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Portuguese Cookies (a pastry from Heaven)

July 5, 2011

Minooka girls in front of the Belem Tower in Lisbon, Portugal

There are some cultures that are known for their cuisines.  Quite a few of the kids getting ready for our Japan trip have asked if we’re going to have sushi while we’re there, and I sure hope we get the chance to try the real thing.  Along those lines, we had fish and chips in England, paella in Spain, sausages galore in Germany, Irish stew in Ireland, most of the kids ate their weight in gyros while in Greece, and of course we had tons and tons of pizza in Italy.  However, when we planned this trip, knowing we’d have three days in Portugal, none of us knew what to expect from Portuguese cuisine.

The Portuguese are known for those 16th century explorers zipping all over the globe looking for spices, so to guess that the menus would have a seafood theme would have been logical.  Portugal’s history is so interlaced with Spain’s, so it wouldn’t have been absurd to infer that the two countries would share some flavors and seasonings.  It’s not a very big country, so to predict that there wouldn’t be much beef or lamb, but more pork and chicken seemed to make sense.  However, looking back at our favorite culinary delight in Portugal – all of those guesses were waaaaaaaaaay off.

It shouldn’t have been hard to guess.  Some simple questions might have led folks in the right direction.  There were clues all over the city – talk of Columbus (yes, we know he wasn’t Portuguese), a bridge named after de Gama, a monument to Henry the Navigator, a story about Magellan. But even with those clues staring us in the face, you could have given us a million guesses and none of us ever, not in a gazillion years, would have guessed that the most memorable food we had in Portugal would be… a cookie.  More specifically, a cinnamon cookie.  Cinnamon being one of those highly sought after spices that sent Portuguese sailors and explorers to the ends of the Earth.

Now this wasn’t just any old cookie.  It wasn’t a Mrs. Field’s chocolate chip or a dunked-in-milk-Oreo or even one of those toothpaste flavored ones from the Girl Scouts.  This was more of a pastry, a mini pie even, than it was a cookie.  To be honest, it was really more of a perfectly baked slice of heaven than anything else.

It started off with a tease… literally.  On our first full day in Lisbon, we had the first of many “city guides.”  A city guide is exactly what it sounds like, a tour guide that is an expert in that particular city and stays with us for a half day or a day to show us around and teach us about that town.  Maria-Jose (in English Mary-Joseph) had what looks like a man and woman’s name mashed together, but we actually learned that it’s quite common to name Portuguese women after both of Jesus’ parents, and she was a our Lisbon expert.

The Minooka TAP gang at Lisbon's Monument to the Discoveries

Maria-Jose jumped on our bus near downtown Lisbon and went through the laundry list of sites she’d be sharing with us, and “If there’s time,” she teased us, “we may even stop at a little cafe that serves the famous Portuguese cinnamon cookies, but first we’ll visit Belem Tower, The Monument to the Discoveries, The April 25th Bridge, Cristo Rei, The Jeronimos Monastary, Lisbon Cathedral, and even The Castle of Sao Jorge atop the hill overlooking all of Lisbon.”    If the rest of the bus was listening/hearing this stuff the same way I was, everyone only remembers a few words out of all that — “famous,” “cookies,” and “if we have time.”

My response to Maria-Jose…  We’ll make time.  We will find time.  If necessary we will install a flux capacitor on this tour bus and get ourselves some cookies, and that was before I even tasted what it must be like for Portuguese people in heaven.

Belem Tower was cool – there’s an awesome story about an earthquake and how one of the world’s widest rivers shifted about 80 feet to the south, but you can look that up on Wikipedia.  While we were there, Maria-Jose told us that the cookies, called pasteis de Belem, were only available at one bakery in the whole world, right there in the Belem district of Lisbon.

The Monument to the Discoveries was better than expected, there was a cool story about Henry the Navigator, a really neat map made out of tiles on the sidewalk, and two dudes playing Richard Marx songs on the pan flute – if you want more about that read a book, look at pictures, or search YouTube for “hits of the 80s on weird Portuguese instruments.”  As we strolled around taking pictures of the river and the monument, Maria-Jose taught us that these cookies were so unique that, until 1839, the only people that served these particular cookies were nuns at the Jeronimos Monastery that came up with the original recipe, and that recipe was a carefully guarded secret.

There was something about Lindbergh and an airplane that landed somewhere and…  I have no idea what that was about, by then I was focused solely on cookies. Where were the cookies?  When would they be in my tummy?  Why isn’t the answer to that second questions – now?  Maria-Jose answered many of my questions, informing us that a few bakeries in Lisbon made these cookies, but only one place has the original recipe, so that was the only place that made the real-authentic version – basically, what she was saying was that going to get these cookies from anywhere but this shop was like trying to get authentic deep-dish Chicago Style Pizza from a Papa Johns in Boise, Idaho.  She also told us that the cookies were so popular with tourists that folks were known to stand in line for hours at a time to get them.

Paige, Tara, and Megan leaning on the castle walls, the city of Lisbon (and some cookies) out there behind them.

The castle was tall, some of it had fallen down, there were some wars there or something, but more importantly, we had left the Belem district, and there were cookies there.  I could see them – sort of – as I looked over the castle walls, down the hill, and out into the city below.  Maria-Jose just continued to tease, stating that, of all the delightful confections and deserts in Portugal, the population had voted these cookies to represent Portugal in a celebration of Europe Day.  I didn’t know what a Europe Day was, but it seemed like more high praise, and I wanted to celebrate Europe Day today.

The cathedral was churchy – it had stuff like windows and bells and churchish things along those lines.  It was all great, but somewhere out there were some cookies with my name on them, but Maria-Jose was playing games with us.  She remarked that somehow these cookies had become very popular in Singapore and Thailand, and, of all places, they were available in Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in China (of course not the originals, but at least a reasonable facsimile).  All this cookie talk, with no cookie eating, had me instantly building an itinerary for a TAP trip to a Chinese KFC, but…

Finally, for the first of many times on our trip, Juanito (our tour director) told us that we’d be having a ‘technical break,’ which is a new (and very polite) way of telling us we’re having a potty stop.

Where was this potty stop?

The Lisbon Maritime Museum.

What do they have in the Lisbon Maritime Museum?

Some old boats.

What’s way cooler than old boats?

The little cafe nearby that had the world famous Portuguese cinnamon cookies.

Who was happy?

I have no idea who else was happy; I was happy, but I left the rest of them in the dust as I shoved my way towards the cookies.

By this time I had worked myself in to some sort of cookie frenzy, so while everyone else went to stand in line for their technical break, I headed right for the cookie line.  Maria-Jose was the only one ahead of me, and while we waited, she told me that we had perfect timing.  We were getting the real cookies from the original recipe, and our timing was so perfect that we were arriving just as the ladies were pulling them from the oven.  I asked Maria-Jose if this was an accident or a planned circumstance, but she only smiled.

Let’s get to the cookie itself.  As I said earlier, I don’t think Americans would classify this as a cookie – we’d call it a pastry or a tiny pie, but we’re not that bright a culture when it comes to sweets – for goodness sake as Americans we’re the people who bring Fig Newtons, Twinkies, and the Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pie to the world of deserts, while they’ve got cookie recipes that are older than our country, so I don’t think we’d better let them call their cookie a cookie if they want. 

The whole thing is about the size of a Hostess cupcake – maybe not quite as tall, and maybe a little bigger around, but at least that gives us a start.  The base is a flaky crust that was sweet and buttery, breaking apart in your mouth like an explosion of flavor.  I’m not doing it justice at all, but think about the sweetest most flaky croissant, but make it denser, like the inside of a Butterfinger, and you’ve just about got it.  It looks like a typical pie crust, but when it explodes and breaks into those tiny pieces, each one of them melts all buttery in your mouth – like God was squirting movie theatre popcorn topping out of each delicate bit, then, as you chew, they break apart again, and again, and again – each level of breakingness bringing a new level of buttery delight.  There were literally hundreds of layers in this little crust, so the goodness went on and on and on and on and on.

This “crust” forms a little bowl – no, bowl isn’t right, it’s more like a nest – a perfectly crafted nest of intertwined flakes of crusty, buttery goodness.  Baked inside that nest is this stuff that’s not quite custard and not quite apple sauce.  It’s got that grainy feel of applesauce, but the creamy taste of custard, with a whole new flavor that’s a bit fruity and a bit like vanilla pudding.  I called it Cuspplesautard for a while, but Miss Filetti told me that was not an appetizing word, and I wouldn’t make anyone back home want to try a Portuguese cookie, so I had to stop.  I decided instead to call it “that awesome tasting stuff inside that cookie.”

The filling was warm and melty, blending perfectly with the bits of crust that were breaking apart in my mouth.  Throughout the rest of the day I continuously asked Maria-Jose what was inside that cookie and she just kept giving me that sly smile, like telling me what a cookie is made of would be breaking some sort of Portuguese law, but I played a guessing game with her and got a few of the key ingredients.  To my surprise – there’s no apple – or fruit of any sort for that matter, so when I asked what made it taste like fruit, I just got more smiles.  In the end, I found out that only three people on the planet know the original recipe, so there was no way I was getting it out of her.
On top of the cookie, used more perfectly than you could possibly imagine, was a thick layer – not a dusting, not a swirl, not a pinch – a layer – of cinnamon that made the cookie so sweet in a way that nothing back home is sweet.  In America we always use cinnamon with other things, like we think its got  co-dependency issues and it can’t go out alone.  I love cinnamon, but at the stores in the States you can’t find cinnamon without its BFF raisins (which I hate) or in some sort of sprinkle with its other pal, sugar.  In Portugal they understand the power of cinnamon.  They know that it doesn’t need a co-star.  They have the sense to let cinnamon be the headliner, sitting there atop the cookie like it’s the perched on a pastry throne as the king of all the spices.

Cinnamon, on top of this cookie, was used to perfection, and I suddenly understood why the Portuguese pretty much invented international travel.  I get why Vasco de Gama was sent scuttling around the globe to find a quicker way to India to bring spices.  It makes sense why there were wars and invasions and genocide all to bring spices back to Portugal – these people knew what the Portuguese bakers were capable of.

Forget Henry the Navigator, they should build a monument to the cookie.  Instead of a big marble boat with all the famous Portuguese explorers and cartographers, they should have a giant flaky crust nest, the nuns that invented the cookie, and the gazillion people that stand in line each day memorialized out there by the river.  Of course, that would mean a whole bunch of tourists would go take pictures of it, and that would mean less tourists in line in front of me next time I’m in Lisbon.

If there’s one particular food that you can’t get out of your mind from any of your travels (TAP or otherwise) please let us know what it is in the comments section below. 

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. danielle davis permalink
    July 11, 2011 5:14 pm

    Toughs cookies were amazing best I’ve ever had the cinnamon made it so much better to yummy !

  2. Luis Vieira permalink
    January 18, 2012 7:33 am

    I live in Lisbon… do you want some cookies????… by DHL…hehheh

    Nice story about my city… congratulations!…

    • January 18, 2012 7:43 am

      Thanks Luis. I loved Lisbon, and I can’t wait to get back there someday. It’s not a city we hear a lot about here in the States, but it’s one of the friendliest and most fantastic cities I’ve ever been to.

  3. January 19, 2012 6:05 am

    I also have “pasteis de nata” or “tarte de natas”, is similar and you can find the recipe on google 🙂

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