Out of the Church and Onto Your Table: Portuguese Convent Cakes
Pastry lovers may be familiar with traditional Portuguese custard tarts, called Pastéis de Nata, which are creamy, bite-sized delights surrounded by a light pastry shell. These baked confections have a unique history, as they belong to a category of pastries that are often referred to as "Convent Cakes," and were originally created as a result of equal parts necessity and serendipity.
Centuries ago, convenience and chance were the catalysts for the inception of these distinctive pastries, as they were made by nuns who lived in convents. These religious community members used egg whites to starch their habits, and needed a purpose for the leftover yolks. After experimenting in the kitchen with a variety of ingredients, they eventually whipped up an array of small, individually-sized cakes that fit in the palm of your hand. Convent cakes were born.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, these cakes were known for their high-quality ingredients, and the recipes were kept as closely-guarded secrets. In more recent years, Portugal has seen a renewed appreciation of these incredibly delicious classic treats as they are experiencing a resurgence in popularity around the country. Today, inventive pastry chefs create a variety of shapes, flavors, and textures.
Food expert and writer Céilia Pedroso is the author of Eat Portugal: The Essential Guide to Portuguese Food, and conducts culinary tours in Lisbon for Culinary Backstreets. She enjoys introducing food lovers to local specialties, including these distinctive baked goods. She pointed out that there are convent sweets in other European countries, such as Spain and Italy, but due to a law in the 1800s that shut down convents and monasteries in Portugal, the recipes and the custard-filled cakes, such as the famous pastéis de nata, became available to everyone.
Get the Recipe: Queijadas
As Lisbon has been growing as a major tourist destination in recent years, several newer bakeries in the city now specialize in these pastries, including Alcoa, Pudim do Abade, and Casa dos Ovos Moles, the latter of which offers group baking lessons.
Pedroso says, "The Portuguese have always loved these pastries, but it was not always easy to find convent sweets in Lisbon. Now with these new shops available in the city center, we don't have to go to Aveiro, where the ovos moles were created, or to Alcobaça, the original home of Alcoa, to get them."
Upscale restaurants are also offering their own versions of tiny specialties. In Lisbon, Michelin-starred chef, José Avillez owns several award-winning restaurants and features a variety of modern-style convent cakes on the menus. At his two-Michelin-starred Belcanto restaurant, Avillez offers a dessert with flavors largely inspired by convent cakes, called Citrus and Egg Sweets. This balanced confection offsets the richness of the egg with a light freshness of citrus.
Avillez explains, "Convent confectionery holds a very rich heritage. There's an extraordinary world to discover in convent sweets if you're a dessert lover. At Belcanto, I have Toucinho-do-céu, which translates to heavenly bacon. It's prepared with pine nuts and almonds cooked at low-temperature, making them crunchy on one side and creamier on the other, served with yuzu purée, along with a combination of herbs, flowers, and salted bacon."
Get the Recipe: Abade Prisco's Pudding
Chef Avillez's other restaurants offer his special pastéis de nata recipe and other, less traditional versions of convent cakes. For example, at Café Lisboa, there's Toucinho-do-céu de Lisboa. It's made with egg yolks, almond, and sugar, and served with raspberry sorbet, fresh raspberries, and mint. At Canto, guests can enjoy a traditional version from the country's Alentejo region that's made with figleaf gourd.
Avillez mentioned that these treats will always be evolving. "Many chefs and patisseries still follow the original recipes. However, the amount of sugar used in the preparation of these sweets was cut down," he says. "I think convent sweets that cannot be recreated using less sugar in their preparation might run the risk of disappearing — or being less in demand, because people, as taste evolves, will not be able to tolerate such high levels of sugar."
Still, Avillez finds Portugal's history is an essential ingredient in his culinary creations, even if he chooses to improvise and modify along the way. "I love to revisit traditional Portuguese confectionery and to find ways of reinventing it and keeping its soul alive."