A pastel de nata, or pastel de Belem, is a Portuguese egg pastry that is common in areas with Portuguese populations. The use of the name pastel de Belem is often used for more local designations, where these custard cakes may carry the name pastel de nata when sold abroad. The plural of the word is pasteis; here, multiple items are called pasteis de nata or pasteis de Belem.
Food historians, and those familiar with the cultural significance of these pastries, claim that pasteis de nata were first made just prior to the 1800s by monks in a particular monastery in Lisbon. The place was called Belem, which is where the pastries get their name. They are sold in pastelarias or cake shops and panaderias or bakeries. They are also sometimes sold on the street around certain holidays.
Cooks make different versions of pasteis de nata in slightly different ways, achieving a variety of textures and tastes. The main ingredients for these little treats are mostly very common, including milk, cream, egg yolks, and flour. The common ingredients, along with spices and other extras, form pastry shells, and an egg yolk and cream mix is poured into the cakes to make the custard filling.
Pastel de nata is generally served as small circular pastries, though the exact shape can differ. Some cooks may use single small pans to form perfectly shaped pasteis de nata, while others may need to create these with a muffin pan or other larger container. In either case, the pastries are cooked until the top obtains a rich golden color, and often, the presentation will include browned, well cooked tops, where the coloration, a mix of yellow and brown, is part of the appeal for this food.
The idea of using a pastry shell to contain custard has become popular in many areas of world bakery cuisine. Some other bakeries may present these types of products under different names. For example, a custard tartlet has much in common with the pastel de nata, both in ingredients, cooking method, and shape and size. Some custard tartlets, though, are made in much larger sizes and topped with various items, such as fruit, while the pasteis de nata are of a standard size and lack additional toppings.