Portuguese Sweets and Desserts: Part 1
If you read some of my hubs you probably know how I like to go on and on about how Portuguese cuisine is out of this world, totally amazing and different and tasty and how if you try it you will want nothing more… From delicious after bar food ( which you can eat at any other occasion, for that matter), such as “Woodpecker”, Chicken Gizzards or Green Soup, to historically traditional recipes such as “Chanfana”, Tripes Oporto Style or the 365 ways to cook dried salted cod fish or just the popular recipes like the “Little Frenchie” or sardines, you just can’t go wrong with Portuguese recipes. But what I haven’t talked about much is those more sweet sins, we simply can’t resist… the cakes, the pastry, the tarts, pies, and a never ending list of pure delight… And it’s not that we don’t have those… We have them alright… Sweet recipes, some centuries old, a lot of them thought of within the sacred walls of convents, where nuns developed the most wonderful recipes for all sorts of desserts you can think of… Each region of our country has its owns particular delights, a bit of culture, history and tradition put together for those of us with a sweet tooth. From North to South there is an endless list of sweets you can try, the famous Ovos Moles (Egg sauce) from Aveiro region, egg cakes in syrup or Almond Pie from the Algarve region and so many others…
A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY
It’s truly amazing the amount of sweets and desserts a country so small can be responsible for… So, why is that? Well, first, I would say the Portuguese Discoveries played a big role in that, then – again – the nuns, afterwards cultural habits…
Unlike what we may think now, sugar wasn't always around, especially in Europe. No, there was a time when a lot of people didn't know about sugar. In Europe, most people used honey if they needed to sweeten something. Also, people’s taste wasn't used to such sweet food as we have now, so mostly it would taste funny to them eating something too sweet… But then again, sweet taste is not something that takes a lot of getting used to, right? So, because of the Portuguese Discoveries, by the 15th Century, sugar starting arriving in Portugal.
If, at first, it was regarded as a medicinal produce, sold in apothecaries, it didn't take long to be used in something other than medicine. Nonetheless, it was also an expensive produce, so it wasn't available to everybody.
By then there were a lot of Convents all over the country, for religious purposes, but also because the number of nuns kept increasing each year, after all what better way was there than to choose a religious, secluded life to escape poverty or to escape a love scandal or… The convents and monasteries also provided a place of rest to the nobles during their trips, providing safe haven and a nice warm meal… Finally, it was nothing new or strange, in noble families, to cast a daughter to the secluded life of a convent to ask for spiritual blessing for the rest of the family.
Now, history gets a little tangled at this point, but I think that a bit of each of the following is probably true: some say that the donations from noble families that handed in their daughters (for any reason) was what allowed convents to be well off financially and therefore have the money that allowed them to buy the sugar necessary to produce amazing sweets; others say that the sweets became famous and started being bought in the villages around the convents, as well as if there were marriages and any other parties; others claim that the nobles that sought the convents for rest paid well for wonderful, lavish meals, where sweets could not be missed; then, there are rumors that the recipes for all convent desserts came from the nuns that were of noble birth, bringing with them the culinary secrets of their household; but some say that actually the recipes were created and perfected within the sacred walls, since there was not much to pass time and that some of the poorer nuns that had chosen such secluded life, because they had no money to pay for the wedding dowry, created wonderful sweets to give to the men that went by the gates of the convents, as a way to enchant them and in the hopes of being saved by them from that life.
Whatever the reason, the fact is that most of the Portuguese sweets and desserts originated in convents and are therefore called Convent Sweets. Their fame is such that some say that Portuguese Sweets are all that is left from Portuguese Discoveries in a lot of countries - although that couldn't be farther from the truth.
But sugar and nuns are not the only important factors in Portuguese sweets, there is another terribly important thing: a whole lot of eggs. For many, many centuries Portugal was one of the leading producers of eggs, there were so much eggs around, that they were used for much more than to eat. For instance, egg whites were used to iron clothes or to purify wine. Therefore, there was a lot of egg yolk to spare, so it wouldn't go to waste, the egg yolks started being used in sweets.
That being said, it’s easy to see how the basis for a lot of the convent sweets are sugar and eggs, more specifically egg yolks. And it’s truly amazing what can be accomplished with such simple ingredients. During centuries nuns perfected their art, invented new sweets. For centuries they kept their secrets. But as all secrets, now and then, some secret recipe leaked and then Convents slowly started disappearing and so the Convents’ sweets became everyone’s sweets and no matter where they come from, are they tasty or what?…
FROM NORTH TO SOUTH OR THE OTHER WAY AROUND
From North to South, each village, town, city has its own special sweets. There are so many, that it would be impossible to go through all of them with just one Hub, so I’ll have to do it in parts and because I am in the South that is where I will start… Here are the secrets I found in my new home…
The Algarve region is the most southern part of Portugal and it was the last to be conquered from the Moors. Because of that, there is a lot of Moorish influence in the Algarve still. From names, to architecture, costumes, culinary and, of course, sweets. Therefore, the sweets in Algarve have a hot, different taste to them... But it weren't just the Moors, but also the climate, which is warmer and drier than the rest of the country and what grows in this region. It's the lovely almond trees and the fig trees and carob trees. All that makes up for inspiring sweets, which could have been baked in heaven.
So, what are some of these amazing sweets?
- Almond pastry;
- Dom Rodrigo - made of angel hair and almond;
- Fig cakes with chocolate;
- Fig stars;
- Sweet potatoes pastry;
- Christmas fritters;
- Easter loaf;
- Carob cake;
- Almond pie;
- Carob and chocolate cake or pie;
- Marzipan sweets.
Personally, I just love almond pie, the carob cake, the Dom Rodrigo, the marzipan sweets, the sweet potatoes pastry and the Easter loaf. But, of course, there would be no time to leave you with all these wonderful recipes, so I've chosen one, although I really need to stress you need to try all of them. I hope you try the recipe and I hope you like it and don't forget Portuguese sweets, from convents or not, are the next amazing treasure you need to find out about.
Sweet potatoes pastry recipe
- 1.1 lbs / 0,5 kg Sweet potatoes, Filling
- 0.8 lbs / 0.375 kgs White sugar, Filling
- 1 tbsp Cinnamon, Filling
- 1 Peel from orange or lemon, Filling
- 0.2 lbs / 100 grs Peeled grinded almond (optional), Filling
- 1 Cinnamon stick, Filling
- 0.6 lbs / 250 grs Pastry flour, Dough
- 1 Egg yolk, Dough
- 5,07 oz / 0,15 l Olive oil, Dough
- To measure Salt, Dough
- To measure Warm water, Dough
- To measure Vegetable cooking oil
- To measure Sugar
- To measure Cinnamon
- Use a large bowl to put the flour in together with the olive oil, the egg yolk, salt and warm water.
- Mix all the ingredients together until you have a consistent dough.
- Turn the dough out of the bownl onto a clean surface, first sprinkling with flour.
- Gather the dough into a pile and press it together for a while.
- Let the dough rest for half an hour.
- While the dough rests start working on the filling. First, boil the sweet potatoes until they are soft.
- As soon as you take the potatoes off the boiling water put then under cold water, that will help you peel the potatoes.
- After peeling the potatoes, mash them very well, until you get a soft dough.
- Add sugar, cinnamon and cinnamon stick, as well as the peel from an orange or a lemon and the peeled grinded almond (if you decided to use this ingredient) to the mashed potatoes and bring it all to a boil on a low heat. Don't stop stiring during the whole process.
- Let the filling cool, before using it on the dough.
- Finally, place the dough on the counter and roll out the dough, until the thickness is approx. 0,08 inches / 2 mm.
- Place spoons full of filling on the dough, cover the filling with more dough and cut it with a big glass, so you'll have an half-moon shape.
- Seal the edges by pressing them with your fingers.
- Deep fry until golden brown.
- While hot drizzle with a mix of sugar and cinnamon. You can eat room temperature or hot.
And if you liked it, put some stars on it...
And, now, more sweets... with Portuguese Sweets and Desserts: Part 2.
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