If someone asks you if you’d like a croissant or a macaron, you’re going to know what they’re talking about. At which point you’re then going to want to eat one, obviously. But lately, you’ve probably been hearing another buzzy cuisine come up in conversation — and if you don’t know enough about it for the mere mention of it to make your stomach growl, you’re missing out, friend. Pastel de nata is a true treat, and you should know about it. So, let’s get you filled in, yeah?
Pastel de nata — also known as pastéis de nata in the plural form — should definitely be on your radar should you ever decide to visit Portugal, as it’s the proclaimed top culinary creation in the country. “Although bacalhau is considered to be Portugal’s national dish, the pastel de nata is its most famous. This pastry is quite simply perfection in two bites,” explains Portugalist, adding, “There are other Portuguese cakes and pastries, and other great savory Portuguese dishes, but nothing comes close to the pastel de nata.”
That ringing endorsement should have whetted your appetite, so let’s talk specifics. Pastel de nata is a traditional Portuguese egg custard tart. Recently, these tasty treats have grown so much in popularity that you can find them at bakeries and cafes all around the world. (Although to be clear, Portugalist says the absolute best can be found in Lisbon, where they originated.)
Before you set out in search of a trendy culinary spot serving pastéis de nata, though, you might want to know a bit about the history of this confection — especially since it’s so interesting. Apparently, many of Portugal’s cakes and pastries were invented in monasteries and convents.
“Back in those days, egg whites were used for starching clothes, particularly nuns’ habits, which meant they had a lot of egg yolks left over. The yolks were often used to make sweets and pastries, and this led to the invention of sweets like ovos moles, queijadas, and of course pastéis de nata,” explains Portugalist, noting that this daytime-dessert was invented by monks at the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, which is now a neighborhood in Lisbon.”
In order to raise money for the monastery, the monks would make and sell their pastéis de nata to a nearby sugar refinery. Unfortunately, not even the popularity of the pastéis could save the struggling monastery, and the monks were forced to close down in 1834. In the process, they sold their recipe to Domingos Rafael Alves, the owner of the refinery. Clearly realizing how special the recipe was, the businessman went on to open his own bakery, Pastéis de Belém (It’s still open today and run by Alves’ descendants).
Curious what these storied custard tarts taste like? Well, obviously taste is inherently subjective, so you’ll have to track down a pastelaria that serves them. What we can do for you, though, is describe the pastel de nata. So, imagine this: the shell is crisp and buttery, similar to puff pastry. The filling? The kind of creamy egg custard dessert dreams are made of. Then, to top it all off, they’re often dusted with cinnamon (or, sometimes, powdered sugar) and served with strong coffee or a glass of milk.
If you’re already salivating and want to try pastel de nata ASAP, you can try your hand at making them at home. Cupcake Jemma has an easy-to-follow video tutorial that should give you a solid jumping off point. However, if you’re not skilled in the pastry department, it’s probably best to leave this to the pros. To truly understand the hype surrounding pastel de nata, you’re going to want your first bite to be the best representation of these trendy treats.