The Day a Portuguese Pastry Chef Taught Me How to Make Pasteis de Nata
The Cold, Hard Facts:
Every single person who visits Portugal, at some point, will try the famous Pastel de Nata (Portuguese egg tart). This is a fact. Actually, it’s more difficult to escape this (unofficial) national pastry than to just surrender to it. They are absolutely everywhere…at the gas station, the airport, the train station, the kiosks in the praças, the malls, etc. Anywhere that coffee is served, pasteis de nata will not be far away.
I’ve tried every single shape, size and interpretation of this centuries-old culinary legacy. I’ve eaten so many, that I’ve become a bit of a pasteis de nata snob. Now when someone offers me one, I ask, “is it worth the calories?” If the answer is an eager “yes!”, I’ll grin, take a tiny bite just big enough to grab both custard and crust, and then say something kind before discretely putting it down.
So when I was invited to participate in a private egg tart workshop in a “real award-winning bakery with a multigenerational pastry chef”, I was both excited and a bit skeptical at first. I thought, worst case scenario, I’ll learn something new. Best case scenario, I’ll actually enjoy it….and the pastry. So, I called up my best friend in Lisbon, Ana, and invited her to come along.
The Sweet Introduction:
When we arrived, João Batalha, the owner of Pastelaria Batalha and our host for the evening, greeted us at the door with a huge smile. After the typical Portuguese introductions, he showed us around the quaint little café space adorned with cool artifacts that have survived over generations in his family. João told us the stories, while effortlessly switching back and forth between Portuguese, English, and Spanish, behind each piece.
Afterward we went downstairs to the basement where we found a smaller, more intimate café space. Both Ana and I were immediately drawn to the assortment of freshly-baked goodies waiting for us on a little table near the center of the room. We were halfway in our chairs already with our eyes glued to the pastries, when João invited us to take a seat. As we began to savor each delicacy, João shared with us his family’s prize-winning recipes and how they’ve faired in national and international baking contests.
He even shared with us a bit of his personal story. João took a huge leap of faith to leave a successful career in IT to follow his dream (and the family tradition) of becoming a pastry chef. As he tells it, “baking is in his blood and he knew he belonged in the kitchen”. Apparently João grew up in his family’s restaurant where he was making coffee at age seven (and a killer sangria before he was old enough to even taste it), but during an economic downturn, when their clients stopped eating out as much, the Batalha’s were forced to revamp their business model. They realized that baked goods were much cheaper to make and easier to sell than meals. Shortly thereafter, the first official Pastelaria Batalha was born 25 miles northwest of Lisbon.
After a few anecdotes, some questions, and many laughs, João also told us a bit about how he been modifying their traditional offerings to include more health-conscious products. In order to meet the needs and demands of his domestic and international clientele, João’s recently recreated reduced-sugar and vegan versions of old-fashioned Portuguese recipes.
After we finished tasting and socializing, it was finally time to suit up and get to work. But before we could leave the table, João, in true Portuguese fashion, popped open a bottle of a dry red wine from his personal collection. (This made me really excited because I actually prefer to sip on dry table wines with my desserts to cut the sweetness.) Now with huge grins from cheek to cheek, we toasted to everything: life, new friends, and our very soon-to-be-amazing-pasteis-de-nata.
Hands in the Dough:
Ana has much more knack for cooking and baking than I do, so I was happy to defer to her when João initially assigned our kitchen tasks. But after observing for a few minutes, I realized that it was all very manageable, so I decided to jump in, too.
Everything was really organized and João’s a natural teacher. He trained in the U.K., so he even knew when to step in to help me translate metric measurements to the imperial system when it was my turn to scale the ingredients.
Luckily for us, we also had the help of some top-notch professional kitchen aids which really cut down on the prep time (and muscle power). Our dough, for example, was uniformly mixed and kneaded within minutes.
This was my first time actually making pastry puff dough. I finally discovered the magic ingredient that makes everything so nice and flaky!
Once we had the correct amount of margarine, João taught us the special folding technique that evenly incorporates it into the dough.
After that, we took our neatly folded package to my favorite kitchen aid yet: the electric dough roller. Within seconds we had the perfect sheet of pâte feuilletée that even the best Parisian patissiers would envy.
(Ana and I were in awe at how you can actually see the white and yellow layers.)
Rolling the pastry puff dough extra tightly was the only part that we gladly yielded to João. We all knew that one misstep in this part of the process could seriously set us back so Ana and I happily observed.
Another crucial part was knowing exactly how much product to cut for each individual egg tart mold.
Covering the entire mold with the pastry puff dough was probably the most challenging part for me. Ana, of course, got it on the first try. Once they both realized that I was struggling a bit, they jumped in to help. (Obrigada!)
Then it was time to move on to the sweetest part of the process: the filling. Since we had to cook the mixture on really high heat, each of us took turns stirring so it wouldn’t burn. (I wonder if there’s a kitchen aid for this, too.)
Unbeknownst to João, Ana and I decided to perform our own quality-control checks to make sure that everything was ok.
Once our filling was ready, we carefully squeezed it into the egg tart molds then placed the tray in the oven. And…
about 20 minutes later, we had warm, flaky, ultra-elegant pasteis de nata and three very happy people to devour them. And for the first time ever, I ate every last bite…of more than just one!
Muito obrigada to Chef João Batalha and his team for making this possible. Abraços to my favorite Lisbon-based photographer, Paulo Petronilho, for capturing every second of the fun. Beijinhos to my friend Ana Nogueira for making the experience even more entertaining! You can learn more about the Pasteis de Nata Workshop here.
Sheree M. Mitchell has traveled to 40 countries, lived on three continents and speaks English, Spanish, Portuguese and some Italian. In 2014, Sheree gave up a comfortable life and career in Miami to embark on an ambitious 14-month, five continent transformational solo sojourn around the world. Today she oversees Immersa Global and IG Scholar, two boutique firms that specialize in designing unique immersion experiences abroad for discerning travelers and students. Sheree regularly speaks at the New York Times Travel Show and serves as a tourism product development and marketing consultant for regional and national organizations. Connect with Sheree and Immersa Global on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @immersaglobal