It is good to get out of town every once in a while, to travel a little. We had a couple of errands to run in the big city, so decided to make a weekend adventure of it. Luke the wonder dog was ecstatic to spend the weekend at the spa with his pals, and we were equally thrilled at the prospect of a couple of meals that someone else had cooked. Also, as we are often reminded by those who know us well, we were eager to poke around a few grocery stores. I planned to sneak in a visit to an art supply store. And we all hopped in the car, eager for adventure.
Did you know that some Staples stores offer TSA PreCheck services? (This is not a paid advertorial – we do not live near a large airport or city where the TSA has offices, and I was taking advantage of Saturday hours at this particular Staples location. Check before you go.) Now that we seem to have gotten out of the COVID woods we are talking about traveling again, and I do not have TSA clearance. We arrived too early for my appointment, so we had to fill an hour by eating lunch, one of our many un-monetizable skills. We were in an unfamiliar, un-touristy part of town, surrounded by colorless strip malls, railroad sidings and fast food joints.
One of our dream TSA travel locations is sunny Portugal. A high school friend of mine has relocated to Porto, and I eagerly scan his Instagram posts of the art he sees, the unusual signs and windows, the sunshine on cobblestones, and the new foods he is eating. Instagram can make you nostalgic for places you have never even seen. I am ready, like George Bailey, to shake the dust of this tiny town off my feet and head to exotic climes.
We thought it was a happy coincidence that we passed a modest restaurant in a storefront in a gray mall (admittedly, it was a rainy day) called Little Portugal. Inside we were greeted by a disarmingly cheerful server, who seated us, distributed menus and bustled off to attend to the other customers. Mr. Sanders ordered Garlic Shrimp – Camarao Guilho. I asked for a chicken sandwich. And fries. Our server suggested adding a couple of custard tarts. We hesitated. She persuaded. And life was transformed.
Our food arrived. The shrimp was savory and aromatic with unstinting garlic. The chicken was hot and crispy, and much too much for one person. The hand-cut fries were superb. But the Portuguese custard tarts were amazing. I was expecting a mass-produced, tiny, chilled, whipped cream-topped custard in a graham cracker crust. I was so wrong. These were homely, warm and delicate, hand-made creations, with a flaky crust and a dusting of cinnamon-y sugar. I was only going to have one bite. Maybe a second, just to analyze the ingredients. You might guess what eventually happened. We fell on those tarts like wolves who had not just eaten a massive lunch. Still licking my fingers, as one does, I Googled “Portuguese custard tarts.” And discovered that Trader Joe’s, another of our planned weekend stops, sells their own version of the tarts. Seemingly, this was going to be a weekend full of happy coincidences.
It was a gloomy day, rainy and cold with a low, gray sky. The only cheerful notes we had seen from our table looking through the plate glass window at the vast parking lot had been a couple of little girls wearing slickers, twirling their tiny pink umbrellas, who were among the steady parade of regular customers into Little Portugal. They were happy, like us, to crowd in, and be warmly greeted and fed, and enjoy unexpected sweetness on a rainy day.
After the TSA, and a dash through the art supply store for a bottle of gamboge paint, we hit the grocery store. This Trader Joe’s (another non-advertorial) was filled with an abundance of fluffy hydrangeas and vats of olive oil, but sadly, was not stocked with clever TJ’s packages of Portuguese cream tarts. They were on order, but had yet to arrive. And now, finally, we come to the cooking part of Food Friday: baking the sweet tarts at home. Who needs the TSA, or even Instagram to enjoy Portugal? Let’s bake!
Our gas oven only goes to 525º F, so we couldn’t get the lovely blackened tops that you’ll find at a Portuguese confeitaria, but that is just the impetus we need to go traveling.
Here is a short history of the Pasteis de Nata: https://spanishsabores.com/pasteis-de-nata-story-behind-classic-portuguese-pastries/
And here is a recipe that suggests using store-bought puff pastry. Shhh. Everyone will still enjoy it: https://spanishsabores.com/pasteis-de-nata-recipe/
Our friends at Food52 suggest dusting the finished custard tarts with cinnamon or chocolate. I do not know how authentic the chocolate is, but I think it means that I need to get to Portugal soon to do some grueling field work. I’ve got to wait for the TSA to check my fingerprints. In the meantime, we’ve got delicious options: https://food52.com/recipes/84592-pasteis-de-nata-mandy-lee-recipe
“The custard should be firm but not immobile; when you press it with your fingers, it should have a little wobble still within. Soft, warm and voluptuous – like an 18th century courtesan’s inner thigh.”
― Nigella Lawson
Pasteis de Nata: Custard Tarts