Monday, 5 January 2015

Nuns and stiff wimples, pasteis de marmelada


Its winter time, egg yolks and wine, and over the past festive season what with making frosting for  the cake and perhaps a meringue pavlova or two I expect many of you have ended up with a glut of egg yolks. If so,here are some Portuguese solutions  that might ease the problem and avoid excessive waste and blocking up the kitchen sink.
With thanks to discerning wine drinkers and nuns, pastry production in Portugal has always been part of their culinary heritage.
Many of the country's typical pastries were created in monasteries by nuns and monks and sold as a means of supplementing their incomes. The main ingredient for these pastries was egg yolks. It is common belief that the medieval nuns used vast quantities of egg whites to stiffen their wimples, and therefore were forced to develop endless dessert recipes to use all the surplus yolks. However it is also known that Portugal had a big egg production, mainly between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
When wine (Port) started being exported abroad, the Portuguese found that wine consumers were preferring filtered wine, which gave a more clear and refined flavor. After experimenting in different filtering techniques, they concluded that using egg whites produced the best results.
The excess quantity of yolks, combined with plenty of sugar coming from the Portuguese colonies was the inspiration for the creation of wonderful recipes made from egg yolk. The names of these deserts are usually related to monastic life and to the Catholic faith. Examples are, among others, barriga de freira (nun's belly), papos de anjo (angel's breasts), and toucinho do céu (bacon from heaven). Other common ingredients in Portuguese convent confectionery are almonds, "doce de chila/gila" made from pumpkin or squash, wafer paper, and candied egg threads called "fios de ovos.
Today, the Portuguese still enjoy rich, egg-based desserts that are often seasoned with spices such as cinnamon and vanilla.
Perhaps the most popular is leite-crème or egg and milk custard. It consists of milk, flour, sugar, lemon zest, cinnamon and seven egg yolks, but the intriguing part of this recipe is the need for an iron. Yes, an iron.My first thought was that I was lost in translation but then I realised that before cheffy type blow torches were the rule of the game this would have been the only option in a conventual kitchen. After the custard has finished cooking, heat the base of a flat or cast iron over a high flame and apply it to the sugar for a few seconds to allow the sugar to caramelize. Using a blowtorch is now the modern equivalent, but when given the chance, who wouldn’t want to iron their dessert?
Most towns in Portugal have a local specialty, usually an egg or cream based pastry. Originally from Lisbon, but popular nationwide as well as among the diaspora, are my all time favourite, pastéis de nata.Here is my own seasonal variation on the theme of these, with marmelada (quince jam).


Quince Custard tart (pasteis de marmelada)
makes 18 tarts

150g (5oz) quince paste
1/2 cup ( 5 fl oz )orange juice

Melt the quince paste with the orange juice in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Stir well until completely combined, then remove from the heat and allow to cool.


FOR THE PASTRY AND THE CUSTARD
500g Massa folhada (puff pastry)
140g single cream
4 egg yolks
75g caster sugar
A dash of vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 230C /450 gas 8
In a saucepan, beat the egg yolks and sugar till thick. Beat in the cream gradually and carefully heat, stirring till the mixture thickens to a custard. Be careful not to overheat or it will curdle. Remove at once and cool completely. Roll out the pastry to make 2  22cm x 18cm (10x 8in) oblongs and roll each one into a swiss roll shape.Cut into slices 2 cm thick. This is a clever technique, because instead of expanding upwards the puff pastry pushes outward, making a deep cup shape for each tart. Spread the rounds into into muffin pans, pressing down thoroughly with both thumbs. Scoop into each tart 1/2 teaspoon of of quince paste followed by a dessert spoon of the custard. Bake until the pastry is golden and the top is caramelised (10-15 minutes ).

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