The time? Summer, 2003. The place? New York City. The local wisdom that shakes me by the shoulders to this day? “Stop looking up, it’s a dead giveaway you’re not from here.” Flash forward. Fall, 2018. Lisbon, Portugal. Man, do I want to gawk at the azulejos-adorned facades. The elaborately painted tiles have drifted in and out of favor since first imported from Spain in the 15th century (the elite on occasion deeming the decor tawdry), but today it’s hard to imagine an unembellished Lisbon. The buildings are blanketed with kaleidoscopic tiles, some strictly geometric—hearkening to the city’s Moorish history—some grouped to tell biblical narrative, some simple depictions of local flora and fauna.
With the NYC-dictum seared into my brain in the way that only words heard at age 13 from someone “cool” can be, I instinctively cast my eyes down any time my swooning became too conspicuous. Lisbon, however, was a step ahead of me, foiling any chance I had to appear “chill.” The entangled streets of Alfama, the oldest part of the city, are cobbled and captivating. The mosaiced city center coils like an illuminated manuscript, and the tessellated squares are always shining in a way that makes you wonder if it just rained. Underfoot as exquisite overhead, Lisbon is a visual triumph.
Harboring an extensive, ever-agitated Atlantic coastline, as well as an ever-agitated past with it’s eastern neighbor, Portugal’s most powerful alliance is with the sea. The seafood options are as abundant as they are ideal; each crab, lobster, clam, and jumbo shrimp is big, somehow more saturated in color than any you’ve seen before, boasting barely believable perfection. While 300 days of sun means a nearly year-round fishing season and fresh fish is always abound, the city’s most iconic fish is tinned. In just a single 24-hour stretch, I passed five free-standing, independent stores carrying a colorful array of tins filled with sardines, octopus, tuna, anchovy, and the locally ubiquitous bacalhao—cod—in salt water, olive oil, vinegar, tomato, lemon, or garlic sauces. An assortment of tins, paired with a crusty bread, makes for an excellent picnic.
And then, of course, there’s pasteis de nata: shiny, thick, rich custard, blackened and blistered from baking at a terrifyingly high temperature, in a flaky pastry crust. These palm-sized beauties are textural perfection and they are everywhere. Everywhere. A pastel on every corner. But no two are quite the same. Some custards are brightened with lemon, others warmed with cinnamon, sometimes the pastry shatters like croissant and other times it cracks like pie dough, and almost always, they’re served alongside powdered sugar and cinnamon shakers. Use them. One deliberate shake each.
A feast of things to look at, a feast of things to do, and of course, a feast of things to eat. That’s Lisbon. In the privacy of my AirBnB, unusually and excitingly shared with my partner this time, I let any and all attempts to keep up appearances fall by the wayside. Time after time, I’d step into the loft which overlooked the city—those beautiful buildings lining the hillsides, the Golden-Gate like bridge crossing the literally-right-there ocean, the mini Christ the Redeemer statue across the water—and exclaim, “wow!”
“What?” he’d query from below.
“Lisbon! Just… Lisbon!”
Pasteis de Nata (makes 12, serves 6-8)
For the custard
1/3 cup flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon vanilla extract or 1 vanilla bean, scraped
½ teaspoon cinnamon or 1 cinnamon stick (optional)
2/3 cup water
1 cup sugar
6 egg yolks
1. Whisk flour, salt, and milk in a large bowl.
2. In a small saucepan, heat heavy cream, vanilla, and cinnamon if you’re using it, until just beginning to bubble (keep an eye on it, it happens fast and will boil over if you look away for too long!). Set aside and let steep for 10 minutes.
3. In a small saucepan, boil water and sugar until it reaches 221 degrees.
4. Crack eggs into a small bowl—but one large enough that you can comfortably whisk in a small amount of liquid.
5. Whisk warm cream mixture into flour mixture and whisk until smooth.
6. Temper the eggs with the cream and flour mixture. Slowly whisk the cream into the eggs, about 1/3 a cup at a time, until the eggs are warmed (it should take no more than 1 cup of liquid to bring the eggs to temp), and then whisk the egg mixture back into the original cream & flour mixture until smooth.
7. In a slow steady stream, whisk the sugar syrup into the custard.
For the pastry (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)
1 ¼ cups flour
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 sticks salted butter, very cold
¼-½ cup ice water
1. Add flour, sugar, and salt to a large bowl. Dice cold butter into ½ inch cubes and toss in flour mixture. Working quickly, rub the butter into the flour, leaving some pieces big and chunky white flattening others thin. The uneven butter sizes will create a super flaky crust.
2. Add about half of your ice water and begin working the dough. You want to add only enough water to bring the dough together, so add more little by little if you need it. The dough should be craggy and look a bit dry, but come together into a non-sticky ball.
3. Shape the dough into a 1 inch disc, wrap in plastic, and chill for at least an hour. You can keep it in the fridge for up to a week.
4. When cool, generously flour a table top and roll out a portion of the dough until it’s ~1/8th of an inch thick. We’re going to be baking these hot and fast, so we want it thin. Roll the dough from the middle out, making quarter turns after each roll, and adding more flour as necessary.
Assembly & Baking
1. Preheat oven to 525 degrees.
2. Lightly grease your muffin tin.
3. Cut 4 inch circles from the dough, dropping them into the muffin tin and pressing lightly to ensure the dough is tucked into the corners and stretched up the sides of the tin—you want lots of room for custard! Beware of holes, which will cause the custard to leak out and burn. Char is good with pasteis, but it’s a controlled char.
4. If the dough has softened up significantly, pop into the freezer for a 3-5 minutes to stiffen, then fill almost all the way up with custard, leaving about 1/8th of an inch of dough showing.
5. Place on the bottom rack of the oven and bake for 8-9 minutes, give or take a minute on either end. Keep an eye on them. We’re looking for crisp pastry and browned & blistered custard that still jiggles in the middle. If the pastry is well-browned and the custard is still a bit too jiggly, allow to cool in the muffin tin. If the custard has just a single jiggle before coming back to a still surface, pop them out immediately.
6. Serve warm, sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar. And coffee. These beg to be paired with a big, warm, rich, bitter cup of coffee.