There are few countries in the world with as much variety of traditional sweets as Portugal. The immense variety of Portuguese pastry had its origin in several factors: sugar in abundance from the old colonies, a vast amount of eggs and… nuns with lots of free time. That’s right: most Portuguese sweets were created by nuns cloistered in convents or monasteries. They used the white part of the eggs to care for their clothes (a kind of “primitive ironing”). The yellow parts of the eggs, along with the sugar, were used to make sweets. Nuns could make pastry just for fun or to raise some money from sales. The truth is that, over time, the secret recipes of the nuns were being passed on to the population and Portuguese pastry became popular.
It can be said that every small Portuguese village has its own traditional sweet and this is because in each of these small villages there was almost always a convent or a monastery. For this reason, it is very difficult to make a list of the best Portuguese desserts: there are hundreds of different Portuguese pastries. Some recipes have been lost and are no longer used, although there is an effort of several people to recover them. After all, gastronomy is a very important part of Portuguese culture. If you are a fan of Portuguese pastry, these are some of the best Portuguese sweets you can taste.
1. Pastéis de Nata
All these desserts don’t necessarily have to be eaten after a main course. They are so good, they can be savoured anytime of the day! Pastéis de nata, in particular, can be enjoyed as a “snack” with a coffee. This famous pastry is commonly known as “Pastéis de Belém”, because they originally come from Belém. Pastéis de nata are common in Portugal and can be bought anywhere in the country. They are kind of similar to a pudding.
Made of puff pastry and a cream made with milk, flour eggs, maize starch and sugar syrup, it is not advised for vegans. However, it still is one of the most popular desserts in Portugal. The locals love to have one or two with their coffee. It’s definitely one of the Portuguese desserts you should try while in Lisbon. They are usually best to be eaten on site, when they come straight out of the oven with a little bit of powdered cinnamon on top of it.
2. Travesseiros de Sintra
Not all the names of Portuguese sweets have heavenly themes. Travesseiro, as this delicacy is called, translates to “large pillow,” a reminder that it’s something worth dreaming about. (Actually, the name comes from its shape: The travesseiro is a rectangular pastry made of almonds and egg cream.)
It was first made at Casa Piriquita, a bakery founded in 1862, in the city of Sintra. The granddaughter of the founders stumbled upon the travesseiro while reading a book of old recipes and decided to try it out. According to Piriquita’s owners, the recipe also has a secret ingredient. Nobody knows if that’s true, but it keeps customers lining up at Piriquita’s door.
3. Pastel de Feijão
Also known as bean cake, this pastry is made with cooked, mashed white beans and almonds. A woman by the name of Joaquina Rodrigues, who lived in the Portuguese city of Torres Vedras, invented this sweet in the late 19th century.
Her relatives passed on the recipe, and in the 20th century, her descendants opened sweets factories that quickly became successful beyond the borders of the village. The mashed beans and grated almonds gives the small cakes a firm texture and balances out the sweetness.
4. Pastel de Tentúgal
Pasteis de Tentugal, as many other delicacies in Portugal, where born at a convent, namely at the convent of the Carmelites existing in Tentúgal, a small village near Coimbra. Following the tradition of the Portuguese pastry, this true gastronomic sin is baked with eggs. However, the secret of its recipe is the dough, very thin and confectioned only with water and flour, given the cake an unique and unforgettable texture. Trust me when I say that one won’t be enough!
According to a popular tale, by the end of the XVI century a Carmelite nun wanted to give some Christmas presents at the children of the Tentúgal village, therefore, she decided to bake some treats made of an extra thin dough, stuffed with an egg and crisp almond custard. Later the almond was removed from the recipe, as it was a very expensive ingredient. The sweets were also offered to the convent benefactors and to some members of the Portuguese high society. Initially known as Pastéis do Convento (Convent cake) the cakes were praised by all and began to be baked all year round by the nuns. Every Sunday, after mass, they were sold at the convent door.
5. Ovos Moles de Aveiro
Aveiro soft eggs are so adored in Portugal that they were the first conventual pastry to receive a protected status from the European Commission.
These delicate wafers — which are, in fact, communion wafers — are filled with a smooth custard of egg yolks and sugar that must be cooked to a very precise temperature, so that when you bite into the wafer, the sweet yolk cream melts in your mouth. The appearance of this confection makes it particularly original: Inspired by Aveiro’s seascape, ovos moles are shaped like fish, shells, and barrels.