If you have been reading our articles, it’s no big news that we Portuguese have a sweet tooth. The moment you land in Portugal, still at the airport, you will spot many locals standing at the cafes’ counters drinking espresso and having something sugary, pastry like. This is very likely to be true no matter what time of day. Having a small coffee paired with a sugary pastry is how we roll it. Call it cake, sweet, dessert, pastry, they are all variations of our delicious sugary universe, with world round inspiration and a story with more than 500 years.
Just in case you’re wondering, another thing we love to do is to ramble about our History, specially all and every detail related to the Discoveries. Today we are going to share with you the origins of our conventual sweets. The discovery of Madeira Island (1419) and Brazil (1500), are very linked to our sweet tooth. These two destinations are one of the main reasons why we use so much sugar in our desserts and pastries – nice excuse, our dears!
Only then, we were able to replace humble portions of honey per generous amounts of the pure white thing. In the 15th and 16th centuries, there were no food trends like only eating natural sugars. There was simply the curiosity of using something new, delicious and exotic that would make cakes last longer. And be craved for even longer. Sugar is ingredient number one of our conventual sweets.
The second main ingredient is egg yolks. Plural. The reason is egg whites were commonly used to iron nun’s habits, and make them super nice and thick. Also, egg whites were used to bake communion wafers, the sacramental bread. Exactly, the round biscuits you eat when you go to the church. If you don’t go to church, that is okay too as you can still try all of these amazing delicacies that nuns and monks have kindly left us as legacy.
Oh, just before we tell you our favorites, don’t be surprised to find 20 egg yolks and 500 grams of white refined sugar on the recipes. Sweets should be sweet. So here’s our top 5, chosen from different regions, ingredients, textures and stories. Ready for a sugar overload?
Ovos Moles (Soft Eggs)
Aveiro’s soft eggs are loved all around Portugal. Made in different cute shapes, from boats to sea sells, fish to barrels, they are a tribute to this sweet fishermen village on the northern coast of Portugal. They are probably the best example of conventual treats: communion wafers filled with the sweetest and smoothest custard of egg yolks. To make it really nice and sweet, it needs to be cooked at a very precise temperature. No precision required to eat them, though.
Travesseiros de Sintra (Sintra’s Pillows)
Travesseiros, a sweet pastry made of almonds and egg cream, worth a trip to Sintra themselves. Travesseiro means pillow in Portuguese, as these beauts reminds us of a large and comfy pillow – we wonder who wants to sleep surrounded by sugar. They were first created at Casa Piriquita, a family-owned bakery founded in 1862, inspired by old recipe books. We are unsure who was the first clerical to bake them but we are very grateful for each and every ingredient that goes inside them. Even the secret one, that makes you have ‘just another bite’ till it’s over.
Pause, take a deep long breathe and have some bread, calmly. Laura, our lovely german baker and friend has opened Pão com calma a couple of years ago and she couldn’t be happier. If though baking and selling a speciality produce has a lot of energy and effort behind it, you are correct. That is also what makes it so great too. People, from all ages and backgrounds keep coming for more, one slice of sourdough after the other, sometimes even getting a naughty pretzel. You can read more about her on our last post here on ask-a-pro.
Pão de rala
Typical from the beautiful region of Alentejo, pão de rala which we humbly translate has sweet flatbread, is a conventual treat made by nuns and monks. It got his name due to its flat shape. The legend says that Dom Sebastão, the king, visited the Convent of Santa Helena do Calvário, in Évora, one day. It was such a poor convent he was only served ‘flatbread’, olives and water. The reality is, pão de rala is a delicacy from the that worths to be tried whilst in Portugal.
Pudim de Abade de Priscos (Abbot of Priscos pudding)
Pudim Abade de Priscos is nothing more than a Portuguese caramel and bacon pudding. Nothing more, you say? We explain. The abbot of the Priscos parish, Manuel Joaquim Machado Rebelo, was one of the greatest Portiguese cooks in the 19th century, known for preparing amazing feasts for the royal family. This pudding, apart from lots of eggs and sugar, has two key exquisite ingredients: bacon (toucinho) and port wine. The result is an impressive texture and taste, infused by cinnamon and citrus fruits. Fancy a bite?
Now that you are mouth-watering, where should you go to try these delicacies? Our tip, is to try them on their origin. However, if you are not travelling all around Portugal, we still have good news. Whilst in Lisbon, go to Pastelaria Alcoa, right in Chiado. There you can satisfy all your appetites in the shape of heavenly treats. There are surely worse sins.
Your Lisbon Cooking Academy Team