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David Gomes speaks about the dough process

Antonio Carmona e Costa

An epic exploration to the intricate art of pastel de nata

The origins of the pastel de nata can be traced back to centuries ago, says David Gomes, as we join Maria Nata's Technical Consultant,  on a journey through history and the intricate baking process.

In the annals of culinary history, a tantalising record emerges from the 17th century, a time when "pasteis de leite" or milk pasties made their debut in the cooking manual of Infanta D. Maria. Then, in the 19th century, nun's recipe records from the Odivelas Monastery whispered secrets of the delectable pastel de nata we know today. Though references can be found in various books and records, information about the intricate folding of the dough is scarce. Yet, this very process is what lends the pastry its unique characteristics.

The ingredients are the foundation upon which this culinary masterpiece is built, emphasises Gomes. Start by mixing a kilo of flour, 500 millilitres of filtered water, 14 grams of salt, and no more than 500 grams of fat. This should yield two kilos of puff pastry.

The choice of flour holds great significance. Avoid starch-laden varieties, for they produce a dough that is thick, hard, and devoid of elasticity. The optimum flour possesses a generous dose of gluten, reminiscent of bread flour, or even higher. Water, too, plays a crucial role. It should be filtered, so that the limescale doesn’t thicken and break the dough. Acidic waters can also harm the gluten chains.

The salt should ideally be unrefined sea salt. A few grams, can work wonders. It enhances the flavor of the puff pastry, encourages the fusion of water and flour, lending stability to the dough. Resting will transform the humble mixture into a pliable, mouldable creation. A cool resting place, like a fridge, can expedite this magical metamorphosis.

Now, let's turn our attention to the glorious fats. After butter, lard and margarine were also adopted as alternatives. Today, professionals favor specialised butters and margarines. Divided into portions, they become the layers that weave their way through the dough. Some bakeries choose a traditional two-layer approach, while others opt for three or four, each with its own nuances. The distribution of fat, the meticulous folding, the precision cuts to fit the moulds—these are the secrets that yield the crispiness and delicate thinness enthusiasts prize.

David Gomes points to some frequent mistakes. Working with a normal puff pastry dough stretched thin, haphazardly cut into round shapes, and moulded without finesse will often burst open at the corners, its bottom soaked in fat, its sides lackluster and plasticky. Or trying to roll and cutting it as if it were destined to be a pastel de nata will inevitably lead to a thick, spiraled bottom and the same pitfalls as before.

Last but not least, the baking process requires a blazing oven at temperatures ranging from 300 to 350 degrees Celsius. In a mere ten to fifteen minutes, freshly made pastries transform under the heat. But an unbalanced oven can deceive: too much heat from the top will not give the dough even time to flake and in the cooling process it will become fat and thick. If the temperature is too low, the cream will overcook.

To identify a good pastel de nata, David Gomes suggests observing it closely, for a telltale sign lies in the generous proportion of cream surrounded by a thin layer of pastry. Then turn it around and you should find a spiral, dancing gracefully from the centre of the dough to its very borders. This is the result of the expertly cut raw dough, a delicate strip bonded by fat, creating the exquisite flakiness that sets it apart from ordinary pastries. A marvel to behold, resembling a nest crafted by loving birds.

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