Two Chefs Take on a Beloved Portuguese Pastry
Folklore has it that Catholic nuns in the Portuguese parish of Santa Maria de Belem used a good many egg whites in a quest to keep their habits freshly starched. In turn, the parish monks boiled the yolks into a custard to make Pasteis de Belem. By the late 1830s, the flaky little tarts had become a Lisboan favorite, and today, pasteis de nata are the pastry of Portugal.
“A perfect tart is simply genius,” says New York City chef George Mendes. Mendes makes pasteis at his upscale Portuguese restaurant, Aldea, and featured them heavily at his more casual concept, Lupulo (which closed in December due to lease renewal complications). “You pick it up, squeeze it, and hear a little crunch,” he says of the details that make pasteis memorable. “It starts to flake a bit. And because the custard is just set, when you take a bite, it runs with yolk and sugar.”
Mauro Magalhães agrees with Mendes’s description of a perfect pasteis. The chef/owner of Natas and Bowls in Kearney, N.J. makes around 200 pasteis daily. “The custard can’t be too thick or eggy,” he warns. “It has to be baked at a very high temperature to toast the top, but not overcook. That’s the main thing to make a flaky little tart of sunshine.”
In their agreement of the perfect pasteis de nata, their similarities end.
Mendes grew up in Danbury, Conn., to parents who’d immigrated from Ferreirós do Dão (four hours north of Lisboa). “I didn’t fall in love with them as a child,” he says of the pastries sold in Portuguese bakeries, often after sitting out at room temperature for several days. “They weren’t the crispy version we make every morning people that have fallen in love with.”
Magalhães moved to New Jersey from Lisboa when he was nine, and as an adult, missed the pasteis of his Lisboan childhood. He had never worked in a professional kitchen, nor had family members with bakeries or restaurants, and no one had pasteis recipes to share. So he hopped on YouTube one day, and there found a pasteis education. “I tinkered to what I remembered,” he says of watching how-to videos and trying his hand while guessing at ingredients until he got back to the memory of the pasteis of his childhood. His first attempt yielded a liquidy custard. Not having the pastry skills to guide him towards adjusting ingredient ratios or technique, he added flour to thicken the custard, and it worked. Also by instinct, he steeped cinnamon sticks in the base rather than sprinkling ground cinnamon on top, and found it increased the flavor’s potency.
Friends and loved ones went wild. A week later, he took orders and made 12 dozen. Two months later, he made 70 dozen for holidays. To this day, Magalhães makes every batch by eye; he doesn’t have a set recipe, and says he can “smell the custard” to know if he has the right amount of everything.
That technique works for Magalhães, but Mendes could never teach the process to the chefs on his line.
Mendes, a CIA graduate, perfected his pasteis recipe while researching his cookbook, My Portugal. After exacting his egg and cream ratios, he fine-tuned oven temperature and heat distribution. “We’ve gotten down to a system where the volume has facilitated the actual technique,” he says. “They cook better in the mold when they’re closer together and the pan is full, and the given oven is distributing the heat to the custard as it’s cooking.”
Magalhães and Mendes have similarly different approaches to flavors.
When Mendes started to offer seasonal pasteis, he looked to “highlight and honor this classic with greenmarket fruits and berries,” like quince and strawberries. In one notorious application, he infused fresh summer corn into the custard, baked them off, then sprinkled the tops with freeze-dried corn powder.
Magalhães prefers comforting seasonal flavors like pumpkin spice in the fall and red velvet for Christmas, and uses spice blends and even cake mixes. He’s made deep-fried Oreos pasteis, and smeared Nutella on the bottom of the crust before filling them with custard. “I’m young, so I try new things,” he says. “I like to not break ground, but my mind is going, ‘What would happen if I added this to that?’”
What Magalhães and Mendes have in common is that both joke that avós (grandmothers) back home might beat down their doors with rolling pins if they saw what the chefs were doing.
Professionally-trained chefs might scoff at Magalhães’ technique; Portuguese home cooks might chuckle at Mendes’ use of the word “greenmarket” when discussing Portuguese cuisine. But anyone who’s tasted a fresh pasteis from either chef won’t care. They’ll just want another of the flaky, custardy, caramelized tarts. “I only eat the original,” Magalhães confesses. “Traditional ones get people coming back. They sell themselves.”