I have much for which to thank the nuns of the Catholic Church. After all, one of them taught me how to read.
But I’m almost equally grateful to Roman Catholic nuns for their role in inventing and perfecting some of the most heavenly pastries on earth.
Collectively called convent sweets because they originated in the convents of Italy, Spain, and particularly Portugal as far back as the 15th century, they ultimately made their way far beyond the Iberian peninsula.
The best of these creations relied on egg yolks, of which there were plenty available. Egg whites were used variously to clarify wines, as part of the building material for church walls, to starch nuns’ habits, and in sugar refining, so the remaining yolks were sent to the convent kitchens. Faced with this profusion of yellow leftovers, the sisters hit upon the idea of combining them with sizeable amounts of sugar and heating them, thereby raising the making of custard to an art form.
The most famous of the Portuguese convent sweets are the sublime custard tarts available on every street corner in Lisbon. But if you travel to the Azores, nine volcanic islands west of Portugal, you’ll discover that the nuns were busy there too. Each island has its own special take on custard, typically made from a closely guarded secret recipe. Spending the day sampling them can be a religious experience.
Catholic nuns have been so identified with Portuguese sweets that there’s even one classic pastry facetiously named after them, a traditional Portuguese egg pudding called a “nun’s tummy.” It’s a little cake enrobed in custard and topped with an almond that’s supposed to look like a belly button.
Queijadas appear in many forms in the Azores, but this basic preparation, adapted from Allrecipes.com, can get you started on your own versions. Try for example, using almond or lemon extract in place of vanilla or topping the cakes with coconut, nuts, or fruit.
2 cups sugar
3 tablespoons butter
¾ cup flour
2 cups milk
½ teaspoon vanilla
Whir eggs, sugar, and butter in a blender until smooth. Gradually add flour and milk, blending until smooth. Stir in vanilla. Pour into greased muffin tins and bake at 325 degrees for 45-55 minutes, until golden. Can be served hot or cold.