The 12 Must-Eat Portuguese Sweets
Lisbon’s love affair with pastries has been going on for 500 years.
From luscious egg tarts to bacon pudding, Portugal’s pastries come loaded with egg yolks, sugar, and other rich ingredients. Most of these indulgent desserts have a surprisingly pious origin, however: Catholic convents and monasteries.
Portugal’s nuns and monks pioneered the country’s sweets starting in the 15th century, when Portugal dominated global trade routes, including the spice trade, and the colonial sugar industry boomed. In the region of Évora alone — just an hour’s drive from Lisbon — there were 11 convents making confections in the late 16th century. “We are talking about a small region of a small country like Portugal,” says Vitor Sobral, one of Lisbon’s acclaimed chefs. “The number of convents and the diversity of sweets they produced is incredible.”
Why were nuns and monks such major players in pastry? Legend has it that they starched their laundry with egg whites and had to come up with a use for all the excess yolks. But the truth is, they simply had the time. Rita João and Pedro Ferreira, authors of the Portuguese pastry encyclopedia Fabrico Próprio: The Design of Portuguese Semi-Industrial Confectionery, write, “These places of faith and seclusion were often true laboratories of creation, where the religious dedicated themselves to rescuing old recipes, or to testing new ingredients from all over the world.”
The main ingredients in these sweets are egg yolks and sugar, in addition to flour, nuts, cinnamon, vanilla, coconut, and other spices. The monks and nuns had a sense of humor, too; pastries have names like “angel’s double chin” or “bacon from heaven.”
Even today, centuries later, more than 200 types of delicacies are prepared according to their original recipes. Lisbon is home to a vibrant and diverse pastry scene, with sweets — including those from the convent tradition — proudly displayed in shop windows across the city. Look for signs that read “Fabrico Próprio” (house made), vouching for the pastries’ artisanal character.
Here are 12 Portuguese specialties you can’t miss …
Bolo de Mel da Madeira
Bolo de Mel da Madeira (Madeira Honey Cake)
With its many sugarcane plantations, Madeira Island became an important depot for sugar production for all of Portugal’s colonies. This dark, spicy cake is made with honey from sugarcane, nuts, cloves, star anise, and cinnamon, and has a strong flavor of molasses. The cake is considered to be Madeira’s oldest dessert, dating back 600 years. Madeira Islanders usually prepare it on December 8, the day of the Immaculate Conception, but it can be found year-round on the island as well as in Lisbon. Note: In accordance with local tradition, the cake should be cut with your hand, not with a knife.
Origin: Madeira Island
Papos de Anjo (Angel’s Double Chin)
Like many other Portuguese sweets, papos de anjo require a huge amount of egg yolks — around 20. One of the most popular sweets in the historic Douro Litoral province, its creation can be traced to the northern region’s Monastery of Santa Clara, which was founded in the 18th century.
According to most recipes for this sweet, the yolks must be whipped until they swell, and then the mixture is baked until firm. The resulting pastries are then boiled lightly in sugar syrup flavored mainly with rum, vanilla, or orange peel. The finished product can be wrapped in a communion wafer and cut in a half-moon shape, or preserved in simple syrup.
Origin: Douro coastal region (the most famous come from the city of Amarante)
Ovos Moles (Soft Eggs)
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.
Travesseiro de Sintra (Sintra’s Pillows)
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.
Pastel de Bélem
Pastel de Belém (Pastry of Belém)
Another of Portugal’s most legendary desserts, this egg tart recipe was created by Jerónimos Monastery monks in Belém and later sold to a neighboring Portuguese family that has made pastéis de Belém ever since. Their pastry shop, the famous Fábrica dos Pastéis de Belém, is the only place to find true pastéis de Belém; very few people know the monks’ secret recipe.
Three chefs combine the ingredients away from prying eyes, then a large staff assembles the sweet by hand, including the crusts. While the recipe is secret, a few things separate pastéis de Belém from Portugal’s many other egg tarts: The puff pastry is slightly salty and extremely crisp, and the custard is made with milk — not cream — which makes it less sweet.
Origin: Belém, a district of Lisbon
Pastel de Nata (Custard Tart)
Though the pastel de Belém recipe remains a secret, there exist many other versions of the egg tart across Portugal. The pastel de nata is the most iconic food of Lisbon, a city where time seems to stand still for life’s little pleasures — particularly food and sweets. The recipe became so popular that there are many variations among pastry shops and bakeries for both its shape and filling. Best experienced fresh out of the oven, sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar, eat one — or even better, try many.
Pastel de Torres
Pastel de Feijão (Bean Pastry)
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.
Origin: Torres Vedras
Pudim Abade de Priscos (Portuguese Bacon Pudding)
Manuel Joaquim Machado Rebelo, abbot of the Priscos parish, was considered one of the greatest Portuguese cooks of the 19th century, known for preparing sumptuous banquets for the royal family. This is one of the few recipes that he shared. His pudding was famous not only for its particular taste and uniform texture (firm and velvety all the way through), but also on account of its particular ingredients: port wine and pork (usually hailing from the Chaves or Melgaço regions). You can just barely sense the texture of the pork fat as it melds with the incomparable taste of the yolks and notes of port wine, cinnamon, and citrus fruit.
Queijadas de Requeijão de Évora (Evora’s Cheesecake Tart)
As with many other Portuguese recipes, a queijada is a small, sweet tart (prepared using cheese or requeijão, a Portuguese cheese similar to ricotta) that fits in the palm of the hand. This recipe originated from a convent in the southern part of Portugal and is popular in Évora, one of the most historic cities in the country and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Sheep’s cheese adds a pungent flavor and acidity that balances well with the sweetness of the sugar and egg yolk.
This is a traditional Portuguese egg pudding from the region of Alentejo. Nuns from the convents of Elvas and Vila Viçosa both claim to be the creators of the dessert, but the most traditional version of the recipe is more linked to Elvas, where the dessert is topped with the region’s famous plums.
The pudding has a perfect amount of sweetness, with a final punch of cinnamon and a very smooth texture. The ingredients are the same as those in other Portuguese sweets, but Sericaia also uses egg whites to create a more airy texture, evidence that nuns could work miracles — they were able to create entirely different recipes from identical products.
Torta de Azeitão (Tortas of Azeitão)
This Portuguese sweet starts with a thin sheet of soft sponge cake that is slathered with sweet egg yolk cream, sprinkled with cinnamon, then rolled up and cut into three-inch pieces. According to legend, the recipe was created by Manuel Rodrigues, a blind man who became a reputed manufacturer of cakes and sweets. Tortas of Azeitão are traditional cakes typical of the area for which they’re named in the county of Setúbal. It has a wonderful texture: Soft and moist sponge cake with velvety egg yolk cream create the perfect combination in the mouth. Lemon and cinnamon cut the sweetness and give it a balanced taste that pairs well with a glass of Moscatel de Setúbal, a sweet wine also produced in the region.
Toucinho do Céu (Bacon from Heaven)
The use of pork fat is traditional in Portuguese confectioneries. Toucinho do céu, literally translated as “bacon from heaven,” is an almond cake made with pork lard. Created in the 18th century by nuns at the Santa Clara Convent in northern Portugal, according to gastronomy site Estila da Vida, this dense cake is one of the most popular desserts in the country. Though the convent closed in 1910, some of the nuns took the traditional recipes and shared them. The addition of ground almonds gives the cake a firm texture and nutty flavor that pairs well with the egg yolks.