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“For me, it’s a grandma’s dish,” says Miguel Peres, without hesitation, when asked about his relationship with pastéis de massa tenra, a Lisbon specialty of deep-fried, palm-sized pastries filled with meat. “She would make a lot of them and freeze them, so we would always have them around. When there was a birthday or party, we would pull them out and fry them. We would take them to the beach in boxes. As kids, we would eat them with carrot rice and salad, using the pastries to scoop the rice.”

Miguel is the chef-owner of Pigmeu, a pork-focused, head-to-tail restaurant in Lisbon, where pastéis de massa tenra can be found on the menu. He’s made some subtle updates to his grandma’s recipe, but the fundamentals remain intact: a thin, golden, pockmarked, crumbly pastry concealing a fine, tender, salty, savory pork filling.

Although it’s a dish with strong links to Lisbon, according to Miguel, these days, one has to work hard to find it.

“Nowadays, I don’t see pastéis de massa tenra so much,” he explains. “It’s not done in an industrial way, and nowadays, most pastry shops get their stuff from industrial bakeries. I think it’s kind of disappearing.”

This could be because of the care required in making the dish, particularly its pastry exterior. Pastéis de massa tenra – the name translates as “tender dough pastries” – revolve around a dough that packs a lot of fat, in this case lard and olive oil. Work that mixture too much, and you lose those pockets of fat that, when fried, provide the pastry with an American pie crust-like flake and crumble.

“You should taste the fat in the dough,” says Miguel.

Miguel has done little to alter this crucial element of the dish, but he’s taken the filling in a direction his grandmother might not recognize. Instead of the standard pork off-cuts, he uses pork hearts, seared then braised for hours in beer, rather than the more traditional white wine. And finally, he serves the pastries with a tiny dish of tart, crunchy, spicy kimchi.

“We serve ours with fermented cabbage,” says Miguel. “The hearts are intense, so it’s nice to have something sour on the side, to complement it.”

The result is a version that retains its fundamental elements but with a couple tweaks that make it, well, even tastier. We’d like to think that his grandmother would be proud.

Recipe: Pastéis de Massa Tenra, Portuguese hand pies

This recipe is roughly based on the version served at Pigmeu, although because not everyone has access to pig hearts, we’ve gone with the more common pork shoulder.

If, after cutting the dough and making the pastries, you happen to have leftover filling, you can fold the pastry “scraps” into a new ball of dough and make a few more pastries, but working the dough this much will spread those pockets of fat, rendering the final product less flaky and crumbly.

Miguel Peres serves his pastéis de massa tenra with a dish of house-made fermented cabbage. You can serve yours plain, as a snack, as is the standard in Lisbon, or emulating Peres’s childhood meal, paired with arroz de cenoura, Portuguese carrot rice, and a green salad.

Makes 20 to 24 pastries

For the filling

2 teaspoons olive oil
250g pork shoulder, cubed
½ small onion (around 50g), peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 small carrot (around 40g), peeled and diced
2 teaspoons flour
150ml beer
20g segment of Portuguese chouriço, casing removed, diced
1 teaspoon vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
a few grinds of pepper

For the dough

550g flour
50g lard, melted
10g olive oil
10g salt
300g hot water

For frying

lard or vegetable oil or a combination of both

Several days in advance, if desired, prepare the filling: In a medium saucepan, heat half of the olive oil over high heat. Sear the pork, remove and set aside. Reduce heat to medium, add the remaining olive oil. When shimmering, add the onions, and sauté until transparent, around 2 minutes. Add the garlic and carrots, and sauté until the carrots are tender, around 2 minutes. Add the flour, stirring to combine and “toast” lightly, around 1 minute. Add the reserved pork and beer. Close the lid and allow the mixture to simmer until the pork is tender, around 1½ hours.

Remove from heat and allow to cool. Using an immersion blender, or in a blender or food processor, process the pork mixture, chouriço, vinegar, salt and pepper to the consistency of slightly coarse pâté. Remove to a sealed container and keep in the refrigerator until making the pastries.

Several days in advance, if desired, prepare the dough: In a large bowl, combine the flour, lard, olive oil and salt. Use a large spoon to mix the ingredients. Add the hot water and, using your hands, shape the dough into a rough ball. Cover a surface with a sprinkling of flour, and shift the dough to this surface. Fold the dough on itself once or twice, sprinkling with additional flour if needed to prevent your hands from sticking, until it’s no longer too sticky to work with, and you have a relatively smooth ball (the idea here is not to knead the dough, but rather to ensure that the ingredients are combined and that it’s not too sticky to handle). Return the dough to the bowl, cover with a damp towel and leave to rest for 1 hour.

Remove half of the dough, and place it on a lightly floured surface. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough in one layer, working to get it as thin as possible. Using a round pastry cutter 10cm in diameter, cut as many circles as possible, discarding the remaining pastry scraps.

Add 1½ to 2 teaspoons of the reserved filling to the center of each circle. Using a bit of water, moisten half of the edge of each circle and fold the dough around the filling, creating a half moon shape, pressing with your fingers to ensure that the filling is sealed. Using a fork, create indentations on one side of the pastry. Remove the pastry to a tray lightly dusted with flour. Repeat with the remaining ingredients; this should yield between 20 and 24 pastries, depending on how thin you were able to get your dough. If frying same-day, proceed to the next step. Otherwise, layer the pastries on sheets of waxed paper, wrap in plastic wrap and put in the freezer.

On the day of serving, fry the pastries: Heat lard or oil to 170C. Add three or four pastries (if using frozen, there’s no need to defrost them) to the oil and deep-fry, flipping occasionally and basting with oil, working to maintain the oil at around 160C to 170C, until golden and crispy, around 5 minutes. Remove to a paper towel to drain excess oil. Remove to a serving dish and serve hot.

Austin BushAustin Bush

Published on October 13, 2022

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