There are several ways to learn about a country and its people. While some choose to expand their knowledge through books, others decide to visit in person. I was zealous and did both before and since moving to Portugal, but I believe the base of this country rests in its food culture. With a loaf of bread you can see the history of a simple, warm, enduring people. In a soup the love for family is obvious. And the ingenious use of ingredients show that anything can become something wonderful.
This is why I love to dive into the old recipes of Portugal. Making connections between ingredients, their purpose in the dish and then the sudden realization of how and why it came to be is one of my favorite ways to understand this culture better. Essentially, I’m all about learning the classics and enjoy the challenge of not only doing it myself, but sharing that experience with others.
Let’s be clear. I’m not a baker, I’m a cook! These are completely different creatures. I often feel trapped when I look at the precise formula that is needed for a cake to rise, or a pastry to puff. This leads me to avoid baking at all costs, but there is one cake in Portugal that I’ve thoroughly loved experimenting with simply because its complexity is nearly nonexistent; Pão-de-Ló. It helps that it easily allows for some creative expression by pairing it with fresh fruit, a cup of coffee, or a dusting of powdered sugar – it’s the little things that help!
There are two types of pão-de-ló, the common high rising sponge cake and the fallen custardy cousin called Pão-de-ló de Alfeizerão. While I love both versions, I tend to opt for the tall full formed sponge and leave the custard one to more seasoned bakers.
To make the most typical pão-de-ló, you need eggs. Lots of eggs! Eggs in Portugal are a requirement for just about every dessert, and preferably, fresh from the chicken – though it’s not crucial. A dozen from your local store will do just fine. Next is sugar and flour in equal (by volume) amounts. That’s it. Sounds too good to be true, but I assure you it is.
The trickiest part of this comes from separating eight gemas (yolks) from their claras (whites). My method was to carefully crack the egg, and using the shell halves, gently transfer the yolk back and forth between them as the white drips down into a separate bowl from the yolks. I’ll add a reminder to not throw out those unused whites, there’s a ton of things that can be done with them such as making a batch of sweet airy sonhos, to starch nuns’ habits, or to filter wine.
The average cook may notice something missing to help make the cake rise, especially with such a yolk saturated batter. I found that, oddly enough, there is no need to include a leavening agent to help this bolo rise. I’m not sure if it’s the long whipping of the eggs and including equal parts sugar and flour, but this thing rises without issue. It seems to be the ideal cake for the novice to try their hand at and build confidence.
Once in the oven, I was able to just leave it be. Forty minutes later I removed it and a beautiful sugar shell had developed on top with a gorgeous crescent moon shaped crack running along it. Nothing says pure homemade rustic charm like a bit of crunchy cracked sugar crust!
Using a knife between the parchment paper and the pan, I eased it around the cake to help loosen it from the form. This made it simple to just tug lightly on the pointed paper tips and pull the cake free to finish cooling on a cutting board. The parchment lining not only helps to keep the cake from sticking, but becomes a nice decorative touch too.
Cutting into the cake was, well cake. No pieces fell off, just a few of the obligatory crumbs, and there were no raw bits of batter inside, just perfect cake. Serving it with a few seasonal cherries was an obvious accompaniment. If I had a bit of whipped cream, it would have been perfect, but a small espresso does just fine!
Of all the cakes I’ve made, this is one of the most simple and versatile cakes I’ve accomplished baking successfully without downing a bottle of wine in defeat! Being that a slice is ideal with a glass of Tawny Port wine, or dressed up with a spreading of sweet frosting and turned into a birthday treat, let this be your “go-to” recipe anytime you need to feel like a professional Portuguese baker.
If your sweet tooth is craving a cooking class or a customized Portuguese dessert tour, let us know! We’d be more than happy to help you fall madly in love with its diverse and addictive pastry culture!