They Taste So Good You Can Hear It: Portuguese Egg Custard Tarts

A while ago my cousin's wife asked if I could make pastéis de nata, Portuguese custard tarts. I've had the small egg tarts that are commonly available for dessert at dim sum restaurants, but they are not the same as the Portuguese-style tarts; the Asian version in the United States isn't browned on top and the crust isn't as crisp as the Portuguese ones. (However, KFC in Asia sells Portuguese-style egg tarts; a few years ago when I was in Taiwan, my friend who was living there told me that the KFC tarts were all the rage.) I haven't been to Portugal and haven't had an authentic Portuguese custard tart, but I was interested in trying to make them at home.

I settled on a recipe from Bon Appétit for "Portuguese Egg Custard Tarts." The dough for the crust is laminated but it's made with softened butter instead of a butter block; it's unlike any dough I've made before. First, you mix flour with water and salt until a shaggy dough forms. The recipe instructs you to knead the dough for five minutes until it's elastic, but my dough was more like a shapeless puddle. All I could do was stir it. It was so soft that I couldn't even wrap it in plastic; instead, I left it in the bowl and just covered the bowl in plastic while I let it rest for half an hour.

I tried rolling the dough out to a 12-inch square, and I had to use a ton of flour to get it to keep it from sticking. In the future, I think it would make things easier to add more flour to the dough in the first place. After I finally managed to shape it into a square, I spread softened butter onto the left two-thirds of the dough and did a letter fold to create three layers of dough around two layers of butter. I rotated the dough ninety degrees and repeated the rolling, buttering, and folding process twice. After the final fold, I rolled out the dough again, rolled it up tightly into a log, and chilled the dough overnight.
The next day, I made the custard filling for the tarts. You make a sugar syrup by bringing a mixture of sugar, water, and a cinnamon stick to 225 degrees, taking the syrup off of the heat, adding lemon zest, and letting the syrup sit for 30 minutes. Separately, you incorporate boiling milk into a mixture of flour, milk, and salt; and cook the mixture until thickened. At this point you're supposed to put the sugar syrup through a sieve and add it into the milk mixture. My sugar syrup was very thick and tacky. It was the exact consistency of glucose syrup and I knew there was no way that I would be able to put it through a sieve (although it was easy enough to remove the cinnamon stick). Instead, I just scraped the syrup into the hot milk and whisked to combine. Fortunately, I had used a zester tool to create long strips of lemon zest for the sugar syrup, instead of using a Microplane to create small shreds of zest. As a result, I was able to just fish all of the zest out of the syrup-milk mixture with a fork. Then I added egg yolks and vanilla paste.

I cut the roll of chilled dough into thin slices that I used to line individual fluted tart pans from Fat Daddio's that are two and a half inches across and three-quarters of an inch deep. Even though the recipe says it yields enough dough for 24 crusts but only enough filling for 12, I made 24 crusts and had enough filling for 23.

You're supposed to cook these tarts on a rack in the top third of an oven set at 500 degrees. My oven doesn't go up to 500 degrees. Well, it's supposed to, but the thermostat has been off since we moved in more than decade ago and the hottest I can get it is 475 degrees. I put my filled tarts on a baking sheet, and then placed the sheet directly on a baking stone on a rack in the bottom third of my oven. The tarts came out with beautifully golden crusts, and nice browned spots on top. I let them cool slightly before removing them from the tart molds and transferring them to a cooling rack; they came right out of the pans with no problem, although the sides retained no definition at all from the fluted shape of the molds.

These tarts are one of the most delicious and memorable desserts I have ever made. When I took my first bite out of a warm tart, the crust shattered with a loudly audible crackle. The crust is sensational. It's thin, deeply golden, nicely caramelized, and wonderfully crispy. Eating these tarts reminded me of the sensation of eating a warm kouign amann, which also produced an audible crunch. The sweet custard was smooth and rich and creamy, although I didn't get much cinnamon or lemon flavor. But no matter, these tarts are little bites of heaven.

I packed up my warm tarts as quickly as I could to drive over to my cousin's house, because I was afraid that the extreme crispiness of the crusts might be fleeting. I didn't need to worry, because the tarts were just as good even after they were no longer warm. The two tarts Tom and I ate after dinner, about eight hours after baking, still retained their immensely satisfying audible crunch. But beyond that, I can't comment on their shelf life, because we didn't keep any additional tarts for ourselves.

Making the dough for the tarts does require a bit of work and fuss, but it is so worth it. These tarts are just extraordinary and satisfy all five senses.

Recipe: "Portuguese Egg Custard Tarts" from Bon Appétit.