Pastel de nata is one of my favourite Portuguese cakes. These custard tarts at their very best when they’re still warm – the flaky pastry is crispy and the filling soft and gooey. When I was offered the chance to learn how to make them at a pastel de nata workshop, I couldn’t resist.
At that time, I didn’t realise that I’d be learning from an award-winning baker but to kick off the proceedings, João proudly rattled off some of Pastelaria Batalha’s achievements before we started baking: For pastel de nata, they were ranked 3rd best in Lisbon this year and last year won second place in the whole of Portugal!
So as far as Portuguese custard tarts are concerned, I was learning from one of the masters.
The Batalhas’ family-run bakery has been going for 30 years but the Lisbon branch, opened in September 2017, is João’s baby. While he’s not busy winning awards for cakes and bread, he shares his passion for baking by running pastel de nata workshops in his city centre bakery.
What to expect from the pastel de nata workshop
Before donning hair nets and shoe covers, we had a chance to get to know our fellow participants and sample some of Pastelaria Batalha’s other specialty cakes, including their unique queijada de Lisboa, a baked cheesecake made from João’s mum’s recipe, and a pastel de feijão, a sweet moist tart made with white beans.
Once inside the small ‘factory’, João showed us how to make the dough for the pastry, giving each of us small jobs to do, such as measuring flour.
How to make flaky pastry for pastel de nata
When the kneading machine had worked its wonders on the dough, we got the chance to play with it a bit and discover how light and stretchy it had become.
Next, João explained why he uses margarine and not butter for his flaky pastry and proceeded to demonstrate how to work a slab of marge into the dough using a rolling pin.
We took it in turns to roll the resulting layered pastry into a long pipe shape, which went into the freezer while we set about making the custard.
The creamy part of the tart
Again, this was a joint effort, with jobs distributed among the group and plenty of explanations and stories while we waited for the milk to boil.
Key parts of the custard-making process are making sure that the flour and sugar are properly mixed and stirring constantly once you add them to the milk so that the consistency of the custard is smooth and not too runny or thick.
How to make pastry cases
This was the most hands-on part of the workshop in every sense. We each had to slice the roll of pastry into suitably sized pieces, which, while not difficult, was harder than I expected. The trick is to use a sawing motion to avoid squashing the pastry.
Then we used our thumbs to mold the pastry into individual cases. It’s not quite as effortless as the pros make it seem but we more or less got the hang of the technique.
João had deliberately told us to cut thicker slices of pastry than he would normally use so that it’s easier for us to work with. Our pastry cases were far from professional standard but they served the purpose.
Filling the cases
Next came the filling. Although we’d seen one of the staff members using her thumb to control the flow of custard from the base of a metal cone into her cases, we were given a less messy tool to use.
Our custard cone for novice bakers is controlled by a lever at the top, which makes it easy to measure out the necessary amount without getting custard everywhere it shouldn’t be.
For clumsy oafs like me, this is very sensible, if not quite as much fun as the messier version.
Bake and eat your custard tarts
After João had popped our tray of pastéis de nata into the oven, he told us more about the origins of the bakery, its connections with local culture and Beatriz Costa, the folk singer immortalised in the bakery’s logo.
Within 10 minutes, our little tarts had browned on top and risen sufficiently for João’s expert eye to judge them done. All that was left was to decide what beverage to have with them once they had cooled down sufficiently. I went for ginjinha, a Portuguese cherry brandy that I’m rather partial to.
Shortly after we’d removed our protective gear and reclaimed bags and coats, it was time to put our efforts to the test. We all agreed that these were the best custard tarts we had tasted so far, far better than the ones you have to queue up for in Belém!
João had mentioned at some point in the proceedings that a pastel de nata has surprisingly few calories, i.e. 182. Having forgotten that I’d already eaten some cakes before the workshop started, I used that to justify eating 2 of my 3 tarts while they were still warm and oven fresh.
Or find out about other Lisbon cooking classes in this article.
For more ideas, see 34 Things to do in Lisbon