How to make Macau-style Portuguese egg tarts – Macanese pasteis de nata: easy, just use a decent baking tray

Post Magazine, SCMP Cooking

Tuesday marks the Mid-Autumn Festival, a time when Chinese people worldwide feast on mooncakes and sip tea while gazing at the harvest moon. Mooncakes get their name because, traditionally, they were made in a circular shape, to symbolise the moon; the salted egg yolks found in many varieties also represent the moon.

If mooncakes are not to your liking, egg tarts make a good substitute. They are easy to make, especially if you use commercial puff pastry, but if possible, use the type made with butter, not shortening.

Macanese pasteis de nata

The only Portuguese egg tarts I’ve tasted have been based on the Macau version, so I’m calling these Macanese pasteis de nata. From what I’ve heard from friends who have eaten them in Portugal as well, they are slightly different from those found in Macau.

Post Magazine, SCMP Cooking

Portuguese egg tarts on the baking tray. Photo: Jonathan Wong

The egg tarts from Portugal and Macau are very different from the Cantonese daan taat, the variety you are most likely to find in Chinese bakeries in Hong Kong and abroad. The Cantonese type is delicate and pure – much like the cuisine – and the custard and pastry are smooth and pale.

Pasteis de nata, by contrast, are rougher looking – they have a pastry that’s medium- to dark-brown, and a custard that looks like it’s almost burnt in spots.

These tart shells are made using an unusual but extremely efficient technique: the dough is tightly rolled into a spiral, cut into pieces, placed in the tins with one of the cut sides up, then pressed into the contours of the tin with your thumbs. It is much easier than rolling out each piece of dough into a circle.

If the brand of puff pastry you buy is heavier than 225g (8oz), trim it to weight; if it is less, take what’s needed from a second sheet of dough, then press it onto one end of the first sheet, to elongate it slightly.

You need 12 pastry tins (preferably with smooth sides) that hold 50 grams (1¾ oz) each.

Keep the dough chilled at all stages of working with it. If it starts to soften, refrigerate it.

It is essential to bake the tarts on a top-quality baking tray. Cheaper trays will buckle in the high heat of the oven, which will make the custard spill out of the tins. The tray that comes with the oven should be strong enough to withstand the heat, or use a tray with rolled edges. Round or square cake pans should also work, but you will need several of them.

Post Magazine, SCMP Cooking

The ingredients for Portuguese egg tarts. Photo: Jonathan Wong

225 grams (8oz) puff pastry sheet, preferably all-butter puff

Plain (all-purpose) flour, as necessary

For the filling:

100 grams (½ cup) granulated sugar

¼ tsp fine sea salt

3 large egg yolks

15 grams (2½ tbsp) cornflour (cornstarch)

125ml cream (¾ cup plus 1 tbsp), chilled

200ml (¾ cup plus 1 tbsp + 1 tsp) whole milk, chilled

1 tsp vanilla extract

Post Magazine, SCMP Cooking

Roll the dough into a coil. Photo: Jonathan Wong

1 Unwrap the puff pastry sheet, then roll it tightly into a spiral. Cut it into 12 equal pieces.

2 Dip one cut side of each piece in flour and shake off the excess, then place it, flour-side up, in the centre of a pastry tin.

3 Use your thumbs to firmly but evenly press the dough into the contours of the tin, to about 3mm (⅛in) above the edge of the tin.

Post Magazine, SCMP Cooking

The dough sits flour side up in the moulds. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Post Magazine, SCMP Cooking

Press the dough into the moulds. Photo: Jonathan Wong

4 Place the prepared tins on a tray in the fridge and leave for 30 minutes, then freeze for at least 15 minutes.

5 Prepare the filling. Put the sugar and salt in a heatproof cup and add 50ml of hot water. Microwave the cup, stirring about every 30 seconds, until the sugar is dissolved. (Or do this in a small pan on the stove.) Cool to room temperature.

6 Put the egg yolks into a mixing bowl. Stir in the sugar/salt water, then use a small sieve to sift the cornflour directly into the bowl. Whisk to combine.

7 Stir in the cream, milk and vanilla extract. Pour the mixture through a strainer into a liquid-measuring cup or another container with a pouring lip. Chill the mixture while heating the oven to 250 degrees Celsius (480 degrees Fahrenheit).

8 When the oven is hot enough, take the shells from the freezer and place them on a baking tray, or in round or square cake pan(s).

Post Magazine, SCMP Cooking

Pour the custard into the tart shells. Photo: Jonathan Wong

9 Gently but thoroughly stir the custard mixture, so the cornflour is evenly distributed. Divide the custards between the 12 shells. After pouring the custard into six shells, stir the mixture again, then fill the remaining tins.

10 Carefully place the pan(s) in the oven and bake for 12 minutes at 250 degrees Celsius/480 degrees Fahrenheit. Turn the heat to 200 degrees (390 degrees Fahrenheit) and bake for another eight to 10 minutes, or until the shells are medium brown and the custard is bubbling and browned in spots. Gently shake the pan(s): the custard (which will puff up) should be wobbly, but not liquid.

Post Magazine, SCMP Cooking

When cooked, the custard in the Portuguese egg tarts should be wobbly. Photo: Jonathan Wong

11 Take the pan(s) from the oven and cool the tarts. Serve them slightly warm, or at room temperature.

12 Leftover tarts should be reheated for five minutes in an oven preheated to 200 degrees Celsius (390 degrees Fahrenheit).

Food styling: Nellie Ming Lee. Kitchen: courtesy of Wolf at House of Madison

Like this recipe? Look for more in the SCMP Post Magazine, or on SCMP Cooking.

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