Probably the most popular pastry among Portuguese delicacies, the Pastel de Belém is a sweet and creamy egg custard tart, usually served warm and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. You can find it in almost every Portuguese café, but Belém in Lisbon is the birthplace of this delicacy. The Pastel de Belém was even named one of the 7 Wonders of Portuguese Gastronomy and ranked among the 50 best things to eat in the world by the The Guardian! In this article you will learn a little bit more about the history of this famous specialty and learn how to prepare the (almost) perfect Pastel de Belém - remember that the original recipe is top secret!?
IIt all began in the early 19th century in the picturesque neighbourhood of Belém, next to the grandiose Jerónimos Monastery, now classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nearby, was a sugar cane refinery, associated with a small commercial place. After the liberal revolution of 1820, all monasteries and convents in Portugal were shut down a few years later. Both clergy and workers found themselves expelled from their homes and works. However, someone from the Monastery, without wanting to give up, put some creamy pastries for sale in that small shop. They quickly acquired the nickname Pastéis de Belém. These pastries eventually became more and more famous, as Belém, with its majestic monuments, attracted many visitors.
It was then in 1837 that the artisanal production of Pastéis de Belém officially began, in the premises next to the refinery. The pastry recipe is the original one from that time and remains absolutely secret to this day. It is only passed on to the pastry chefs who make them in the "Oficina do Segredo" (Secret Workshop). The confectioners who make this delicacy even sign a secrecy agreement in which they agree not to reveal the recipe and the manufacturing process. It is a centuries-old recipe that excels in the careful selection of ingredients. Of course, bakeries, pastry shops and cafes in Portugal and even around the world have already tried to discover this top-secret recipe, but without success. Some say that the secret is not in the ingredients but in the way these pastries are made… But only they will know!
What is the difference between Pastel de Belém and Pastel de Nata?
This is a common question, especially for the curious and visitors, but even for some Portuguese people! The so-called Pastel de Belém is the original sweet, sold in the factory of origin, in Belém. Only these pastries can be called Pastéis de Belém! Incidentally, the original recipe and name are patented. All other pastries, which are made differently, because only in Belém can you try the original recipe, are considered and called pastéis de nata. There are several cafes and pastry shops that make their own version of the Pastel de Belém – but of course it will never be the same as the unique and original one.
Where can I try this popular pastry?
Although Belém is the birthplace of this typical Portuguese sweet, in truth it has spread throughout Portugal. In practically every pastry shop or café, you will find a pastel de nata. Nowadays you can find this delicious sweet even in other countries like Brazil and China. Generally, this sweet is eaten as a small snack mid-morning or mid-afternoon, along with a coffee, a gallon, or whatever you prefer. In Belém, there is nothing better than going directly to the source, the Fábrica dos Pastéis de Belém, to taste this delicacy in the original pastry shop. It is a very popular place in the area, both for locals and visitors who want to taste this delicacy.
The curious thing about this sweet is that many people eat it with a small spoon. This way, the creamy content inside is eaten first and then the puffy part. However, the most common way to eat the Pastel de Belém is simply by hand. Accompany the custard tart with a bica (coffee) and you have the perfect combination for a delicious snack!
Although no one knows what the original recipe is, there are recipes that come close, and just as delicious. Here we will show you how to make your own Pastel de Belém, which will be, in essence, a homemade custard tart. Besides the small metal moulds, you will also need the following ingredients:
- 1 l of cream
- 300 g of sugar
- 250 g of wheat flour
- 150 g of butter
- 80 g of cornstarch
- 12 + 1 egg yolks
- Water with a pinch of salt
- Vanilla essence
- 2 strips of lemon peel
- 1 cinnamon stick
Once you have all the ingredients together, you will start by preparing the dough – that crunchy part of the pastry.
- Gather a pile of flour, make a hole in the middle of the pile and add an egg yolk (just the yolk) and a little cold water, in order to obtain a malleable dough.After this process, stretch the dough with the rolling pin, on the work surface sprinkled with flour, and place the cubed butter at room temperature (firm but slightly soft) on the dough.
- Then fold it lengthwise and, with the rolling pin, crush the butter inside the dough. Fold the dough again (one part over the middle and the other over the top), so that you have three layers of dough. Repeat this process twice, spreading the 50g of butter in the same way.
- Stretch the dough with the rolling pin, put more butter over the dough, and roll it into a sausage shape. Then, cut it into slices and place each slice in a small metal mould. With the help of your thumbs (wet, to make it easier for you to shape the dough), begin to cover the entire metal mould, bottom and sides. And the dough is ready!
We now move on to the filling.
- In a saucepan, add the cornstarch, the cream, the yolks of the 12 remaining eggs, the sugar, the two strips of lemon peel, the drops of vanilla essence (can be a full teaspoon) and the cinnamon stick. Let it cook, while stirring constantly until it thickens a little.
- Remove from the heat, remove the cinnamon stick and the two strips of lemon peel, and divide the filling between the small metal moulds that you have already lined with the dough.
- Bake in the preheated oven on medium heat until golden brown.
Staying true to Portuguese tradition, serve the delicious pastel de nata while still hot and sprinkle it with sugar and cinnamon powder. Enjoy your delicious homemade snack!