is that they are rather delicious, especially when still warm.
Want to try your hand at baking a pastel de nata?
This Hands-On Pastel de Nata Cooking Class at a local bakery will teach you the secrets and of course, you get to eat the results of your hard work. Read about my experience here.
Alternatively, you’ll find the recipe in more than one of these books about Portuguese food.
Portuguese custard tarts are famous around the world
Don’t worry if you can’t get to Lisbon, pastéis de nata seem to be Portugal’s favourite cake and you’ll find them in almost every café, pastry shop and bakery across the land.
In fact, the Portuguese are so fond of their little custard tarts that they can be found pretty much anywhere where there’s a strong Portuguese presence.
The first time I tried one was in a little Portuguese café cum delicatessen in Barcelona’s Gràcia district where they just couldn’t bake them fast enough to satisfy the queue of people. Pastéis de nata gained such popularity in the former Portuguese colony of Macau, that they’re also loved on mainland China and sold in places like KFC!
Other variations on the classic Portuguese pastel de nata
Back in Portugal, if you’re looking for a bit of variety, during the annual chocolate festival in Óbidos, you can even get freshly baked chocolate pastéis de nata. I’ve even had cherry flavoured ones but to be honest, I prefer the original.
Looking for other Portuguese food to try? Check out this post.