Of all the things we love about Lisbon, one small round pastry may be our biggest love of all: pastel de nata. This creamy custard tart is one of the city’s most iconic foods and is sold all around the city. During our time in Portugal we have already performed a thorough benchmark exercise to find out which pastelaria sells the best pastel de nata in Lisbon, and we may need an extra hole in our belts when we leave the city because we just can’t stop eating these heavenly pastries at every chance we get. Our slight obsession with pastel de nata led to a sense of worry when we thought about having to leave Portugal at some point. In The Netherlands, where we live, pastéis de nata are hard to find and if you can find them, they are rarely as fresh and tasty as the ones that are sold in Lisbon. The best pastel de nata is consumed straight from the oven, when it’s still warm and crisp. What if we could never have a freshly baked pastel de nata again!?
During our continuous hunt for the best pastel around Lisbon we found the answer to our desperation: we discovered that Pastelaria Batalha, one of Lisbon’s most famous bakeries, offers pastel de nata baking classes. In their workshop you learn how to bake the pastry yourself, and you learn from a master: owner João was born into a family of bakers and is an expert at producing the fluffy goodness that we love so much. Pastelaria Batalha is situated in the bustling center of Lisbon. It was founded in 1990, with two pastry shops opening outside the city before João opened the latest addition to the family business downtown. Their products are award-winning: among the prizes they collected are those for best bread of Portugal, first prize winner in the Traditional Portuguese Sweets contest for a number of their pastries, best bolo rei – a traditional Portuguese cake – in the country, and a multitude of other awards. Most significant for this story: their pastel de nata has achieved the third place in the national contest twice. We figured that owner João must be doing something right, and as we wanted to learn from the best we signed up for his workshop.
On the day of the workshop we make our way to the basement of the small pastry shop that will be our classroom for the coming two hours. While we shake hands with the rest of our group of pastel de nata students, João makes a grande entrée by offering us some of his award-winning pastries: almond cheesecake and bean tarts that are finger-licking good. That’s our kind of warming-up! We don our apron and hair-net, wash our hands and enter the small and warm room where João keeps his professional equipment and ovens. This is where the magic happens!
We crowd around the pastry chef in the small and warm kitchen as he passionately introduces us to Lisbon’s pride: “What makes a good pastel de nata? It has to be creamy, not too sweet, with flaky and slightly salted dough. What makes pastéis de nata so attractive is the combination of the soft and sweet custard filling and the crispy salty dough that gives the pastry its bite,” explains João. “A good pastel de nata does not even need cinnamon sprinkled on top, because all the good taste is already hidden inside.”
The chef is not at all afraid to share the secrets of his award-winning recipe as he is on a mission to make sure everyone in Lisbon (or the world?) gets to eat the real deal. Time to start baking with the pastel de nata guru.
First step in the process is a crucial one: the dough that is to form the ‘cup’ that holds the cream. A good pastel de nata has crispy, airy, flaky dough, much like puff pastry. Making it from scratch yourself takes some time and dedication. The trick is to create thin layers of flour-and-water-based dough alternating with butter or margarine – this is what produces the crispy and flaky quality of the pastry when it comes out of the oven. Besides dedication you’ll also need a decent counter top as the technique involves a ruthless slamming of the dough – all with love, of course. João shows us his elaborate technique for folding and rolling the dough, which he performs with some impressive professional kitchen equipment. The do-it-at-home technique will have the benefit of combining baking with a serious biceps workout with your rolling pin. Once the dough is layered and thin enough, it is put to rest in the fridge to prevent it from drying while we move on to step two: creating the custard cream.
We boil milk with lemon zest and cinnamon, add sugar and egg yolks and stir until the custard gets a creamy consistency. Sugar and spice and everything nice, things are starting to look good! In the meantime, João tells us stories about his life as a baker and about the history of his bakery. His parents even pop in to say hello – this is a family business after all.
The workshops proceeds to a next level when it is time to learn the special technique of covering the molds with the puff pastry – it is a critical stage because if you fail to do this properly you can kiss those flaky layers goodbye. This, we must admit, is not an easy thing to do and puts our patience to the test (we are not as fast as João who can fill 500 molds per hour with quick fingerwork!), but practice makes perfect: we are quite satisfied with our creations.
It is nice to be able to use João’s professional equipment. We won’t have those advantages at home, so probably making pastéis in our own kitchen is going to take a bit longer than the two hours of this workshop.
We are most surprised about the short baking time that is required: it only takes about 12 minutes for the tarts to be properly done and so we get ready for the best part of the whole workshop: tasting the fruit of our hard labour! We leave the kitchen and take our seats in the cafe area in anticipation while João takes orders on drinks. He brings out the pastéis. We see all that we have made, and we see that it is good!
And more importantly, when we take a bite of the warm, smooth, velvety piece of heaven that we created with our bare hands we know that it tastes good as well. Ah, how great it is to be a pastel de nata master baker! We can’t wait to try this at home and delight our family and friends, although it will still be tricky to see if we can come to the same awesome result without João’s guidance and equipment at hand. It’s a comforting thought that now at least we know how to try, and if we turn out to not really be the master chefs we now think we are, the real Portuguese pastéis de nata of Lisbon are only a plane flight away.
Create your own adventure! Enjoy a pastel de nata workshop with João in Pastelaria Batalha
In this two-hour workshop you will learn João’s recipe and techniques for making authentic Portuguese pastel de nata from scratch. João explains all the steps in the process and demonstrates how to do it. We found the class to be fun and interesting and it is great that you are able to try your own results immediately afterwards. João is a very friendly and funny guy who is patient with his students and explains the process in a very clear way.
The workshop takes place in the award-winning bakery of Pastelaria Batalha which can be found at Rua Horta Seca 1 in the center of Lisbon (next to Praça Luís de Camões in Chiado). The maximum number of participants is 10, so you’ll be in a small group and this enables you to watch the process and follow the instructions clearly. As a group you will work together on a batch of about 60 pastéis, under the close guidance of João.
Included are all the ingredients, the use of professional equipment, and a drink and three pastéis per person which you can gobble up immediately after baking them or take home with you. You’ll also receive a follow-up e-mail with the detailed recipe so you can give your best efforts at home in your own kitchen. Be aware that most of the workshop is like a class: João explains how to perform each step of the process and the participants watch his demonstration and partake in some of the steps. If you want to do more than watch and learn, you could also book a private workshop that allows you to be more hands-on because there will be more time to go through all the steps and really create the entire pastel de nata yourself.
The workshop takes place every day between 17:00 and 19:00 (on Sundays between 14:00 and 16:00). You can sign up here for classes in weekends or here for the pastel de nata workshop on weekdays. You can also visit Pastelaria Batalha’s offical website for more information or e-mail them if you want to schedule a workshop on request at a time of your choice and for groups up to 15 persons. We recommend to wear comfortable shoes as you’ll be standing for the largest part of the two hours, and light clothes (it gets very warm in the small bakery where the ovens are blasting). Enjoy!!