Portuguese sweets are divine, which may be because they originated in convents.
Back in the 16th century, the country’s Roman Catholic nuns drew on a heritage of Islamic confectionery and an abundance of egg yolks to create unique, delectable pastries. The convents were dissolved early in the 19th century, but the pastries continue to be made, often from the same recipes, and attributed to those long-departed nuns. Today, the pastries are served around the world, from Montreal to Mozambique to Macao, but nowhere are they better than in Portugal.
The pastries are still known as doces conventuais in Portuguese; convent sweets in English. Most consist of a flaky crust and a rich eggy filling, but each convent and, now, each town or even pastry shop has its own special take on the tarts. The filling might be a typical custard or simply ovos moles (translated as soft eggs), which is nothing more than egg yolks and sugar cooked together to create sweet spreadable gold. The nuns had so many egg yolks because egg whites were used to clarify wine, to apply gold and silver leaf to church altars, and to starch nun’s wimples. They used the leftover yolks to create their sublime pastries.
Some pastéis, or pastries, include additions such as cocoanut or almonds or even white beans in their filling. In Belem, people line up outside a bakery for pastéis de Belem, small tarts with a custard filling that’s still warm from the oven. The tops of the famed pastéis de Nata are nearly charred, the pastry crisp, the custard filling creamy and sweet.
Pastéis de Nata
The tiny town of Tentúgal is known for its special pastéis du Tentúgal, an oblong pastry filled with ovos moles. At O Afonso, a local pastry shop, friends and I watched as a baker took an eight-pound lump of dough made from flour and water and stretched and flipped it until it covered an area of probably 12 by 15 feet. By the time she was through, the dough was thin enough to read through.
Then she cut it into small shapes, layered a few, and added some pastry scraps in the center for extra strength. She then dipped a feather into clarified butter and ever so delicately sprinkled a little of the melted butter onto the pastry. Next, she spooned a line of the egg yolk and sugar filling onto the pastry. She quickly rolled it into a rectangle, folded the ends up, and placed it on a baking sheet along with dozens of others. When they were baked, the ends formed little ruffles, the pastry was shatteringly crisp, and the filling was heavenly. The pastry is made with just five ingredients – flour, water, butter, sugar, and egg yolks - but with consummate skill and many years of practice.
Pastéis du Tentúgal
There are other sweets in Portugal, and you’ll find a pastry shop on nearly every street. Portuguese rice pudding topped with cinnamon in decorative patterns, even spelling out a word such as “Welcome,” to guests is wonderful.
A welcoming rice pudding
There are cookies and cakes and ice cream and even a few desserts using egg whites. Simple crisp meringues are called suspiros, or sighs, a perfect name. A dessert called Molotov for reasons no one could explain to me is similar to Floating Island. Made two ways, it may be a poached meringue in a pool of custard, as we would expect. Or it can be a baked meringue served with a caramel sauce. Both are light and delectable, however the name remains a mystery.
All of the Portuguese sweets are good, but the egg yolk pastries originated so long ago by the nuns are special. Visiting Portugal without indulging in convent sweets would be sinful.