Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Portuguese egg tarts and why I love them

I don't exactly know when I tasted my first pastels de nata. I do know that I have since brought their delightful sweet flakiness to as many people as I can. Coffee dates with friends, potluck contributions to work meetings, most recently one to my grandfather who's still stuck in the hospital. Man oh man, did that make his day... I've never seen anybody eat of of these so fast...

For a long time I only ever had these tarts from Italian bakeries and cafes. Kind of funny, no? Nowhere near Italy and with a completely different food history, Portugal has it's own food thing going on - flame grilled chicken sandwiches, fresh seafood and egg dishes, and Port wine to name a few off the top of my head.

I think it has something to do with Portuguese bread. Ever the Italophile, my dad still swears that bread from the Portuguese bakery is the best. He's done his homework to discover that many of the Italian cafes and trattorias around town source their buns from Portuguese bakeries. In any case, I imagine this is how the Portuguese egg tart made its way into the display cases of Tra Amici Cafe and the Italian Centre Shop. The tarts pictured above, however, come from the Handy Bakery on 118th Ave and 87th Street. The ladies at the counter there are very friendly and the prices are exceedingly reasonable.

The essence of the tart is the creamy, sweet egg custard. Not jiggly or runny, it is a dreamy consistency. It doesn't even really taste like egg. But it's not just pure saccharine either. The tarts were first introduced by nuns at the Monastery of Belem, near Lisbon, in the early 1800's. Egg yolks were used in baking because the egg whites were needed for things like starching nun's habits. (Taken from this article in the Christian Science Monitor, it's fascinating!)

Since then, this delectable confection has become the signature pastry of Portugal. J and I were recently in Montreal visiting family and we stayed in the Little Portugal part of the city. The Plateau is an area full of international flavours - but undoubtedly, the smell of flam grilled chickens from all the sandwich shops is the dominant aroma, at least in my nostrils.

I awoke one morning to find that J had already been up and out, discovering the neighbourhood. He had returned with hot coffee and a little white box that I eagerly opened. Inside were four pasteis de nata, freshly baked. Not only is the custard filling velvety and beautiful yellow, but the pastry exterior is as once flaky and chewy. I don't know how, and frankly it blows my mind every time, as I am terrible at pastry.
You know how I know it will work with J and me? The man knows the way to my heart, obviously...

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