Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Tart with a heart...

Balancing anxiously on a wafer-like edge, I hurriedly pay the man. I rush you home and furtively disrobe you from your papery precinct. A tender vanilla perfume drifts languidly upwards, dissipating softly. You are beautiful. Hues of ingots, burnt caramel and sunlight meld resplendently on your surface. Gently placing you on a plate, running my finger contemplatively around your edges, I know I want to dismantle you slowly, meditatively. You are my new obsession. You are my Pastéis de Nata.

Or a Portuguese Custard tart to most people. I entirely apologise for my Mills & Boon introduction, but it seemed vaguely appropriate for such an object of desire. As I have come to this culinary phenomena relatively late in life, we are still very much in our honeymoon period together. Being obsessed with baking from the earliest of ages, I really can’t understand why I never came across them as I incessantly molested the pages of my mother’s cookery books or magazines. Perhaps it was because I was never a great lover of the bog-standard egg custard tart, that grainy, rubbery, sneezed-upon-with-nutmeg affair, found boxed in pairs in your average supermarket. It’s plausible that a fondness for these may lead you to seek higher planes of tartdom and you subsequently find the aforementioned golden child. Nor had I been blessed with any exciting bakeries in my hometown that would purvey anything more exotic than a French baton – growing up around Continental bakeries would perhaps lead you to a speedy discovery of Pastéis de Nata. This is all speculative though – I’m not entirely sure how or why I managed to miss out on these mouthfuls of perfection until now, given all the patisseries and bakeries I’ve been to, but I did.

I was in fact introduced to the tiny beauties a couple of months ago by my lovely boyfriend as we were standing at the counter in Sid’s on Lamb’s Conduit Street and I excitedly pointed at the most petite pie I’d ever seen. “It’s a Portuguese Custard Tart!” exclaimed Gareth, possibly slightly taken aback that I didn’t know that myself, “They’re delicious – have you never seen one before?”. I hadn’t, but it didn’t matter. Looking at it there, behind the glass like a puppy at the pound, I knew I’d love it. It looked nothing like its matt, bland English sibling. Rather than the Mr. Kipling, factory-uniform shortcrust, its filling was contained by the most delicate, crisp, sprung-apart layers of a puff-type pastry. The custard itself was glossy and burnished and suggested melting crème patisserie underneath, opposed to a thickly set interior which you could bounce a spoon off. But I didn’t buy it. I knew that it had to be saved as a treat or a comfort – there would be a moment when I’d know I needed it, and when I got it, it would solve everything (albeit briefly).

The time came when I was weak of body and spirit and happily, I administered my self-prescribed pastry. Devouring the little mite from the comfort of my bed, it lived up entirely to my expectations. The correct term for the shell is massa folhada and is Portugal’s version of puff pastry. One of the most perplexing aspects of the tart is the way the casing spirals at the bottom, and instead of the layers springing apart upwards, as is convention, it does so sideways. It’s no real mystery however when you give it some thought - to achieve this effect, the technique employed is to roll the thinned-out buttery pastry into a log shape (creating a spiral) and then slice it into thin rounds and press these, flat side down, into the tins. The spiral then puffs outwards. The sumptuous custard which is contained within it
is an eggy mixture stabilised with cornflour, like a crème patisserie, helping it to not curdle in the high temperature ovens. In large portions, you could potentially cripple your stomach in one sitting but the Portuguese Custard Tart’s grace is that it is the epitome of “small but perfectly formed”. Not only are they intriguing to behold, but they are divine to eat and just diminutive enough to feel sated but not saturated.

Delving deeper into the culinary history of these miniature wonders reveals a past as rich as its ingredients. Although eaten all over Portugal, one bakery claims its origins. Antiga Confeitaria de Belém is the place in question, using the same secret recipe employed by bakers 200 years previously around the nearby Jerónimo's Monastery. Well, clearly the tradesmen themselves weren’t that clandestine, selling the recipe during the 19th Century revolution, but the bakery now keeps it under wraps. Apparently their particular formula and method surpasses all others, and the result has been bestowed its own distinct name: Pastéis de Belém, locals beating their chests proudly upon its mention. Rumour has it that many residents claim to be able to pick out a Pastéis de Belém from dozens of other bakeries’ Pastéis de Nata in blind taste tests. Strong stuff. So, aside from their complicated past, what makes these tarts especially super-special? What else but that most elusive of all culinary practices: the secret ingredient.
I have yet to taste one of these mini kings of the pastry world, so much to my dismay, I can’t analyse what this elusive component could be. Apparently most individuals have actually given up on trying to discover it, such is the successful secrecy of Antiga Confeitaria de Belém. Some say it doesn’t even exist - it is just a myth used to add enigmatic intrigue.

For me, it seems impossible to better my feelings for Pastéis de Nata but I'm open to enlightenment, thus making my obsession a great excuse to for a sly sojourn to Portugal. And when I go, I shall be sure to give you an overly detailed description of my findings. What I do know for now though is that an attempt to home-make them may not quite result in anything as glorious as those supplied to Sid’s. As much as I would relish baking these, upsettingly, there are some dishes and desserts that are best left to the professionals' techniques and technology. General consensus states that you need a truly hot oven – one that emits a far fiercer heat than any domestic one can go to – in order to blast the pastry to make it really, really crispy. That rules me right out, given I can only get up to 250°C. However, if you do want to try it for yourself, the most plausible recipe I’ve found on the web (along with a terrific article which jovially peeks into the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém) is here http://www.latimes.com/features/printedition/food/la-fo-pasteis8sep08,1,6411433.story?page=1&ctrack=1&cset=true&coll=la-headlines-pe-food

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Oat my boat

I have always thought of plain muesli as the austere Aunt of cereals. Its stead, wholesome nature exists for your own good, cleansing and teaching your innards a good, long, slightly harsh lesson, after they’ve been extremely naughty. In the end, you feel all the better for it, but the whole experience may have not been that pleasurable. Granola on the other hand, is the cool, vibrantly fun, young Auntie that purports to be your best friend. Knowing you’ve been bad, she tries to get a similar message across but does so in a much, much sweeter way.

To be honest, like any two members of my family, I love them both equally – they simply have different methods of achieving an end result. And just like your more severe aunt, muesli has the capacity to be a softer, more exciting entity. Anyone who has had the pleasure of staying at a Swissôtel will have hopefully experienced their signature Swiss Bircher Muesli, a breakfast ambrosia if ever one existed. I had never come across Bircher until my stay there, but a moment’s light research revealed that this thickly harmonious blend of straightforward cereal, natural yoghurt and succulent fruit (and often a mischievous addition of cream) soaked to perfection, is a Swiss staple. It is near dessert-like in its eating and although sensationally good for you (sans cream), tastes anything but. Bircher requires some pre-mediation, as it must be assembled at least the night before in order for the cereal to swell and become fecund with the liquid components. Yes, I know it requires more volition than most people have before they go to bed, but I promise you it is worth it.

I did have a look for recipes for the dish, but in the end, I trusted my own culinary instincts. There are times when food is about chemistry and measuring, and others when it is wholly intuitive. When it comes to a dish like this, there seems little point being finicky with scales and measuring jugs. What you will need:

  • muesli base (you can get good, cheap ones from Holland & Barrett or other such health food stores)
  • oatbran
  • raisins
  • hazelnuts
  • a mixture of you favourite fresh fruit (such as blueberries, raspberries, braeburn apples)
  • natural yoghurt
  • greek yoghurt
  • whole milk (I like all of these to be organic, but it’s not necessary)
  • runny honey (I use New Zealand Clover Honey for its marshmallowy goopyness)

I tend to make this in individual breakfast bowls so a) you can tailor it to each person depending on what they want in it and b) it saves on washing up.
In each bowl, pour in as much muesli base as you would normally eat plain, sprinkle over a little oatbran and toss in as many raisins and hazelnuts as you see fit. Add your fruit, either whole if it’s small (in the case of berries), or chopped up (in the case of apples). On a small sidenote, if you are using apples, I recommend something sharp like a Braeburn opposed to a floury apple, because their acidity and texture hold their own within the mixture – a less crisp pomme falls apart quite unpleasantly and barely resembles an apple in flavour once soaked.

Cover the mixture with milk completely and add a generous splodge of both the yoghurts. I’ve put Greek yoghurt in place of the cream here, for the sake of your arteries, but if you are using the more naughty of the two, then dispense of it at this stage. Drizzle in a scant teaspoon of honey – more or less depending on the sweetness of your tooth and then fold the lot together. It may seem very thin and runny, but there is no reason to panic here – the cereal has an extraordinary capacity to absorb it all and in turn, make the remaining liquid rich and viscous. I take great pleasure in crushing some of the blueberries whilst I’m doing this too in order to make them burst, their violet juices marbling into the cereal. Cover with clingfilm and place dutifully in the fridge overnight. When you stumble blearily into the kitchen the next morning, what you should find is a sweet, opulent mini-feast waiting readily for you to savour with a large spoon. For those who are more decadent than I, a little lightly whipped cream could now be folded in, turning a chaste breakfast into a debauched dessert.


Sometimes, no matter how delicious it is, a soft, slushy breakfast is not appropriate. Yet the idea of something dripping with grease or yeastily puffed doesn’t seem quite right either. When you want cereal and you want crunch (and not the kind of crunch beginning with a ‘k’ that is so full of sugar you might as well have chocolate cake for breakfast) Granola is your best bet. With the risk of sounding like a Sunday School teacher, tucking into a bowl of it is akin to eating a mouthful of a sun-blessed field before harvest. It’s heartening and healthy but sweet and scrumptious. Buying it readymade is ridiculously expensive though, especially given that I can eat a whole bag in two days, so I set out to make my own. There were a multitude of Granola recipes out there, some which had more ingredients than I cared for (like the one in Lawson’s Feast) but the formula that I began to use, adapt and love is Merrilees Parker’s from an issue of Olive Magazine (September 2005). The recipe published here is pretty much hers in terms of quantities – I’ve just substituted the amount of walnuts for almonds and used oatbran instead of wheatbran. It also contains an (entirely optional but entirely elevating) addition of sunflower seeds.


  • 100g bran
  • 150g jumbo oats
  • 25g sesame seeds
  • 2 tbsp sunflower seeds
  • 100g almonds, roughly chopped into large pieces
  • 3 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 6 tbsp maple syrup
  • very generous handful of dried fruit (raisins, cherries, cranberries – used on their own or mixed)

Preheat your oven to 190°C (160°C if fan-assisted). On a non-stick tray, combine all the cereals and seeds, and then drizzle over the oil and the maple syrup. Stir until everything is coated evenly; shake the tray to uniformly distribute the mix over its surface and bake for 20 minutes or so. During the baking time, make sure you keep a close eye on the mixture to ensure it doesn’t catch and stir it a few times, spreading the granola from the centre of the tray to the outside and vice versa. This should guarantee it toasts evenly and doesn’t colour too much. (The first time I made it, it I didn’t realise I needed to do this, and ended up with a tray of cereal that was overly brown around the edges, tasting a little closer to burnt than I would have liked. You can see it pictured above in all its autumnal glory – my later efforts look a little more summery). The Granola is ready when it crisps-up and is palely tinged gold. If you drop a spoonful back on to an empty part of the tray it should make a bit of a racket compared to the soft sound the uncooked cereal produces. Remove from the oven and allow it to cool completely on the tray. Stir in the dried fruit, and store in an airtight container. Serve with milk or sprinkled into yoghurt.