A Brief Pastry Tour of Lisbon

Clockwise from top left: Queijada de Sintra, pastéis de Belém, pao de deus tabuleiro Maybe it’s the fact that my Facebook newsfeed is filled with photos of friends traveling in Europe, or perhaps it’s just a regular summer slump, but lately I’ve been thinking about my last vacation, a week spent in Lisbon this past March. While the trip’s leisurely pace and no-cell-phone-or-Internet-style relaxation come to mind, mostly I’m reminiscing about all the new things I got to see and, if I’m honest, even more so about all the new food I got to try. There was a lot, including at least five of Portugal’s legendary 365 ways to prepare bacalhau. But if I had to pick a theme for the trip, it would be pastry. I knew from fellow Epi-Log contributor Carolina Santos-Neves that the Portuguese have a fondness for egg-filled desserts, so I anticipated lots of custards and enriched baked goods. Plus, as soon as I started mentioning my upcoming trip, Portugal fans immediately insisted I had to go to the Antigua Confeitaria de Belém to try their famous pastéis de Belém, small crisp pastry shells filled with (surprise, surprise) a luscious egg-y custard, and dusted in powdered sugar and cinnamon. As David Leite explains in his culinary guide to Portugal, “These treats are so sought after that it is illegal for any other shop to sell anything called pastéis de Belém; pretenders to the throne must call theirs pastéis de nata.” The bakery can be quite popular. According to Leite, they shape, fill, and bake more than 10,000 pastéis de Belém a day. We were lucky to encounter only a short line in Belém, though I’m sure I would have waited if necessary. I may balk at lines at home in New York, but on vacation, when I worry about never making it back, I’m usually game for a little waiting in line. We encountered another famous pastry in Sintra, a castle-filled town that’s a quick 40-minute train ride from Lisbon. Like pastéis de Belém, Sintra’s specialty, queijadas, are also made in other places. I haven’t heard of any legal claims to the name, but it seems generally accepted that Sintra’s version is the best. The similarities don’t stop there: Queijadas also feature a thin pastry shell filled with custard, but the pastry is thinner and a little less sweet. The filling is also less sweet, probably because it includes fresh cheese (something along the lines of ricotta), and has a firmer texture than the soft custard in the pastéis de Belém. If forced to choose, I’d probably pick Sintra’s queijadas over the pastéis de Belém, but the award for favorite goes to another, less-well-known pastry. At breakfast at Padaria Portuguesa, which has multiple locations in Lisbon, we discovered pão de deus tabuleiro. I’ve yet to find a decent translation for this coconut-infused pastry, reminiscent of an enriched bread dough, something along the lines of brioche, but more delicate and crumbly. The unique texture was probably what…

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