Convent sweets are a traditional way for making sweets in Portugal. As the name says, they were made in convents by nuns and, specially, novices, and made out of eggs and sugar. And each convent had it's own specialties that now have become regional pastries/sweets.
This tradition started as early 15th century after the discovery of the islands that would become the archipelago of Madeira, their subsequent colonization and sugar plantations.
As I said it before, Portugal was the country that started the maritime discoveries, even in the Middle Ages.
Sugar revolutionized cooking, since the only sweetening method was through honey. All the single girls that would enter the convents would bring their dowries and keep the convents rich enough to buy sugar. And you ask why?
Because of starching and clearing the wines. All the convent's garments needed to be starched with egg whites and a lot of wine producers would clear their wines with them, leaving big amounts of egg yolks available for feeding the poor and the pigs. My personal believe is that making a simple non alcoholic eggnog with honey became something more elaborate with sugar. There's always a simple explanation, mostly lost in time, to how one thing (in this case starching) became another one (convent sweets).
These sweets, and also liqueurs, most of them with suggestfull christian names (as you can see below) were also made, by these novices, to attract possible future husbands (a good way to get out of the convents and start a life). But they would also be made by monks.
What I suggest is that you Google the following (just copy/paste it) and feast you eyes on the images that-ll pop up: “Doçaria Conventual”....
Right? How about that for cholesterol and a heart-attack in a small bite?
You can read more about it in a link I have shared with you already in 2012 when I posted some information on Portuguese food habits:
Today, and to commemorate Easter (a time where these sweets are usually eaten) I will give you the recipes of the sweets of that post, taken from the book “Apontamentos sobre a gastroomia de séc XVII” Virgilio Gomes, in Congresso Interncaional de 1990 org Sociedade Portuguesa de Estudos do séc XVIII.
Funny enough, is that Beckford being such a critic of Portuguese gastronomy and eating habits, he had non on convent sweets!
Papos de anjo (Angel's goitre)
10 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
1 table spoon of sweet cornstarch
500g of sugar
50ml of water
7,5g of vanilla sugar
30ml of rum
2 lemon peels
1 cinnamon stick
Beat the eggs with the cornstarch; add the mixture to little tins that have been greased and covered with flower; bake them for 12 minutes at a low temperature (180ºC); in the meantime, boil the sugar, with the spices, rum and water for about 5 minutes; take the “cakes” out of the oven, pierce them on both sides with a fork and add them to the sweet water mix; take them out and put them in a nice bowl; add the remaining liquid and let it cool down.
Barrigas de freira (Nuns bellies)
Comes from the region of Alcobaça (perhaps made by Cistercian Monks in the 17th century , but couldn't find much information on that).
100g of grated almonds
12 egg yolks
200ml of water
500g of sugar
50g of bread (or even sponge cake)
laminated almonds for decoration
Boil the water with the sugar until it “pearls” (when it falls in little drops from the cocking spoon); let it cool down a bit and add the bread and the almonds and boil it again on low heat until it soaked up all the liquid; take a couple of spoons out and add them to the beaten egg yolks (don't let the egg yolks cook!); add the mixture to the pot with the soaked bread and cook it again on low heat until the cooking spoon opens a “road “ in the mixture. Put it in little cups and ad the decoration; serve it cold.
Toucinho do céu (Heaven's bacon)
Originally made with lard, this recipe comes from the North of Portugal, from the Minho and Trás-os-Montes regions. One of the most known recipes comes from the Convent of Saint Clara in Guimarães.
I leave you with a picture of the cake, since it would be a bit hard for you to find one of the ingredients outside the Iberian Peninsula (Xila jam).
Picture taken from the following site: www.receitasemenus.net
Happy Easter and don't forgett to exercice!