Growing up in Brazil, I was destined to love Portuguese sweets. Ever since I can remember, I have been hooked to the blissfully rich taste of all eggy pastries of Portuguese cuisine.
The history of Portuguese sweets takes us back to the convents of the 18th century.
Until the 15th century, sugar was used as a medicine, sold in street markets. The Arabs living in Portugal slowly introduced a new way of applying sugar into food, creating what we call today desserts. In Portugal, it started with syrups, which, to this day, is the base for its sweets.
The convents played a crucial role in Portuguese society. Back then, there weren’t any hotels, so when kings and queens traveled, they’d stay at convents. It was the beginning of the cultural exchange. Even when convents were guest free, it was a place for hosting the birth of a new prince, a royal marriage, the king’s or queen’s birthday, a religious celebration, and any other reason to party.
This social activity helped to develop all things culinary, especially sweets, turning convents into the mega gastronomic institutions of the time. Savory was in the realm of the priests, and sweets in the hands of the nuns. Back then, savory food wasn’t as nicely presented as it is today, giving sweets, even more prestige, and representing a symbol of luxury.
Poultry was part of the religious diet so the raising of chickens was mandatory for all convents. Birds were used in soups, stews, and roasts; eggs, while also used in savory, were more abundant than any institution would need.
Egg whites were used to iron clothes and clarify wine. What to do with the yolks then? Sweets, sweets, and more sweets! Take yolks in one direction, mix it with syrup and vanilla extract and you achieve the likes of custards, puddings, and candies. Take it in another, and you get Toucinho do Ceu, sponge cakes, and Pastel de Nata (more on that later).
In addition to the role of master of ceremonies, convents played another important social role – the place of last resort for classy ladies in trouble. Today, if you’re a wreck you go to a therapist; back then, convents were the perfect solution for families to gracefully send their single daughters who couldn’t find a husband or ladies who behaved badly.
These sisters might have undernourished their flesh and minds, but definitely not their stomachs. The truth is, very few nuns were interested in religion per se and instead of devoting themselves to God, they devoted their skills to the big and well-equipped kitchens of their “new homes”, honing their incredible talents as dessert makers (today we would call them pastry chefs) and passing this gift along generations of cooks disguised as nuns.
Such was the institution of nunneries, other feminine arts developed around the same time and place – like sewing, embroidering, painting porcelain, and many other skills that today are known to the world as Portuguese commodity.
By the end of the century, convent sweets became so traditional, so exuberant, and so competitive that each had a reputation for producing the best type of a certain sweet. As commerce progressed nuns started selling their sweets in religious fairs and celebrations enjoying its monetary profits. To honor these celebrations, most traditional Portuguese sweets have a religious name, such as Toucinho do Céu, Papos de Anjo, Pastel Santa Clara, Abade de Priscos, and so forth.
Here is a recipe for one of my favorites Portuguese sweets:
Pasteis de Nata / Portuguese Custard Tarts
1 batch Quick Puff Pastry (see recipe below)
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- ½ cup organic cane sugar (divided in ¼ + ¼)
- 4 large egg yolks
- 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
Twenty four 2 ½ -inch tartlets pans either like “empada” or like muffin
- Roll the Quick Puff Pastry:
Make the Quick Puff Pastry ahead of time and chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or preferably overnight. Place the puff pastry on a floured work surface and flour the dough. Press the dough with a rolling pin in a close parallel stroke to soften it. Roll the dough to a 12 X 12 -inch square. Starting from one of the sides, roll up the dough like a jelly roll, making sure not to stretch it as you’re rolling it. Refrigerate the log of dough in plastic for at least 1 hour.
- Fit the Pastry Into the Tartlets:
When the dough is firm, remove it from the fridge and cut into 24 slices, each ½-inch thick. Press a slice of dough into one of the tartlet pans using your thumbs. Make sure the dough extends about ¼ -inch above the rim of the pan. Repeat with the remaining slices of dough and pans. Arrange the pans on a sheet pan and cover the whole pan loosely with plastic wrap. Refrigerate the crust for a minimum of 8 hours, preferably overnight. If you bake them sooner, the crust will shrink.
- Prepare the Custard Filling:
Preheat the oven to 375˚F. Bring the cream and ¼ cup of sugar to a boil in a medium saucepan over low heat, whisking occasionally to dissolve the sugar. In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks, then whisk in the remaining ¼ cup sugar and the flour. When the cream boils, whisk the cream into the yolk mixture. Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a flat -edged wooden spatula, until the cream thickens slightly and comes to a gentle boil. Pour the filling into a clean bowl and cool it to lukewarm, stirring constantly. You can give it an ice bath to accelerate the cooling process.
- Bake The Tartlets:
Pour the filling into a measuring cup with a lid and fill the tartlet crust to ¼-inch of the top. Bake the tartlets until the crust is baked through and the filling is set and colored in spots (the filling will not become uniform brown all over), about 20 minutes.
- Remove from the oven and cool the tartlets in a rack, inside their molds. Use the point of a pairing knife to loosen them from the pans. As long as the filling is not overflowed, they should pop right out of the pans. Sprinkle lightly with powder sugar and cinnamon and enjoy them at room temperature. You can refrigerate the tarts; bring them to room temperature again before eating.
Quick Puff Pastry
Makes about 1.5 lbs
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoons salt
- 9 oz (2 ¼ sticks) cold unsalted butter
- ½ cup cold water
- Combine flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor.
- Cut each stick of butter into about 10 pieces and add to the food processor. Pulse twice.
- Remove the cover and use a thin-bladed metal spatula to stir the flour and butter mixture up from the bottom of the bowl. Cover and pulse again.
- Add the water and pulse twice. Repeat step 3.
- Invert the food processor bowl over a floured surface to turn the dough. Carefully remove the blade and transfer any dough on in it to the surface. Press the dough into a rough rectangle.
- Flour the dough and press (don’t roll) it with a rolling pin to flatten. Move the dough, making sure there is still flour under it to prevent it from sticking, and give the dough a 90-degree turn. Press again.
- Again, making sure that the surface and the dough are adequately floured, roll the dough into an 18-inch square.
- Cut the square in half to make two 9X18 inch rectangles. Roll one to make it 12 X18 inches. From the 18-inch edge closest to you, fold the bottom third of the dough over the middle third, and the top third down over that. Roll the dough into a tight package from one of the short ends and press down on it with the palm of your hand to make a rough square. Repeat with the other piece of dough.
- Wrap and chill the 2 packages.
You may keep the dough chilled for 2-3 days, or you can also freeze it.