A Guide to Portuguese Pastries and Where to Find Them in Lisbon (Updated 2018)
No trip to Portugal is complete without a taste of local pastries. Pastelaria, which translates into both “pastry shops” and "pastry", are abundant along the rugged hills of Lisbon and are a true testament to the country's insatiable sweet tooth. I am not exaggerating, as I gawk at the cornucopia of buttery treats in one pastelaria, there would be at least a couple more dough-filled window displays within my peripheral vision.
In a way, pastelarias in Portugal are a lot like cha chaan tengs in Hong Kong. They open from the wee hours of the morning, serving a range of bread-centric breakfast items along tea and coffee. Lunch fares hearty sandwiches or hot plates-of-the-day, all filling and affordable. Throughout the day, freshly baked pastries are available to-go, or polished off quickly with a shot of espresso.
Each pastry store serves their own selection of pastelaria, some are house specialties, and some are typical to the region. Don't be intimidated if you don't speak Portuguese, store owners are extremely friendly and body language is always an option. If you ever order at a Portuguese pastelaria, here are some of my favourite pastries.
1. Pastéis de Nata
I tried the infamous pastéis de Belem on my first trip to Portugal and was hugely disappointed. The thick gooey filling was nothing like the silky smooth egg custard ones I grew up on, which was just a ferry ride away in Macau. On this recent visit I tried the ones from Manteigaria and Alcoa, both were much better than the pastéis of my memory, although still not what I would crave.
2. Bolo de Arroz
If you like muffins then this is for you. The bolo de arroz is a rice flour muffin with a domed sugar-crusted top baked in an iconic wax paper cup with vintage blue text. The light and fluffy texture, with just a light hint of lemony makes it the best accompaniment to a strong black coffee. Get one as an on-flight snack from the airport's Confeitaria Nacional.
3. Pão de deus
Translated to "bread of the gods", this brioche-like bread is a typical treat eaten on All Souls' Day. For the rest of the year, the orange-scented bread topped with a moist grated coconut is equally popular in pastelarias and padarias (bakeries), like the unassuming Pastelaria Nita in Bairro Alto.
Analogous to French madeleines, "queque" also sounds like "cake" in English. Instead of a shell shape, they are baked in a round scalloped mould and are meant to look like a crown. The texture is similar to pound cake and is a perennial favourite among children. Pastelaria Nita in Bairro Alto makes one of the best queques I've tried in Lisbon.
Queijada generally means cheese cake and you will find many variations in Portugal. Queijada de Sintra is a petit tart with a chewy and crumbly filling made of requeijão, a curd similar to a loose ricotta. Get yours from the original Fabrica das Verdadeiras da Sapa in Sintra. If it's available, I also recommend the tart de queijada, a moister and cinnamon-free version of queijada de Sintra.
Palmier in Portugal comes in all sorts of shapes and types, and are definitely not for the faint of heart. They may be in form of the typical French heart shape, or a fan shape smeared with doce de ovo (egg custard), or sometimes smeared with doce de ovo THEN dipped in chocolate. For those with a extra large sweet tooth, go for the palmiers recheados - a thick layer of doce de ovo sandwiched between two squares of puff pastries. Those expecting flaky puff pastry shards all over your shirt may be disappointed, as palmiers in Portugal tend to be on the soggy side.
7. Travesseiro de Sintra
A travesseiro is a pillow shaped pastry made with a cross between a phyllo and puff pastry, filled with an eggy almond cream and then sprinkled with a healthy dust of sugar. If you ever find yourself in Sintra, it is worth a special trip to taste Casa Piriquita's original recipe, especially if they are fresh from the oven.
The Jesuíta may not stand out in a full pastry case of baked goods, but it is a long-standing contender in Portugal's oldest pastelarias, like Confeitaria Cistér near the botanical garden. Triangles of puff pastry layered with yet again, doce de ovos, and topped with a meringue-like layer of crispy royal icing to resemble the Jesuit cloak.
9. Torresmo do Céu
The world famous Pastelaria Alcoa has a plethora of specialties under its brand, but the Torresmo do Céu made it to the top of my Portuguese pastry odyssey. Translated as "crackling (or bacon) of heaven", this tart has the same crust as the pastéis de nata, but filled with an orange-hued almond cream and topped with a caramelized spiral pastry lid.
If you need a switch from all the sugar, don't forget almost all pastelarias also offer savoury food! Pastelão del dia (pastry of the day) is perfect as a savoury breakfast or a light lunch. Essentially a pastry pocket, the filling is always a surprise made with fresh and available ingredients everyday.