These things are really neat. They’re little, rich, aromatic and caramelly. As perfect an afternoon sweet as I’ve ever made. Not that I’d call these particular pastéis perfect. They’re a little too toasty. Yet they passed muster with a one of Mrs. Pastry’s Portuguese colleagues, who claimed they tasted just like home. She was probably being nice. Yet there’s no denying even these first-attempt pastéis had a certain…something. I’ll definitely be making them again. They’re one of the few pastries I’ve made that both my little girls loved.
The big myth about pastéis de Belém (also know by the more generic term, pastéis de nata, or “cream tarts”) is that they must be baked at a very high temperature, up to 750 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s erroneous in my view. I found that even 550 degrees Fahrenheit was too much. Next time I’ll bake at 475 (about the max for puff pastry) and finish them under a low broiler if they haven’t developed their characteristic brown spots after 25 minutes.
Here I should stick in a word about forms. Jumbo muffin pans are the perfect size form for pastéis de Belém. Smaller (or larger) forms will work, but whatever you choose make sure your pan doesn’t have a nonstick coating, as nonstick coatings break down over about 450 degrees into toxic compounds. Plain steel or aluminum is what you want.
So preheat your oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit and assemble your ingredients. Roll out about 1 1/2 pounds of puff pastry to make your crusts. Homemade pastry is what really makes these little pies shine. Use it if at all possible. Here’s I have a roughly 1 1/2 pound piece:
I roll it out very thin, to about 1/8″…
…then use a round cutter to make my rounds. Cut out as many as you can on your sheet. You can reuse the scraps, just make sure you don’t ball them up first. Stack the pieces on top of each other, then apply the pin. That way you’ll preserve your horizontal layers.
Lay them into the buttered forms. You want the dough to come about half way up the muffin mold. Notice my failed attempt at the classic shaping technique on the right. In Portugal you shape these by rolling your pastry into a slender log, cutting the log in sections and standing a section up in each form. You then wet your finger, stick it into the middle of the roll, and pull the dough outward until it lines the mold. That doesn’t work in North America, because the gluten in our flour is much too stretchy and elastic. Oh well…the end result will be almost identical to the original. When all your forms are lined with pastry, put them into the refrigerator to rest while you work on the filling.
Begin the filling by combining the flour with about 1/2 cup of the milk. Whisk it into a paste.
Next, combine the milk, vanilla, lemon peel and cinnamon stick in a small saucepan. Bring it to the boil.
When it’s boiling, add the milk/flour mixture. Quickly whisk it in and remove the pan from the heat. Allow that to cool while you make your syrup.
Combine your sugar and water in a small saucepan. Bring it to the boil and cook it to 220 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove it from the heat and allow it to cool completely before you move on.
When they syrup is cool, whisk it into the milk mixture.
Pour everything through a strainer to remove the solids.
Now all you do is whisk in your egg yolks and you’re ready to rock n’ roll.
Take the pastry-lined forms out of the refrigerator and ladle in about 1/3 cup in each form. You want the filling to come only about three-quarters of the way up the sides of the pastry.
Bake them for about 20 minutes. Check after that time. The filling should be puff and the edges of the pastry golden. These were baked at 550 and you can see they puffed up a little too aggressively (resulting in cracks on the surface. 475 would have worked better I think. As the pasties cool they lose their puff and even fall in a little (that’s the aesthetic).
A proper pastel has those little brown spots on top. If the pastéis don’t have them but are fully baked, a low broiler should do the trick. I meant to test this but I was out of homemade pastry after this trial-and-error session was over. What? I’m only one man — I can only do so much! But you can see by this photo was pastéis de Belem are like: a sweet/cinnamon-y/eggy filling on top and rich and flaky below.
The combination is devastatingly good…warm or cold (which I actually prefer). Go to it!