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Sept. 26, 2022

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Make Portuguese tarts, pronto

Custard-filled pastry cup easy with shortcut

By , Columbian staff writer
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These rich, custard-filled pastry cups are a shortcut version of Portuguese Tarts.
These rich, custard-filled pastry cups are a shortcut version of Portuguese Tarts. (Monika Spykerman/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

We just returned from a week on Vancouver Island in the Canadian province of British Columbia, including two glorious days in Victoria. We ate our way around the city, enjoying various British delights: fish and chips on Fisherman’s Wharf, shepherd’s pie at a bustling pub and buttermilk scones at the famous Murchie’s on Government Street. I’ve never had scones so magically light and fluffy. I’m half-tempted to get in my car right now and drive straight to Port Angeles and take a ferry back to Victoria.

However, British Columbia isn’t all British. We were pleasantly surprised by its international flavor. We also had scrumptious samosas, fantastically fresh pad thai and a plate of luscious, buttery Mediterranean linguini with juicy tomatoes and roasted artichokes. We had crusty French baguettes and good French cheese and scarfed down dozens of windmill-shaped Dutch speculoos cookies. And I discovered a passion for the creamy, custard-filled Portuguese pastries known as Portuguese tarts.

The tarts, also called pasteis de nata, were invented in the 1700s by monks in Lisbon, Portugal. Because egg whites were used to starch nuns’ habits, there were always gallons of yolks just waiting around to be turned into something delicious — and so those clever monks created a creamy, slightly sweet custard in easy-to-eat, palm-sized pastry cups. They’re sold all over Portugal and I guess they’re sold all over Vancouver Island, too, because I saw (and ate) them in every café and coffee shop I visited.

The best Portuguese tart I had was at a little café in Sidney, about 30 minutes north of Victoria, which we visited on the first morning of our holiday. I eyed the contents of the pastry case and my gaze alighted on a little yellow tart. It looked like the perfect petite treat to have with my coffee and I was not wrong. The pastry was flaky, the custard was golden and redolent of vanilla and it was gone in about four bites. Perhaps because of the protein in the eggs, the four bites were perfectly satisfying and an ideal culinary companion for my caffé Americano.

The recipe for authentic Portuguese tarts is a little tricky. There’s the pastry to contend with, of course, but then the custard also takes many steps and involves making a sugar syrup, which I would surely burn or otherwise render inedible. I decided to try shortcuts using custard powder, cornstarch and frozen pastry sheets. I knew they wouldn’t taste as good as the tarts I ate in Sidney because nothing tastes as good as it does when you’re on vacation. At any rate, they probably wouldn’t taste truly terrible, and that’s good enough for me.

The first step is to remember to thaw the pastry; about two hours will do the trick. Frozen pastry usually comes two sheets to a box and you’ll need both. When the pastry sheets are fully thawed, lay them out flat and roll them into semi-tight logs. Slice each log into six equal pieces. Roll out each piece, spiral side down, until its 3 or 31/2 inches around. (This will only take two or three rolls with the rolling pin; the soft pastry is wonderfully malleable.) Place each round in the buttered bottom of a regular-sized muffin cup; mini muffin cups won’t leave enough room for the custard and large cups will yield too much custard. You want a mouthful of custard and a mouthful of pastry in each bite, so the ratio of pastry to custard is important. If you don’t want to grease the tins, you can also use paper cupcake liners, but I really like that crispy, buttery bottom. Put the muffin tins in the fridge to keep the pastry chilled while you make the custard.

Next, separate six egg yolks from the whites. Set the yolks aside and refrigerate the whites to add to your scrambled eggs tomorrow. I’ll decline to give you a primer on how to separate eggs because I make a dreadful mess of it every time, leaving the counter and my hands a slimy mess. Just wash your hands and the counter thoroughly to avoid getting salmonella poisoning, which would likely prevent you from eating as many pastries as you’d like.

In a saucepan, vigorously whisk together 1/2 cup whole milk, 1/2 cup heavy cream, ²/3 cup sugar, a dash of salt, 2 tablespoons cornstarch and 1 tablespoon Bird’s Custard Powder, available in the English import section in many grocery stores. I keep it on hand because my English husband enjoys the soft custard with crisps, crumbles and pies. The custard powder isn’t crucial; just replace it with another tablespoon of cornstarch. (I should also note that the custard recipe calls for a full cup of sugar, but I found that to be far too sweet, so I reduced the sugar by a third.) Add 1 teaspoon vanilla paste or 1 tablespoon vanilla extract and one whole cinnamon stick. Cook on medium heat, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens. Yes, your spoon will keep bumping into the cinnamon stick as you stir, but just ignore that. If it fails to thicken for you, then you’re in good company because even though I stirred for a full 10 minutes, mine got no thicker than baby drool. I just hoped that the eggs would do a better job of thickening, which they did.

Slowly pour half a cup of the hot milk mixture into the egg yolks, whisking all the while. Add egg yolk mixture very gradually back to the rest of the milk mixture and never stop stirring; take your time to avoid scrambling the eggs. Keep stirring for 3-5 more minutes or until the custard is fully thickened. You’ll know it’s ready when the whisk leaves tracks in the custard. Remove that annoying cinnamon stick. Yes, of course you can lick the custard off the cinnamon stick before discarding it. Pro tip: Wait until the custard has cooled to do this.

Remove the muffin tins from the fridge and fill each cup full, leaving only a rim of visible pastry. Don’t worry about overfilling. The custard will puff up during baking then sort of sink back down as it cools. It may also crack a little but that won’t affect the flavor one whit. Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes, or until the custard gets a tiny bit brown on top. Allow them to cool. When you can comfortably touch the muffin tins, use a knife to gently ease the tarts out of the tins. You can enjoy them warm, although the custard will become firmer as they cool completely. Eat them within a day or so; they can be stored in the fridge, but after a couple days, the pastry bottoms get soggy and no one wants that. Well, the truth is, even though this isn’t a genuine Portuguese tart, it is buttery, crispy puff pastry filled with sweet, rich custard, and I will happily eat it, soggy bottom and all.

Shortcut Portuguese Tarts

2 sheets frozen puff pastry, thawed

6 egg yolks

1/2 cup whole milk

1/2 cup heavy cream

2/3 cup sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch or 2 tablespoons cornstarch and 1 tablespoon Bird’s Custard Powder

1 teaspoon vanilla paste or 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 cinnamon stick

Dash salt

Set oven to 375 degrees. Roll each pastry sheet into a medium-tight log and cut into 6 pieces (12 pieces total). Roll each piece, spiral side down, into a 3 or 3½-inch circle. Place each circle into the bottom of a buttered muffin cup. Chill in the fridge while making custard. For custard, separate six yolks from the whites and set aside. Next, vigorously whisk milk, cream, sugar, vanilla paste, cornstarch and custard powder together in a saucepan. Add cinnamon stick and a dash of salt. Turn on medium heat and stir until slightly thickened but not boiling, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat. Pour ½ cup of milk mixture very slowly into yolks, whisking constantly. Very gradually add egg mixture back into milk mixture and return to medium heat. Whisk until thick enough that the whisk leaves trails in the custard, about 3 to 5 minutes. Fill cold pastry cups with custard. Bake for 20 minutes. Allow to cool then use a knife to ease the tarts gently from the muffin tins. Serve slightly warm or quite cool. Makes 12 tarts.

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