At the age of ten, in the fourth grade, I was assigned the country of Portugal for my first long term report. One of the sections of the report included the typical foods of the country. When the class handed in their reports there would be an international feast. I recall being alarmed that Portugal’s favorite and most popular dish was grilled sardines. I remember going to the library (there was no internet then) and luckily I found a simple recipe for a dessert cookie named Portuguese Sighs. They are a merengue cookie with chocolate chips and chopped almonds. Needless to say, they were a big hit with the class and the can of sardines went home with the teacher. Today, I could easily complete a term paper exclusively on Portuguese pasteries. Our Portuguese pastry pilgrimage began with Pastéis de nata, the traditional custard tart. These are Portugal’s best-known sweet treat. Lucky for us, our first taste was early in the morning, tarts minutes out of the oven and served with coffee.Many of Portugal’s pasteries were created by the clergy. 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. There are two equally believable stories why this could be. The first is that their clothes/habits were starched with egg whites and they needed to come up with a use for the yolks. The other is a bit more probable; they had plenty of time, plenty of money for ingredients such as sugar and eggs and plenty of sweet tooths among the members. They dedicated themselves to testing new ingredients from all over the world.
Some of the delicious treats have tongue-in- cheek names proving a great sense of humor along with great recipes. Two such examples are: Papos de Anjo (Angel’s Double Chin) and Toucinho do Céu (Bacon from Heaven).
The Salame do Chocolate (yes, chocolate salami) is a no-bake easy treat that is sinfully sweet. Every region has its own speciality, as do some towns. Sintra, for example, is famed for its travesseiros de Sintra. Travesseiro translates to ‘large pillow’; it is something worth dreaming about. The name comes from its pillow shape. The filling is a well-guarded family secret for more than five generations. Sintra is also famous for Queijadas de Requeijão, small cheesecakes. It is not like American cheesecake; it is a small tart, rich in texture and sweetness, with a fluffy sweet crust on top and a crisp shell. Very easy to eat a few of each of these treasures. We have enjoyed other random pasteries which we selected by a pointed finger through a glass case. None disappointed and all disappeared down to licked fingers. Some with nuts, others with chocolate; we did not discriminate. We saw, but did not taste, the merengues as big as hats. As of yet, we have not located or learned the Portuguese name for the Portuguese Sigh. Sigh!