Portuguese cafés: the Secret Handbook (Part 4)

For the fourth and final post of this series dedicated to Portuguese cafés, I’m bringing you a fine selection of pastries. Yes, a selection – because there’s no way all Portuguese pastries could be mentioned in a single blog post.

If that’s one thing that can be said about Portuguese café pastries is that we love our egg cream – and we love it a lot. I’m not sure why Portuguese pastries don’t use things like fruit jam or chocolate more often, but I have my suspicions. 

This egg cream we often use is reminiscent of the egg cream that you’ll often find in the so-called conventual sweets, and which is delicious and decadent. 

The pastry chefs from decades ago probably thought it would be super cool to make a simpler version of this cream to use on their pastries: Why not allow the simpler folk to have decadent stuff, too? This is only my own guessing, of course. 

Sadly, over recent years the Portuguese pastry industry has been going down a path of quick solutions. In the vast majority of cases, pastries used to be made in the cafés that sold them, hence the fabrico próprio (“own manufacture”) phrase that can still be seen in some places. 

Today however, a lot of the smaller cafés will simply buy pastries from a factory. While it’s true that this allowed for this type of product to be cheaper and more widely sold, it also meant a certain loss of quality and character. It’s not just the “improved” flours, it’s also the ready-made egg creams, plus a sea of conservatives, colourings, etc. Sad, I know.

Disclaimer 1: I’m not saying these are *the* best pastries in the country or that Portuguese café pastries are the best in the world. This post is simply focusing on the most commonly found pastries, so you can know what to expect.

Disclaimer 2: most of the pastries shown below are miniature versions and yes, I know they look shabby. Please forgive me, they travelled a long distance inside a cardboard box so that I could eat them up photograph them.

Top row, left to right: bolo de arroz and guardanapo. Bottom row, left to right: bola de Berlim and queque.

Some of the most common Portuguese pastries, in no particular order:

Bola de Berlim – balls of dough that are deep fried, filled with egg cream, and rolled in sugar. A summer classic on Portuguese beaches, today you can also find them with other fillings, like chocolate.

Guardanapo – a thin square layer of sponge cake, slathered with egg cream and folded into a triangle to make it look like a napkin (guardanapo = napkin).

Queque – A simple cake, something like a little sponge cake or a madeleine. In some places, you’ll also find a version with raisins or, more recently, filled with chocolate. Some people love dipping their queques in a warm galão

Way back in the 80s, when I was a kid, queque also meant a rich kid (the word was not used in the most loving manner, as you might imagine). 

Bolo de arroz – literally, “rice cake”. Using a mix of wheat and rice flours, this light and fluffy cake also has small patches of sugar on top. One of the favourite cakes, along with the queque, of those who prefer their pastries without any kind of cream. 

Left to right: mil folhas, xadrez, and torta.

Mil folhas – two layers of puff pastry with egg cream between them and covered with chocolate ganache. In the north, it’s often called Napoleão. 

Xadrez – squares of vanilla and chocolate sponge with a bit of cream as “glue” (to look like a chess board) and covered in a thin layer of chocolate ganache. 

Torta – pretty much like a guardanapo, but rolled up and cut into slices. Not to be mistaken with tortas de Azeitão, a decadent version of this torta but originating in a family recipe from the town of Azeitão. 

Left to right: Palmier coberto and palmier recheado.

Palmier coberto – puff pastry which is rolled and then cut to give it a vague V shape. It has a thin layer of egg cream and is then covered in glacé. My teeth hurt just thinking of it!

Palmier recheado – two rectangles of puff pastry sprinkled with granulated sugar. Can you guess what’s between them? That’s right: egg cream!

Top row: bolos secos. Botom row: rim, jesuíta, and éclair.

Bolos secos – (bolos secos = dry cakes, literally) not really pastries but more like biscuits, I’m mentioning them here because most cafés will have them. Common options include areias de Cascais (crumbly and buttery) and sortido húngaro (a kind of vanilla cookie, usually half dipped in chocolate.)

Rim and éclair – made with the same type of choux dough used to make profiteroles, they are usually filled with either egg cream or chocolate and have a vanilla or chocolate frosting. 

Jesuíta – a triangle of puff pastry topped off with, usually, either a thin layer of meringue or almond slivers and a dusting of powdered sugar. The filling? Yes, egg cream!

Pastel de nata – right now, it’s the little darling of Portuguese pastries. Basically, it’s a “cup” of puff pastry filled with a custard-like cream, best eaten slightly warm. Many of us enjoy sprinkling a bit of cinnamon powder on top of our pastel de nata. Legend has it that one pastel de nata is only slightly over the 100-calorie mark (if you care about that sort of thing). 

Regional pastries – many cafés will also have pastries that are traditional to the town or region where they’re located. In Sintra, for example, virtually every café will have the local travesseiros and/or queijadas

I’d love to know your thoughts! Have you ever tried any of these? Do you have any favourites?

Final note: I’m not suggesting you try out all the pastries you can get your hands on, but never let anyone tell you how many pastéis de nata you should eat – you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life. 

4 comments

  1. Would love to publish this in the Spring 2023 issue of Portugal Living Magazine! Your first article on Portuguese cafés will be in our next (Winter 2022-23) issue, available 15 November. Thanks, as always, for your consideration!

  2. “I’m not sure why Portuguese pastries don’t use things like fruit jam or chocolate more often, but I have my suspicions.”

    C’mon Cátia, let us in on the secret (Part 5). We’re curious 😉

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