Making pasteis de nata

Do not try this recipe at home unless you’re desperate! Which is how we feel. Far from a purveyor of “pasteis de nata,” how else can we satiate our craving for these divine custard tarts?

We opened with trepidation “Cozinha Tradicional Portuguesa” (Portuguese Traditional Cooking), the imposing tome of vernacular recipes compiled by the legendary Maria de Lurdes Modesto. The old pages creaked, surprised to be turned with such urgency.

Modesto’s instructions assume we know what we’re doing. They’re more like jazz lead sheets than classical music scores. She tells us the key elements of the recipe and expects us to improvise the rest.

The ingredients are humble:  flour, butter, cream, eggs, sugar, water, and lemon. We started by making a version of rough puff pastry, folding the dough to create delicate layers of butter and flour.  After a few hours of work, we were rewarded with two dozen delicious pasteis de nata. 

All the effort that went into making these pastries made us appreciate Portugal even more. It is a place where it is ordinary to find the extraordinary: heavenly pasteis de nata sold for a modest price in every street corner. 

Here’s the recipe.

Ingredients for the puff pastry: 500 grams of flour, 500 grams of butter, 2 to 3 deciliters of water, and salt. 

Ingredients for the filling: 5 deciliters of cream, 8 egg yolks, 3 tablespoons of flour, 200 grams of sugar, and one lemon peel.

Melt the salt in warm water and divide the butter into three equal portions. Place the flour on a stone table and make a hole in the middle of the flour to pour the water. Kneed the mixture until it becomes homogeneous and let it rest for 20 minutes.

Next, stretch the dough into a square form.  Knead some of the butter until it has the same consistency as the dough. Spread one third of the butter over the dough, leaving a strip of one inch at the edges of the square. Fold the dough from bottom to top and from left to right, making sure that the fold fits perfectly at edges and on the sides. Stretch the dough again forming a square. Repeat the operation twice, first using the second third and then the last third of the butter.

Stretch the dough as thinly as possible. Cut it in stripes and fold into long rolls. Cut the rolls into pieces of 2 to 3 centimeters. Place the dough at the center of a small mold. Moist your thumb in water and spread the dough to the edges of the mold. 

To prepare the filling, mix all the ingredients and bring them to a boil. Remove from the heat and wait until the mixture cools down. Fill the molds with the cream. Place the molds in a very hot oven (250 to 300 degrees centigrade). Once the custards come out of the oven and cool, you can sprinkle them with icing sugar and cinnamon.

A taste of Alcobaça in Lisbon

Alcoa

Alcoa, a pastry store in the historical town of Alcobaça, has been producing magical concoctions of flour, sugar and eggs since 1957. They use ancient recipes developed by monks of the order of Cister from two local monasteries, Alcobaça and Santa Maria do Coa.

Alcoa’s pastries have always been revered in the Alcobaça region. But outside the region, only a few knowledgeable gourmets made regular pilgrimages to taste Alcoa’s delights. That all changed when Alcoa started winning top prizes in the annual competition for the best “pastel de nata.” Suddenly, Alcobaça became a destination for dessert lovers.

Neophytes journeyed to Alcoa for the “pastel de nata” only to find a new world of delights with whimsical names and exotic shapes: cornucopias, Saint Peter’s secret, fradinho (little monk), eggs of paradise, and much more. The happiness of Lisbon residents plummeted with the knowledge that these heavenly sweets were 120 km away. Luckily, the owners of Alcoa felt pity for Lisbon’s dwellers and decided to bring their sweet alchemy to Chiado. And now, happiness has returned to the capital city.

The original Alcoa pastry store is on Praça 25 de Abril, 44 in Alcobaça, tel. 262 597 474. The new store in Lisbon is on Rua Garret, 37-39, Chiado, tel 21 1367183.

Sweet secrets

Ovos Moles

“I’ll take you there,” our friend promised. He dialed a number on his cell phone and asked “Can you show us what we want to see?” The answer was positive so we got into his car and he drove us to the outskirts of Aveiro.

We stopped outside an ordinary building, walked to the back door and rang twice.  Rosa Líria Soares opened the door. She greeted us with a welcoming smile, even though it was Sunday and she had been working since 6:00 am. Rosa is a legendary producer of “ovos moles,” an Aveiro delicacy.

It all started thirty years ago when a pastry store closed and the owners offered Rosa their equipment and recipes. She began making “ovos moles” and soon it became her full-time occupation.

We asked whether she would show us the secretive production process. She said yes, she would show us everything except how to combine fresh egg yolks, sugar and water to make the filling. “I won’t share that secret with anyone,” she said. “What if we promise not to tell?” we insisted. “The answer is still no,” she replied.

Rosa buys molded sheets with shells, whelks, sardines, and other designs from one of two producers in Aveiro. The sheets are made with the same wafers used for holy communion. Rosa fills two identical molds with her prized egg filling and moists the edges with water. The wafers are then placed inside a wooden mold and pressed together until the two pieces are glued.

Rosa’s husband, Henrique Carmona, arrived from their shop, Moliceiro dos Sabores, in downtown Aveiro. He told us with pride about all the awards that Rosa has won over the years.

Rosa offered us some freshly made “ovos moles.” “They keep for two weeks but they taste best in the first five days. And if you can try then like this, freshly made, they are even better.”

The crunchy wafer and the soft filling combined in our mouth and we stood there in silence savoring this lavish moment. “You didn’t like them?” Rosa asked. We explained that we couldn’t find words to describe these “ovos moles,” the very best we ever had.

“We dream about coming for a couple of weeks to apprentice with you, because something as sublime as these sweets needs to be passed on to future generations. Will you consider it?” Rosa took time to answer. And then she said “maybe.” We left with our palates full of sweetness and our hearts full of hope.

You can try the divine ovos moles made by Rosa Líria Soares at her store Moliceiro dos Sabores located on Rua dos Mercadores 4, Aveiro, tel. 234 421 776.

 

Mystical jesuits

jesuita-da-tartine

We have a major weakness for a Portuguese pastry called “jesuita.” Its shape and color resemble the habits of Jesuit priests, hence the name.

The “jesuita” was invented more than a century ago by a Spanish pastry chef who worked in Santo Tirso, a town in the north of Portugal. It combines puff pastry with two egg-based creams. The whites and the yolks are separated. The yolks are used to make a cream that is layered inside the puff pastry. The whites are used for the frosting.

The quality of “jesuitas” varies from satisfying to divine, depending on the excellence of the ingredients and the exactness of the execution. One of the best “jesuitas” we ever tried came from a wonderful pastry store near Chiado called Tartine. We bit into this delight, and the yolks and whites reunited into a mystical explosion of flavor!

Tartine is located on Rua Serpa Pinto, 15-A, tel 21-342-9108. Click here for their web site.

Dom Rodrigo

D. Rodrigos

The most revered noble in the kingdom of Algarve does not own land or royal charters. Dom Rodrigo is a dessert that has been produced since the 18th century. It looks like a gift, wrapped in colored foil and tied with a ribbon.

Alchemists all over the world tried to turn lead into gold. In Algarve, cooks tried to turn eggs, sugar, cinnamon and almonds into joy. And they succeeded!

Sweet temptations in Sintra

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Sintra queijadas from Pastelaria Gregório

The road to Sintra is paved with sweet temptations. We stopped for a coffee at Pastelaria Gregório and couldn’t resist eating one of their travesseiros (pillows). They were still warm, the layers of dough fusing with the rich almond cream. Our palates were so delighted that we asked for a queijada, another classic Sintra pastry. A plate with several miniature queijadas arrived and, although we tried, it was impossible to eat only one.

Gregório Ribeiro started producing and selling these wonderful queijadas in 1890. The business continues to be in the family. Gregório’s great-grandchildren work at the pastry store, making sure that the quality is exceptional, baking the pastries in small batches so that everything is fresh out of the oven.

There was a constant flow of regular customers who came in for their favorite sweet treats: almond tarts, bolos de amor (love cakes), broas de mel (honey cakes), and much more. We asked Teresa Matos, the owner of Pastelaria Gregório, whether they’re always this busy.

“Christmas is our toughest season,” she answered. “Customers love our traditional Bolo Rei (king’s cake) so there’s always a long line outside the store. We know it’s frustrating to wait for so long to buy our cake. But we don’t want to bake the cakes in advance because they lose their freshness.”

“Is the cake really worth the wait?” we asked. “You need to decide for yourself,” said Teresa with a mischievous smile. In December we’ll be waiting in line to find out.

Pastelaria Gregório is located at Av. D. Francisco de Almeida 33/35 in Sintra, tel. 219-232-733.

 

Sweet moments in Lisbon

Composit Manteigaria

What is the best pastel de nata in Lisbon?  The answer depends on our mood. Some days, we like them perfumed with lemon. Other days, we prefer them scented with vanilla.

Our current favorites are the lemony kind. They are made by Manteigaria in Praça Camões near Chiado at a location that was once occupied by a butter shop (manteiga is the Portuguese word for butter). Perhaps as an homage to the past, Manteigaria’s pasteis have a buttery taste. The crispy crust and the rich filling are so satisfying that they make us feel, for a moment, that we discovered the meaning of life.

Whenever a new batch of pasteis comes hot out of the oven, Mantegaria’s cashier rings a bell. You’ll see people dropping what they’re doing and rushing to Manteigaria in search of a moment of sweetness.

Manteigaria is located on Rua do Loreto, 2 near Chiado in Lisbon, tel. 21-347-1492.

Convent delights

Composit Ovos Moles

Ovos Moles is the name of a store in Lisbon that sells traditional sweets made from recipes created in Portuguese convents. These wonderful desserts are procured from small producers who often kept the original recipes in their family for several generations. They are indescribable delights made of eggs, sugar, flour, fruits, and nuts.

It is a privilege to be able try and compare so many of these exceptional desserts. After all, in times gone by, we would have had to commit to a monastic life to enjoy the heavenly concoctions that Ovos Moles offers.

Ovos Moles is located at Calçada da Estrela, 140-142, tel. 919303788. Click here for their website.

 

 

Memorable pastries from Vila Real

Crista de GaloMore than a century ago, a baker from Vila Real was given four secret recipes from the local Santa Clara convent. The pastries she made with these recipes were so extraordinary that she decided to turn her bakery into a pastry store.

Today, her great grandchildren continue to use the same prized recipes at Casa Lapão, a pastry store in Vila Real. Their most popular pastry is called “Crista de Galo,” which means rooster comb.  We recommend that you try them with your eyes closed so you can better appreciate the heavenly combination of the flaky dough with the egg and almond filling.

If you’re near Vila Real, a stop at Casa Lapão can turn an ordinary day into a memorable one.

Casa Lapão is located at Rua da Misericórdia 53/55, Vila Real, tel 259 324 146, email casalapao@gmail.com. Click here for their website. 

The first Portuguese hero

Viriato was the first Portuguese hero. As a leader of the Lusitanos, he resisted the Roman invasion between 147 BC and 139 BC by waging a clever guerrilla war. He died in bed, assassinated by members of his tribe bribed by the Romans.

In the 1940s the city of Viseu erected an impressive monument to Viriato. But the most popular homage to the great warrior is not carved in marble or cast in bronze. It is made of eggs, coconut, and sugar. The V-shaped pastries called Viriatos are very popular in the Viseu region. And, thanks to them, all the little kids know the name of Portugal’s first hero.