Plate of cakes

Sweet, sweet Portuguese cakes and desserts

If you want to make a Portuguese person drool, show them a cake. A Portuguese one, of course. To the uninitiated, they might not look that special but trust me, and the Portuguese who love them, there’s more to their cakes and desserts than meets the eye.

Little attempt is made to pretty them up so unlike the beautiful colourful displays in French bakeries, everything here tends to look rather brown and dull. Don’t be fooled, Portuguese cakes usually taste much better than they look.

Many of the recipes for the nation’s favourite sweet treats originated in Portugal’s convents and monasteries. Eggs, especially the yolks, feature heavily. The egg whites were used to starch clothes and preserve wine so the yolks ended up in cakes and puddings. Along with plenty of sugar. Almonds are another popular ingredient although each region specialises in incorporating local produce into their cakes whether that’s beans, cheese or chestnuts.

Sadly, I’m usually too full after a meal to squeeze in a dessert and don’t often treat myself to a cake while I’m out. Even so, I have managed to sample a fair few over my years in Portugal so here’s a random selection of Portuguese cakes and desserts to get your mouth watering.

Three slices of egg pudding

One of my favourite Portuguese desserts is pudim, a simple, solid baked egg custard drizzled with caramel. It tastes much better than it looks!

Preserved plums and a slice of sponge cake

Two for the price of one. These preserved plums from Elvas are pricey but deliciously sweet and crunchy. The cake, sericaia, is unbelievably light and fluffy inside.

Sponge cake sliced to show the coffee-coloured liquid inside.

A perfect example of a boring-looking cake that’s surprisingly good. Pão de ló from Ovar is incredibly soft sponge cake with a sweet, liquid filling, which explains why it’s sunk in the middle. Pão de ló doesn’t always have a gooey centre so check what you’re buying to avoid disappointment.

Stacks of meringue shaped like bowls

I’m not entirely sure what these crispy bowls are used for. Presumably they get filled with fruit and cream although I think someone told me they put rice pudding inside. If anyone can enlighten me, please do so. Update: They’re called cavacas and are  usually eaten on their own or washed down with a glass of port (thanks, Sami and Anne for the information).

Stacks of Bolo de Rei, Portuguese Christmas cakes

Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without a Bolo de Rei (King’s cake). It’s more bready than cakey and filled with nuts and candied fruit.

three different types of cake on display in a shop window

The cakes in the middle are ovos molos, a speciality in Aveiro. Inside the white rice paper you’ll find very sweet egg yolk paste. Personally, I prefer the walnut cakes on the right.

Decanter of jeropiga and a slice of chestnut tart.

Look again – this tart isn’t made from almonds, they’re sliced chestnuts. A glass of sweet jeropiga is just the things to wash it down with.

A custard tart dusted in cinnamon powder and a cup of milky coffee

A pastel de Belém custard tart made from a secret recipe passed on from the nearby monastery when it closed. The Antiga Confeitaria in Belém where they are made is an almost obligatory stop for visitors to Lisbon. If you can’t get there, you’ll find almost identical custard tarts, called pastel de nata, in every cake shop and café in the country.

Plate of cakes

The cake on the left is Toucinho do Ceu, which translates as Bacon from Heaven. It’s not bacony but it is heavenly with a very moist sponge and crunchy chunks of almond.

Corn pudding with home made jam

Papa de milho, a moulded, grainy pudding made from corn. You can get sloppier versions of it, too, which remind me of semolina. Proper comfort food.

Cinammon and honey bread

Deliciously sticky rolls of cinnamon bread oozing with honey (or syrup, I’m not sure). I forgot to write down the name so if you can help, don’t be shy!

Long thin cake wrapped in rice paper

Charuta, a long, thin cigar made of egg yolk and almonds wrapped in rice paper. It’s a regional delicacy from the north of Portugal, especially Arcos de Valdevez and Ponte de Lima where I bought this one. Eat it, don’t smoke it.

I’d like to thank Ailsa from Where’s My Backpack? for prompting me to create this post through her weekly photo challenge.

What’s your favourite Portuguese cake? Please share it with us in the comments.

Update: Since writing this, I’ve been sampling more cakes and reviewed a book about how they’re made.

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