On the fringes of Lisbon, in the picturesque section of Belém, are two shrines that every year draw hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. The more imposing is the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, the Manueline-style monastery that contains the tombs of venerated kings and queens, Vasco da Gama and the national poet, Luís de Camões.
Nearby is a pastry shop called the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, home to what is arguably the Holy Grail of Portuguese sweets: pastéis de Belém, the recipe for which has been a secret for centuries. Having been raised in a Portuguese-Catholic family, I looked at the monastery, then at the confeitaria, and joined my fellow sinners in the happier-looking line in front of the shop.
This adoration of the pastéis is easy to understand after you've taken a bite. The confection's shell is made from massa folhada, Portugal's equivalent to France's puff pastry. It spirals up, creating a nest of hundreds of crisp layers. Inside is a luscious, warm custard. Rarely do a dozen make it home intact.
The proximity of the monastery to the bakery is no accident. Until the 19th century, monasteries were Portugal's research, trade, horticultural and confectionary epicenters, around which rose small businesses. Originally, lay bakers made the pastéis behind the Jerónimos walls and sold them to the public. A revolution in the early 1800s shuttered the monasteries, which gave Domingo Rafael Alves, an enterprising Portuguese from Brazil, the opportunity to buy the recipe from a desperate out-of-work baker. In 1837, production of the pastéis resumed in Alves' nearby sundries shop, and soon he scuttled the rest of his inventory to specialize in them.
"It's still the same recipe," said Pedro Clarinha, current owner of the confeitaria and a descendant of Alves. "Only three people in the world know it."
I was bucking to become the fourth.
Security is tight at Antigua Confeitaria. Master bakers make the custard and dough in a locked room, and not even the women who sit a few feet away tucking spirals of dough into small, flared baking tins know what goes on in that room. As I circled through the kitchen taking pages of mental notes, I backed up to the barred door and gently rattled it.
"Nice try," said Maria Dulce Roque, the confeitaria's publicist.
It's partly this mystery that keeps the confeitaria's dining rooms filled. Scattered among the prim families who visit every Sunday at teatime and the dusty workers who huddle together knocking back piles of pastéis and demitasses of strong Portuguese coffee at lunch are the sleuths. Primarily tourists, these pastéis lovers are determined to crack the ancient code, an activity Lisboetas gave up long ago. With pens poised, they bite off a tiny piece, confer and write. And so it goes, picking, nibbling, conferring and writing — yet according to Roque there have been no dead ringers as a result.
Still, Clarinha's family registered the name in 1911 to assure that only pastries that come out their ovens can be called pastéis de Belém. Generic, and often anemic, imitations can be had elsewhere under the name pastéis de nata, custard pastries.
Although he's cagey when it comes to the recipe, Clarinha did let a few preparation secrets slip. "We rest the custard and dough in the refrigerator overnight, and we bake the pastéis for 30 minutes at 400 degrees," he told me. Then almost as an afterthought he added, "Celsius." My eyes widened. That's about 750 degrees Fahrenheit! Granted, a very hot oven is required to create the characteristic mottled brown top, but that's incinerator hot.
Back home I called Shirley Corriher, the doyenne of food science and author of the book "Cookwise," to find out if something not much bigger than a Dunkin' Donuts Munchkin could survive that heat. "Maybe that's how they keep the secret recipe secret," she said. It is a foolproof strategy: Discourage nosy writers and curious cooks from ever attempting to duplicate the pastries by throwing them off the scent with impossibly high temperatures.
Stymied in Belém, I turned to Alfama, the upscale Portuguese restaurant in New York's West Village. There, chef Francisco Rosa, who studied at the Escola de Hotelaria e Turismo de Coimbra north of Lisbon, makes what many Portuguese expats maintain is the next best thing to the original.
"A lot of customers prefer ours," Rosa told me as we rolled out huge sheets of dough. Unlike Clarinha, who has a dynasty to protect, Rosa was happy to share his take on the popular pastry. "They say they even taste great the next day." I tried to test his hypothesis, but the longest I could hold out was 30 minutes — proof enough for me that his pastéis are fraternal twins of the Belém version.
Although of slight build and modest height, Rosa turned out 200 perfect pastéis in just under an hour. "Do you think you can do it?" he asked, moving on to prepping sardines.
"Of course," I lied, "but just in case, I better take a dozen for research."
It took a second trip to Alfama, three phone calls and seven attempts at home before I could adapt Rosa's adaptation of the enigmatic pastéis.
To celebrate, I gathered a few friends, some of whom had been to Belém. I served the pastéis slightly warm, sprinkled with a blanket of powdered sugar and a tap of cinnamon, just as they do at the confeitaria.
The consensus was six thumbs up. However, I knew that until I could wiggle my way into that secret room and answer the burning question of the 750-degree ovens, my quest would continue.
Pastéis de nata (custard pastries)
Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes plus chilling time
Servings: Makes about 40 pastries.
Note: Adapted from a recipe by chef Francisco Rosa of Alfama in New York City. The secrets to a crispy, flaky pastry: Make sure that the butter is evenly layered, that all excess flour is removed and that the dough is rolled very thin and folded neatly. You will need a thermometer to accurately gauge the custard. These are best eaten warm the same day they're made.
2 cups minus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
3/4 cup plus two tablespoons ater
2 sticks unsalted butter, cold, worked until it is soft and spreadable
1. In a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, mix the flour, salt and water until a soft, pillowy dough forms that cleans the side of the bowl, about 30 seconds.
2. Generously flour a large wooden board and pat the dough into a 6-inch square using a pastry scraper as a guide. Flour the dough, cover with plastic wrap and let it rest for 15 minutes.
3. Roll the dough into an 18-inch square. As you work, use the scraper to lift the dough to make sure the underside isn't sticking.
4. Brush excess flour off the top, trim any uneven edges, and using a small offset spatula, dot and then spread the left two-thirds of the dough with a little less than one-third of the butter to within 1 inch of the edge.
5. Neatly fold over the unbuttered right third of the dough (using the pastry scraper to loosen it if it sticks), brush off any excess flour, then fold over the left third. Starting from the top, pat down the packet with your hand to release air bubbles, then pinch the edges closed. Brush off any excess flour.
6. Turn the dough packet 90 degrees to the left so the fold is facing you. Lift the packet and flour the work surface. Roll out to an 18-inch square, then dot and spread evenly with one-third of the butter, and fold the dough as in steps 4 and 5.
7. For the last rolling, turn the packet 90 degrees to the left and roll out the dough to an 18-by-21-inch rectangle, with the shorter side facing you. Spread the remaining butter over the entire surface.
8. Using the spatula as an aid, lift the edge closest to you and roll the dough away from you into a tight log, brushing the excess flour from the underside as you go. Trim the ends and cut the log in half. Wrap each piece in plastic wrap and chill for
2 hours or preferably overnight.
Custard and assembly 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups milk, divided
1 1/3 cups sugar
1 cinnamon stick
2/3 cup water
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
6 egg yolks, whisked
1. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour and one-fourth cup of the milk until smooth. Set aside.
2. Bring the sugar, cinnamon and water to a boil in a small saucepan and cook until an instant-read thermometer registers 220°F. Do not stir.
3. Meanwhile, in another small saucepan, scald the remaining 1 cup milk. Whisk the hot milk into the flour mixture.
4. Pour the sugar syrup in a thin stream into the hot milk and flour mixture, whisking briskly. Add the vanilla and stir for a minute until very warm but not hot. Whisk in the yolks, strain the mixture into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set side. (Makes two-thirds cup custard.)
5. Heat the oven to 550 degrees. Remove a pastry log from the refrigerator and roll it out on a lightly floured surface until it's about an inch in diameter and 16 inches long. Cut it into scant three-fourths-inch pieces. Place a piece cut side down in each well of a nonstick 24-cup mini-muffin pan (2- by 5/8 -inch size). Allow the dough pieces to soften several minutes until pliable.
6. Have a small cup of water nearby. Dip your thumbs into the water, then straight down into the middle of the dough spiral. Flatten it against the bottom of the cup to a thickness of about one-eighth inch, then smooth the dough up the sides and create a raised lip about one-eighth inch above the pan. The pastry sides should be thinner than the bottom.
7. Fill each cup three-fourths full with the slightly warm custard. Bake until the edges of the dough are frilled and brown, about 8 to 9 minutes.
8. Remove from the oven and allow the pastéis to cool a few minutes in the pan, then transfer to a rack and cool until just warm. Sprinkle generously with powdered sugar, then cinnamon and serve. Repeat with the remaining pastry and custard. If you prefer, the components can be refrigerated up to three days. The pastry can be frozen up to three months.
Each pastry: 103 calories; 1 gram protein; 12 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 6 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 45 mg. cholesterol; 20 mg. sodium.