Natillas is a rich Spanish custard with vanilla and cinnamon. Delicious on its own, or with a sprinkle of cinnamon on top, it also makes a flavorful filling for almond flavored tart pastry. Top it with thin and crispy coconut lace cookies, and you have a combination of favorite dessert textures and flavors in one.
Unlike crema catalana or crème brûlée, natillas does not include the thin layer of caramelized sugar that breaks into shards when tapped with the spoon. Arguably the golden layer is the best part of these European desserts. Instead of torched sugar, I top my natillas tart with cookie crisps that have a similar color and taste, but with the addition of toasted coconut.
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon confectioners sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons chilled butter
¼ cup finely ground almonds
1 egg yolk
½ teaspoon almond extract
¼ teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons ice water
For the tart pastry, combine flour, sugar, almonds and salt in a food processor. Cut butter into small pieces and pulse into the flour mixture until it resembles breadcrumbs. Whisk the egg yolk with extracts and add to the flour mixture. Pulse to combine. Use about 2 tablespoons ice water as you continue pulsing the dough until it comes together. Turn onto a floured surface, knead gently to form dough, and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
After the dough has chilled, roll it out to fit a 9 inch tart pan with removable bottom. Use a fork to evenly prick the base of the tart. Place the lined tart pan in the refrigerator for 30 minutes and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line the with parchment paper and baking beans or pie weights. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove the parchment paper and weights and return to the oven for about 8-10 minutes, or until golden and dry to the touch. Cool on a wire rack.
2 ½ cups milk
2 cinnamon sticks
Large strips of zest from ½ lemon
⅛ teaspoon salt
4 egg yolks
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
¾ teaspoon vanilla extract
When you cook the custard, be sure to avoid scorching the mixture during each of the steps, but keep in mind that a certain amount of heat is required for the natillas to thicken and reach the proper consistency. Constant whisking is essential.
For the natillas, heat the milk, cinnamon, lemon zest, and salt in a medium saucepan, whisking constantly, until it comes almost to a boil and remove from the heat. Whisk the eggs and sugar in a bowl until they are pale, then add the cornstarch and whisk again. Add 1 cup of the warm milk slowly to the egg mixture slowly, making sure to whisk constantly. Pour the egg mixture into the milk that remains in the saucepan and return to moderate heat (still whisking!).
Once you see that bubbles are forming, cook for an additional minute over moderate heat, then reduce heat to moderate-low and continue cooking until it reaches a thick consistency. Pour the custard into a bowl, removing cinnamon and lemon zest, and allow to cool slightly, stirring frequently.
At this point you can pour the natillas into the cooled tart crust, cover, and chill – or, as I prefer, you can allow the natillas to chill completely and then add it to the crust. I find that this keeps the surface of the tart crust crisper. Whichever way you prefer, remember that pressing parchment paper or plastic directly onto the surface of the custard will prevent skin from forming.
Top with coconut lace cookies right before serving if you desire a crispy texture on top. (I’ll share my recipe for these soon!). For a more traditional natillas topping, sprinkle with cinnamon.