Prior to my migration from America to Portugal in 2011, I had often heard of the love affair that the Portuguese have with their eggs, especially when used in their sugar laden sweets. I didn’t really understand that eggs were also loved as additions to savory dishes until I got here and was pleasantly surprised by both the sweet and savory side of the ovos de Portugal.
As savory dishes go, I find the egg to be an afterthought, an addition, not the center of attention that they often are in American cuisine. When it comes to ervilhas com ovos escalfados, or peas with poached eggs, that is definitely not the case. If there were no eggs in this dish, it’d just be a bowl of peas…
Ervilhas com ovos come in many ways depending on the region. Some recipes include bacon while others stick to smoky Portuguese chouriço. One way may call for white wine, while another requires a red. The biggest difference I’ve found is between the saucy and dry versions of this dish. I personally can’t fathom ervilhas com ovos without the hearty sauce at the bottom of the bowl that’s best when sopped up with warm crusty Portuguese bread.
On the opposite end of the egg spectrum there is the Portuguese sponge cake, Pão-de-ló. This famous cake comes in two primary versions: spongy and custardy. The first is similar to most sponge cakes; it’s tall and airy, but includes a rich egg flavor that only a heart-stopping amount of egg yolks can produce. The other is light and airy on the outside, but as you get to the center, it becomes thick and heavy with an egg pudding that comes from not allowing it to cook all the way through. It’s indulgent to say the least.
Pão-de-ló, like most traditional dishes, has a rich history that varies based on who you talk to and where they are from. Probably the most famous origin story is about the Pão-de-ló Alfereizo which comes from the area of Alcobaça, a place well known for their egg pastries. It happens that King Carlos often enjoyed visiting the Convento de Cós and on one occasion, he arrived earlier than expected. This lead to the baker pulling the sponge cake from the oven before it was ready. The result was, of course, a cake that collapsed in the middle. Despite this “failure”, the king loved this new version of Pão-de-ló with its custard center.
Pão-de-ló is also known as a traditional dessert for Easter. In the north, around the spring holiday, the priests would go visit families. They’d present him with a Pão-de-ló and a tablecloth covered in flowers. If a family didn’t have enough eggs to make a cake, the neighbors would put all of their eggs into one basket in order to make one for the visiting priest because of the importance to have something nice for him.
Now Pão-de-ló can be found throughout the country in pastelarias, but it most often makes it on tables during the most celebrated of holidays, Easter and Christmas. As for the ervilhas com ovos, those can be found in most homes throughout spring and summer, and sometimes even in the fall. The best way to get either of these onto your table though, is by making them in your own home!
Braised Peas with Poached Eggs (Ervilhas com Ovos Escalfados)
- 45 milliliters (3 tablespoons) olive oil
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tomatoes, peeled and diced
- 125 grams (4.4 ounces) chouriço, sliced
- 236 milliliters (1 cup) red wine
- 236 milliliters (1 cup) water
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) fresh or frozen peas
- 1 large pinch salt
- Pepper to taste
- 4 eggs
Heat olive oil in a deep pan over medium heat. Toss in the onion, garlic, tomato and chouriço. Cook, stirring frequently, until the edges of the chouriço have crisped slightly and the onion has turned translucent.
Pour in the wine and scrap the bottom with a wooden spatula to release any crispy bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the bay leaf and water to the pan and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the peas into the pan. Season with salt and pepper and allow it to simmer about 5-7 minutes uncovered, stirring frequently.
Crack each egg into the peas and cover with the lid. Cook the eggs in the peas for 7-12 minutes depending on how done you want your eggs.
Serve hot with plenty of crusty Portuguese bread!
Sponge Cake (Pão-de-Ló) – Recipe from The Food of Portugal by Jean Anderson
Makes one 10 inch cake
- 4 whole eggs
- 8 egg yolks
- 1 ¼ cups sugar
- 1 ½ cups sifted all-purpose flour
Pre-heat the oven to 176C (350F). Line a greased bunt or tube cake pan with pieces of parchment paper, including the center tube.
In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs and egg yolks with an electric mixer on high for 1 minute. Add the sugar to the bowl slowly, beating as you go. Once the sugar has all been added, turn the mixer on high and beat for 15 minutes.
Reduce the mixer speed to low and add in the flour a tablespoon at a time, beating continuously until half of the flour has been added. Stop beating the batter and scrape down the sides. Resume adding the flour to the batter until it has all been incorporated. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and tap it lightly on the counter to even it out and remove bubbles.
Bake the cake in the oven for 40 minutes or until the cake is lightly browned and spongy to the touch.
Remove the cake from the oven and allow it to cool to room temperature, right side up on a cake rack.
Serve at room temperature, no extras needed!