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 those who love them, there’s more to Portuguese 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.

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

If you’re tempted to try making some Portuguese cakes at home, take a look at some of these books about Portuguese food, some of which have recipes for firm favourites like pastel de nata.

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33 Comments

  1. Can I get the almond cake or boules de Berlin in the U.S? It’s for Christmas

    1. Author

      Probably. If you’re in or near a major city, try to track down a Portuguese shop. If not, you can probably order online somewhere.

  2. Those “cavacas” are usually eaten with homemade red wine. Because they’re so hard, the idea is to pour wine on them and poke a few holes in the inside so it soaks. Of course, it’s a perfect excuse to get drunk. 🙂

    1. Author

      That works for me 😉

  3. Hi, love your blog.
    In the Algarve I have had a wonderful dessert/cake called quiejo do Algarve which contains the 3 flavours of the Algarve, almonds, figs and carob. I don’t normally eat dessert – but this is to die for. Also called almond cake.

    1. Author

      Masha, that sounds divine. I’m drooling at the thought of it! If it’s small and round, I might even have tried it at a travel fair in Lisbon – they gave me something with figs and almonds and said it was from the Algarve. I can’t remember if they mentioned carob though.

  4. Oh gosh… the pastreis in Portugal. I loooooved them. Especially the boules de Berlin. They were exquisite!
    Hmmmm, would love me something sweet right now!

    1. Author

      I really am going to have to try a bolo de berlim – everyone is raving about them so it seems rude not to.

  5. This is great, thanks Julie! Did you manage to pick up a copy of “Fabrico Próprio – The Design of Portuguese Semi-industrial Confectionery”? I’m one of the authors: let me know if you’d be interested in finding more about the book and the project.

    1. Author

      Now that looks like a handy reference book! Thanks for letting me know about it, Frederico. I hadn’t heard of it but would like to know more. I’ll email you.

    1. Author

      I didn’t think I’d like Bolo de Rei as I’m not a huge fan of candied fruit but it’s actually quite nice.

  6. Bolos de Berlim are my absolute fave!

    1. Author

      Are they the doughnut-like ones?

      1. Author

        I still haven’t tried one of those! I assume the filling is made with egg yolk?

        1. Yes, they are the doughnut-like ones, they have egg yolk filling! I’m from Portugal and when I went to visit England many years ago, I bought your version of Bola de Berlim (in ASDA, I believe) and I loved it, but never knew if it was strawberry or raspberry jelly inside!…

          1. Author

            I don’t know if anyone really knows what the ‘fruit’is 😉 They are good though.

  7. They are indeed Cavacas and I believe very common in the north. They are dry like a cookie w/a sugary glaze. In the north many eat them with a glass of port. The Pao de Lo typically from Ovar has many variations and I’m not sure there is a “filling” but rather just a moist center (not all are like this)

    1. Author

      Thanks, for clarifying, Anne. I’ll have to try a cavaca with port then, it sounds like a winning combination.

      It’s good to know that not all pão de ló is like this. I’ve seen photos of differing levels of moistness – the one above is the most liquid version that I’ve come across but I didn’t realise that there are so many variations from Ovar.

      Do you know what you would have to ask for if you wanted an especially wet cake?

  8. I love Pudim and the gooey Pao de Lo reminds me of Easter when it used to be eaten with Queijo da Serra (cheese). The meringue cases are called “Cavacas” but I never heard that they are meant to have any filling, they are just eaten like they are. Sorry I can’t help with the name of the Cinnamon bread, never seen it before, must be a regional cake I never tried. Portuguese cakes and desserts are all delicious!!

    1. Author

      Hi Sami, Thanks for enlightening me on the meringue cases. I just assumed from their shape that people would fill them with goodies but I expect they taste good either way. I thin kI’d go with fresh fruit and lots of cream…

      The cinnamon bread was on sale at the medieval fair in Coimbra but it’s the first time I’ve ever seen it, too. If I hadn’t just scoffed a tigela, I would have tried it 🙂

  9. I am hooked to your blog. Can I tell you my favourite 20 may 2014? Tickets in my hand wow I stll can’t believe it. Oporto here we come.

    1. Author

      Hi Amanda, So glad you enjoy my blog. And you’re coming to Portugal!!! Fantastic. Yes, please let me know which cake you prefer when you get back. There are so many to choose from beyond the ones I’ve mentioned.

    1. Author

      Apparently, I was wrong about them being used as bases. They are usually eaten as is. I think they’d work well with fresh fruit and cream though.

  10. These all look wonderful, Julie! I so regret not sampling some of these things when I was just in Portugal. I love the one above called Pão de ló ~ it looks like just my kind of sweet! The cinnamon bread also looks delicious. I did sample plenty of pastels de nata while there; I sure miss them now!

    1. Author

      Hi Cat. I only realised that you’d mentioned pastel de nata after I wrote this post. I gather you Spain and Portugal trip was a great success and I look forward to reading more about your adventures. You’ll just have to come back again to get more cake 😉

  11. I knew I was making a big mistake reading this post but when it comes to cake and desserts I can’t help myself! I’m observing Ramadan at the moment and now I’m craving cake – just under 7 hours to wait before I can eat, maybe you could fly something over to Canada for me? You pick – I’d eat ANY of those 😉

    1. Author

      I’d happily bring you all of these and more 🙂 Not sure I could wait out the fasting period though but I wouldn’t be cruel enough to eat them in front of you. Only to taunt you with photos in a blog post 😉

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