Of the all places I have had the good fortune to visit, I consider Hong Kong to be my favorite city. It is the quintessential East meets West, and the juxtaposition of the Eastern Medicine pharmacy (with the jars of insects and bones) beside the classic pub (with the bangers and pints) is a thrilling spectacle. As you can imagine, the food is unreal. From the most humble of noodles eaten while standing at a small street-front eatery to the five star restaurants that are rapidly appearing on the social scene throughout the city, there is always a culinary adventure waiting.
We had breakfast at the same little bakery most mornings. There, when you ordered “coffee with cream and sugar” you were given a cup that contained three shots of espresso, heavy cream and simple syrup. When you ordered French Toast, you were given a battered and deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And there, at the pastry counter, you could find the small tarts filled with a sweet and lightly flavored egg custard.
Nearby Macau was settled by the Portuguese in the 16th century. While it is no longer a colony, much of the influence remains and has permeated the culture of Hong Kong. Pastel de nata is a traditional Portuguese egg custard tart. It took some research to figure out what those wonderful little pastries I had each morning were, but once I did they became a favorite treat and a perfect way to relive the memory. This time of year I find myself craving them, as the warmth is able to satisfy the lingering chill of late winter and the delicate pastry and light flavor is an enticing reminder of the approaching spring.
One note—I leave it up to you how you choose to create the vessel in which to contain the custard. I make a “rough” puff when I fix these, following the fairly standard instructions that can be found with minimal Internet or cookbook research. If you are more ambitious than I am go ahead and make an authentic puff pastry, and if you want to avoid pastry-making altogether than buy a good quality package pastry. With any of those methods the pastry will be shaped like a rectangle when you are going to start working with it, or at least it should be. The custard portion of this recipe makes 12 individual tarts in a muffin tray that makes 3-inch wide muffins. Again, I leave it up to you to decide how much pastry to make. This recipe is merely a suggestion. —checker
Test Kitchen Notes
If you like custard and flaky pastry together, this is the tart for you. The custard was very simple to make and creamy but not too rich. I got a kick out of the instructions and the self-deprecating humour within. Fun aside, the procedure was very clear. I took Checker's advice and did 'minimal internet research' and found a Gordon Ramsay rough puff pastry recipe that worked perfectly here -- and with no ranting or swearing. Rather than flattening the circles of pastry by hand, I used my tortilla press and then finished them by hand, it only took a few minutes. My custard came out very orangey, despite only using a 1-inch square piece of peel for a half recipe. Forgetting about the icing sugar to go atop the tarts, I doubled the sugar in the custard as I didn't think it was sweet enough. The finished tarts, even with the sugar on top, were not too sweet–so keep that in mind, and taste the custard when you take it off the stove. I brought most of these tarts to a friend and asked her for a detailed tasting report, but all I got was 'yum'. I second that, and I'll be making more soon to use up all the leftover pastry.
- Makes 12
homemade authentic puff pastry, homemade “rough” puff pastry or good quality packaged puff pastry
extra-large egg yolks
1 3/4 cups
pinch of salt
cinnamon for dusting
confectioners sugar for dusting
- Once you have your pastry to the point where it could be worked with (meaning, once all the turns and chilling are done or the package is defrosted) the first step is to create the roll that allows for the small, round tarts. Lightly flour a clean work surface and place your dough on it so that one of the short sides of the rectangle is facing you.
- Begin to roll out the dough, working from the center and maintaining the rectangular shape. If the dough gets soft, gently lift it onto some plastic wrap, cover it, and put it in the fridge long enough to chill again.
- Roll out the dough until it is about a ¼ inch thick, still in a rectangular shape with the short side facing you.
- Starting at the end facing you, begin to roll up the dough as you would roll a cigar. You should be creating a log shape with a spiral pattern on the ends. If you have no idea what I am talking about than try to picture a roll of wrapping paper and figure out how to recreate that with the dough. If you still have no idea than send me a message about how lousy of a recipe writer I am and go make something else.
- Once you have your log-shaped dough, wrap it in plastic and chill it in the fridge while you make and cool the custard.
- In a large saucepan combine the egg yolks, heavy cream, milk, sugar, flour and salt and whisk until there are no lumps.
- Add the vanilla, cinnamon stick and the orange and lemon peels.
- Place the saucepan on low heat and continue to whisk gently. You do not want to heat this too much as the eggs with begin to scramble. Be sure to watch your sides and bottom to make sure no burning is happening.
- Gently whisk over low heat until the mixture is thickened to about the consistency of a loose pudding, then turn off the heat.
- Gently place a sheet of cling wrap directly onto the surface of the custard. This is to prevent the custard from forming a film.
- Let the custard cool completely, then remove the cinnamon and citrus peels and cover with cling wrap again.
- Preheat your oven to 400° F.
- As said, I use a large muffin tray for this, but you can use whatever works for you. Whatever you choose, give it a very light coating of butter, because you can never have too much butter and this help get any stuck-on custard off later. (This might be a completely unnecessary step, but I have always done it so I included it.)
- Remove your dough from the fridge and unwrap it. Place it on a cutting board or knife-safe surface so that the long side of the roll is facing you, or so that it is positioned horizontally.
- Using a sharp knife begin cutting the roll into 1/4-inch slices. You should see a spiral pattern in each slice. If the butter has softened by the time you are finished than wrap them and put them in the fridge again to chill for 15 minutes or so.
- Now, how to explain this… Your goal is to make a “cup” with the slices. I do this by holding a slice in both hands (your hands shaped like a duck hand-puppet) and pushing the center of the spiral (the inside of the slice) away from me. Then I begin turning and pinching the slice, working quickly, until it is as thin as I can get it and still have it hold some kind of cup-like shape. It is very floppy and about 1/4 to 1/8th of an inch. Does that make sense? If not, just figure out how to make a cup with the slice, or, get creative and do something else.
- As you make each “cup” gently put them in the muffin tray or whatever you are using to hold the tarts.
- Once you have the muffin tray full of cups, remove the plastic wrap from the chilled custard and give it a gentle stir.
- Fill each pastry “cup” with the custard so that there is about a 1/2-inch of space left at the top
- Once you have all your tarts filled, put them in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the pastry is golden and the custard is set. Getting the browning to happen on the custard is tricky, and I have usually had to leave it in longer, which can mess up the pastry. I would love suggestions on that part, if anyone reads this and has ideas.
- Cool on a rack and dust with cinnamon and confectioners sugar.