An advent calendar heralds the beginning of the festive period in many households. It could be a chocolate-filled countdown, a glittery traditional Christmas scene or, more recently, beauty products, even a daily gin hiding behind the windows – whatever you open, it still marks the exciting march towards the special day.
At Gastrono-me it wasn’t a calendar that began December, but an innocuous little pastry with a festive twist that kicked off our Christmas time. But more about the twist in a moment. . .
All year round we make our version of Pastéis de Nata. I remember first discovering them on a trip to Lisbon and was determined to bring the recipe back and try to make them for our little market stall here in Bury St Edmunds. So popular were they that market goers would reserve them frantically for the next week – mind you, it was always a boon if there was just one left over, as that meant it could be devoured for breakfast after a blessed Sunday morning lay-in (they are truly wonderful shared with a strong coffee.)
For anyone who hasn’t sampled one before, they are a heavenly little custard-filled puff pastry tart baked in a very hot oven until warm and glistening. A light dusting of cinnamon teases the senses as you sink your teeth into the set crème pâtissière, before reaching the flaky puff pastry layers. Very different to an English custard tart that is baked in shortcrust pastry and who’s custard is much more set and usually dusted with nutmeg.
The Portuguese recipe was created more than 200 years ago by the monks at Jerónimos monastery, Belém in Lisbon. Now I’m a sucker for the history of how a food item actually came into existence, even if sometimes they are more like tall stories than the actual truth. The fact that the delectable caramelised tarte Tatin ‘may’ have been created because one of the Tatin sisters forgot to put pastry into
her apple tart delights me. The legend has it that not wanting to waste her already caramelising apples, she apparently hastily threw some pastry on top, and when it came out of the oven flipped it over and thus the tarte Tatin was created! I far prefer that version to the more believable fact that they were already famous for upside-down tarts.
Wanting to know more of the origins of the Portuguese custard tart, I discovered that apparently at the convents and monasteries they used large quantities of egg whites for starching clothes, for items such as nuns’ habits. So it became quite commonplace for monasteries and convents to have a surplus of leftover egg yolks. So as to not waste them, they made cakes and pastries. How delightful to think that this little pastry was born for the need of a stiff wimple. Heavenly indeed!
At Gastrono-me we’ve always balked at the word authentic – ‘our version’ was a phrase used confidently and often. Understandably, a national dish carries much emotion and pride, and we’ve never wanted to upset anyone simply because we’d played with a dish resulting in it becoming culturally inaccurate – I refer you to Jamie Oliver and the ‘chorizo in paella’ debacle, google it, it’s right at the top of any search engine!
We did have a Portuguese customer though who was understandably very offended that we had spelt Portuguese custard tart in the Spanish spelling rather than in the correct language, so proud was she of her national dessert. We were always very pleased/relieved that although our tarts never bore a close resemblance to the Portuguese offering, they were still very much accepted. Ours are far deeper, as we bake them in muffin tins rather than the authentic very shallow tins, but from a greed point of view this just bestows far more custard, which can only be a good thing, right? I probably should have been charged with cultural appropriation when I dared to melt rich dark chocolate into the custard on a few occasions – the chocolate custard not only looked supremely decadent but the taste was also to die for. But instead of cultural stealing, I would prefer to think of it as a compliment – or ‘admirational’ tinkering. I can remember my Welsh grandmother used to make a delicious Greek cheese pie for her Cypriot husband to remind him of home after emigrating to the UK. But in 1970s Cardiff, it was near impossible to find feta which my great ya yá would most certainly have used. So she improvised and used Caerphilly cheese, similar with its crumbliness and when mint was added it transformed it into something far more Grecian, and wolfed down by my younger self blissfully ignorant of the existence of feta.
So this brings me around to the twist, now that I’ve suitably stacked up my alibi for messing around with this dessert! But I promise you it’s worth it at this time of year.
From December 1st the twist was that we would add some spicy Christmas mincemeat, a little glug of brandy and toasted flaked almonds for good measure. It transformed this little pastry and blasted you straight into Christmas in just one bite!
Now I realise we are just a few days after Christmas day, but these are going to grace our table for the New Year’s Eve drinks party, as they are equally perfect with a Prosecco as they are with a coffee – and if like that goddess Nigella you have hungry guests incessantly popping in on you, they will keep beautifully for a couple of days, and you’ll have these ready to whip out to everyone’s delight.
May I take this opportunity to wish you all a very peaceful Christmas time, and we very much look forward to serving these again to you in 2018.
Merry Portuguese Custard Tarts
Preparation – 45 mins
Cook – 25 mins
2 x 375g puff pastry – pre-rolled is less labour intensive
600ml double cream
200g caster sugar
4 tablespoons of cornflour
8 egg yolks gently whisked until combined
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
A glug of brandy (optional)
20g toasted flaked almonds
½ tsp of cinnamon
Flour for dusting
Icing sugar to decorate
Very lightly sprinkle your counter with the flour. Take your puff pastry, long width in front of you, and roll it vertically up until you have one long sausage of pastry. Cut into portions of around 2 inches, you should be able to just get around 12.
Take each mini sausage portion and flatten with your hand, then roll it slightly into a round, about 12cm diameter with a rolling pin, using more flour to stop it sticking. Then press your round into your muffin tin, leaving a little pastry flush of the top. Keep doing this until you have used up your pastry. Cover with clingfilm and leave somewhere coolish.
Dissolve your cornflour into your measured water, you have to really stir this well until it’s dispersed.
In a saucepan, empty your caster sugar, double cream and vanilla. Over a high heat, start stirring with your balloon whisk for about 3 minutes, or until a little steam rises. Very quickly pour in your egg yolks, stirring continuously until it very lightly steams – it should be no more than a minute. Now pour in half of the cornflour mixture, continually stirring, then gradually add the other half, this should take about one minute more. Lower the heat a little and continue stirring until you feel it thicken and to start to look like custard. It’s important to stir it constantly and to watch it even more. Too long and your eggs will scramble, too soon and your custard won’t set.
Take it off the heat, pour it into a bowl and cover with clingfilm, pressing it into the custard to prevent a skin forming. Let it cool. If, however, you’re not baking on the same day, let it cool naturally and then refrigerate after. It will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of days if you want to get ahead, as will your lined muffin tin.
Mix your brandy into the measured mincemeat and have ready in a bowl for layering.
Spoon a small dollop of custard into your pastry rounds, followed by a teaspoon of mincemeat, then top it with more custard and a tiny bit more mincemeat, then a sprinkle of almonds and a tiny pinch of cinnamon to finish.
Keep going until all your cases are filled. Bake in the oven for around 20-25 mins.
You need to get these out of the cases when just cool enough to handle, any longer and the mincemeat will set like treacle and you’ll have a devil of a job to get them out. But gastrono-me warning, mincemeat, due to the sugar content, doesn’t half burn, so please be careful. I speak from experience!
Arrange your beautiful Merry Portuguese Custard Tarts on a cake stand, and sieve with a light dusting of icing sugar (cue coquettish look to camera!) Merry Christmas to one and all!
Gemma is executive chef and co-creator of Gastrono-me, which re-opens on Abbeygate Street in the new year after a successful five-and-half years in St John’s Street.