I’m back home for the summer, a bit sad to be missing all the monsoon drama in Delhi but delighted to be spending a few weeks eating my way around the UK.

I started in London but it felt much more Mediterranean—for a start, the sun was (unusually) shining! Also, I was staying in a Portuguese neighbourhood where one evening friends took me to a top-secret underground pop-up dinner in the basement of a local store. Surrounded by boxes of Porto and bacalhau, we sat at Formica tables and wolfed down simple but spectacular grilled fish and tender kebabs on skewers dangling from the ceiling.

The next day we went to a nearby café and devoured a plate of one of Portugal’s greatest culinary achievements, Pastéis de Nata, or egg tarts. These delicious little tarts resemble a cinnamon-laced crème brulée wrapped in a crumbly little nest of flaky pastry and are eaten all over Portugal and anywhere Portuguese people have settled, like Macau and Brazil (although strangely, I’ve not yet come across them in Goa).

Pastéis de Nata date back to before the 18th century and are thought to have been invented at the Jeronimos Monastery in the Confeitaria de Belém area of Lisbon (they’re sometimes called Pastéis de Belém). At that time monasteries used huge quantities of egg white as a starching agent for the nuns’ and monks’ habits, and to clarify local wines like Porto. As a result, there were enormous quantities of leftover egg yolks and the Pastéis de Nata were devised as a way of using them up. When the monasteries were closed down, production of the Pastéis continued at the nearby Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, where over 10,000 tarts are now made every day.

The Pastéis de Nata is one of the world’s great treats—it’s very difficult to limit yourself to one. They’re also surprisingly easy to make at home. It’s hard to replicate the dark brown caramelization of the originals without a commercial oven but the taste and texture is very similar. The tarts are at their addictive best when they’ve cooled down slightly but are still warm.

Pastéis de Nata

Makes 12

Ingredients

4 egg yolks

125g caster sugar

2 tbsp cornflour

250ml cream

150ml milk

1 tsp vanilla essence

300g ready-made puff pastry

Cinnamon powder

Method

You will need a 12-hole muffin tray, well greased. Mix together the egg yolks, caster sugar and cornflour in a bowl. Put the cream and milk into a pan and gently bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and pour into the egg mixture, whisk well until smooth, then put the mixture back into the pan.

Over a gentle heat, bring to the boil, stirring constantly, and let the custard bubble softly for 1-2 minutes. Then pour the custard into a bowl, whisk in the vanilla essence, cover with cling film to stop a skin forming, and leave to cool. You can then refrigerate the custard until ready to make the tarts—at the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, they chill both the custard and the pastry overnight.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Cut the pastry into two and roll out each to 25x18cm. Starting at the shorter end, roll up each piece of pastry like a Swiss roll—doing this adds many more flaky layers to the pastry cases. Cut each roll into 3cm slices. Roll each slice into 10cm discs, then press these into the muffin tray holes. Put two tablespoons of the custard into each pastry case, dust the tops with a little cinnamon, then bake for about 25 minutes until the pastry is well browned and the top of the custard has developed a few caramelized spots. Leave to cool for 10 minutes or so before eating.

Pamela Timms is a Delhi-based journalist and food writer. She blogs at Eatanddust.com.

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