You’re probably familiar with a good-sized handful of French, Italian and even Spanish pastries. (Churros, anyone?) But what about Portuguese? This superb cuisine features some killer desserts, and pastéis de nata should be squarely on your radar. We asked New York City’s renowned Portuguese chef George Mendes, who sells these bite-sized gems at, Bica, the coffee shop he runs alongside his popular Manhattan restaurant Lupulo. If you’re looking for a new pastry to add to your baking repertoire, there’s no better challenge to master than a perfect custard tart.
“Pastéis de nata, or pastéis de Belém [Belém is the suburb of Lisbon where they were created] are egg custard tarts,” says the chef. “Nata” is cream, so the phrase translates to “pastry of cream/milk.” According to Mendes, pastéis are said to have been created in a Belém pastry shop in 1837 by monks who, expelled during a revolution in 1820, began baking to earn money. The pastries became very popular with visitors to the Torre de Belém (Belém tower), and eventually a small store attached to a sugar refinery began churning them out for the masses. Today dozens, if not hundreds, of pastelarias across Lisbon sell them. “At Bica, we make both the traditional version as well as original seasonal flavors,” says Mendes. “Our current one incorporates beautiful local Tristar strawberries.”
The dough is made similarly to puff pastry, with lots of butter folded into the layers, which is what gives the shells their crisp, crackling texture. They’re cooked in a very hot oven, popped out of the molds (mini muffin tins), dusted with cinnamon and eaten warm with a strong cup of coffee.
“The interplay of textures between the shells and smooth, creamy filling is extraordinary,” adds Mendes. “The recipe I use at Bica and Lupulo was inspired by the ones my mother used to make.”