More than they’re cracked up to be

Words: Christian Tighe   Illustration by Root + Bone

More than they’re cracked up to be

Sugary, sweet or religious symbol?


Portuguese custard tarts have become one of the Iberian Peninsulas best known exports. While these egg-based bites are now ubiquitous in coffee shops and across dessert menus, the family of sugary treats they belong to is relatively unknown outside of the Portuguese-speaking world. Unlike Pastel de Nata (see recipe), which are wrapped in an outer shell of flaky pastry, many are made of only two ingredients: egg yolks and sugar.
These simple components can be combined and cooked in hundreds of ways, from boiling and baking to frying and poaching. Today, egg yolks get used in lots of dessert bases; however, the ritual behind these simple dishes begins in Portugal’s deeply religious past. Catholic priests, monks and nuns sprinkled across the Portuguese empire used large volumes of egg whites to stiffen and starch their vestments, which created a surplus of yolks. Not wanting to let the liquid gold go to waste, monastic cooks began to experiment.
The purest of the yolk-centred delights is Fios de Ovos (Egg Threads), a dish first devised in the 14th century and made by piping beaten yolks into a simmering sugar-water mixture (see recipe). Similarly, sweet piped egg yolks are common in both Japan and Thailand, and it’s thought that this is due to interaction with Portuguese sailors during the 18th and 19th centuries.
As with many ritualistic and traditional foods, Fios de Ovos do not conform to the contemporary Western practices of separating sweet and savoury. Much like mince pies and Christmas pudding in Great Britain and Ireland, the combination of salty sugary flavours is often associated with religious festivals. For example, in Brazil, egg threads can still be found as both a cake decoration and a topping for Christmas Turkey.
Over time, other elements have been thrown into the custardy recipes. In the 1800s, the Abbot of the city of Braga added the quintessentially Portuguese ingredients Iberico pork-fat and Port wine, creating a dish so cherished that it was reserved for royalty. Luckily, the once secretive recipe for Pudim Abade de Priscos has since been revealed and can be trialled by intrepid cooks around the world.
The link between this group of desserts and the church remains strong. For example, the extremely popular snack Ovos Moles (soft eggs) are made by filling delicate seashell shaped communion wafers with a simple egg yolk and sugar custard.
While each region of Portugal is home to a speciality egg-based treat dreamt up in local kitchens, the sugar in them comes from far afield and its use is tied to the so-called ‘Age of Discoveries’.
Exotic ingredients such as sugarcane from plantations in South America, and Cinnamon from the forests of Sri Lanka, flowed into Mediterranean ports aboard cargo ships and became a key part of Portuguese food culture. However, it wasn’t just goods that were transported across the Atlantic. People and their religion were forcibly taken in the other direction. New egg-based desserts sprang up across colonies and can still be found in Brazil and Mozambique today. Enslaved people who were forcibly taken to South America created their own versions of the classic desserts, using local ingredients to produce Quindim, a coconut-based baked custard (see recipe).
The ritual of making these two-ingredient sweets appears simple, but in fact it embodies the deep relationship between the people and places that created them.
Fios de Ovos
5 egg yolks
1 cup of water
2 cups of sugar
1 teaspoon of vanilla essence
1 cinnamon stick
Piping bag
Mixing bowl
Deep frying pan
Slotted spoon
1. Separate and beat the egg yolks before passing them through a wide sieve into a bowl.
2. In a deep frying pan, dissolve the sugar into the water and bring the mixture to a boil.
3. Add the cinnamon stick and vanilla essence to the sugar-water mixture and cook on a high heat for 4 minutes.
4. Pour the egg yolks into the piping bag and cut the tip off, leaving a very small piping hole (2-3mm).
5. Remove the cinnamon stick from the pan and slowly pipe the egg yolks into the sugar-water from a height of around 5cm. Keep the piping bag moving to form circles of thin threads.
6. Allow each batch of egg threads to cook for 1-2 minutes. Once they have turned a rich yellow colour, remove them with a slotted spoon.
7. Place the cooked egg threads in a sieve, sprinkle with cold water and leave to cool.
8. Serve either alone or as an accompaniment to sweet or savoury dishes.
5 egg yolks
2/3 cup of coconut milk
1/2 cup of desiccated coconut
1/4 cup of sugar
1 teaspoon of vanilla essence
1 tablespoon of softened butter
Mixing bowl
4 small ramekins
1. Preheat your oven to 170ºC/Gas 3.
2. Grease the ramekins using the softened butter.
3. Separate and beat the egg yolks before pressing them through a sieve into a bowl.
4. Add the desiccated coconut, coconut milk, sugar and vanilla essence to the egg yolks and mix thoroughly.
5. Pour the mixture into the greased containers.
6. Place the containers into a deep baking tray and carefully surround with boiling water, creating a bain marie.
7. Place the tray in the oven and cook for 30-35 minutes, or until the top of the quindim are slightly browned.
8. Once cooked, remove the tray from the oven and remove the quindim from the bain marie. Allow to cool for 15 minutes, before placing in a fridge.
9. After refrigerating for 4 hours, loosen the quindim from the moulds by running a knife around their edges.
10. Upturn on a plate and serve.
Pastel de Nata
3 egg yolks
2 tablespoons of plain flour
2/3 cup of milk
2/3 cup of sugar
1/3 cup of water
1 teaspoon of vanilla essence
1 tablespoon of softened butter
1 cinnamon stick
300g of puff pastry (homemade or shop-bought)
Mixing bowl
Cupcake tray
Rolling pin
To Serve
Powered cinnamon
Icing sugar
1. Preheat your oven to 220ºC/Gas 7.
2. Using a rolling pin on a floured surface, roll the pastry into a square approximately 0.5cm thick.
3. Take one side of the square and tightly roll the pastry up like a scroll and leave to one side.
4. Separate and beat the egg yolks before passing them through a wide sieve into a bowl.
5. Mix the flour and a small amount of milk in a bowl, removing all lumps and forming a smooth paste.
6. In a saucepan, dissolve the sugar into the water and bring the mixture to a boil.
7. Add the cinnamon stick and vanilla essence to the sugar-water and cook on a high heat for 4 minutes.
8. In another pan, bring the remaining milk to the boil and remove from the heat. Add the flour-milk paste slowly, whilst stirring, until it’s fully mixed in.
9. Next, after removing the cinnamon stick from the sugar-water, gradually add the hot liquid to the milk, whisking slowly.
10. Finally, whilst continuing to whisk incrementally, add the beaten egg yolks to form a thin custard.
11. Grease a standard cupcake tray, and cut the pastry roll into 3cm discs.
12. Place a disc inside each of the holes and use your thumbs to shape it up to the edges, being careful not to stretch the pastry to thinly.
13. Fill each of the pastry cases ¾ of the way full with custard and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the pastry and custard are lightly browned.
14. Serve whilst hot, dusted with powered cinnamon and icing sugar.