Eggs in Portuguese Desserts

The sheer creativity of the Portuguese with eggs and sugar is impressive. A list of 8 traditional Portuguese desserts by the number of eggs they contain. (Spoiler: also impressive)

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natas long
When you first walk into a traditional Portuguese café or confeitaria (pasty shop or bakery), you will usually see a large display case full of desserts and other delectables.  The dominant color is yellow, which comes from the truly astounding number of egg yolks that form the basis of many of the most common – and beloved – desserts in Portugal. 
desserts eggs
Typical café display case
When I was newly married, my husband, Nuno, and I threw a dinner party back in the United States with a Portuguese-themed meal.  Nuno, who was a wonderful cook, suggested a dessert called toucinho-do céu or heaven’s bacon, which has since become one of my all-time favorites.  Toucinho-do céu is an almond cake that does not contain any actual bacon, but as we carnivores claim, everything tastes better with bacon, so the name of the dessert just borrows on the idea.  Since I, unfortunately, am not a wonderful cook, I was in charge of buying groceries for the dinner party, and when Nuno told me to pick up two dozen eggs, I figured some was for the dessert and some for the rest of the menu.  How many eggs can a cake have?  Two?  Four?  Nope.  Try 20: 18 yolks and 2 whites.  Nuno cracked egg after egg, while I, aghast, despaired that this monstrosity could possibly be served to human beings with an aversion to salmonella that we actually liked.  And yet, as it turns out, heaven’s bacon is called heaven’s bacon for a reason.  It is sublime. 
You won’t usually find toucinho-do céu at most cafés, however, as it’s more of a specialty item served in restaurants.  As I’ve talked about before, Portuguese cafés tend to be fairly similar from one to the other in terms of the traditional dessert offerings, but there are a variety of other tasty treats you’re likely to encounter in a café or a grocery store that also contain a quantity of eggs that I, a mere American non-cook, have found astonishing and delightful — and hope you will, too.
To help you get a sense of just how many eggs we’re talking about here, I turn to the classic Portuguese cookbook, Cozinha Tradicional Portuguesa (Traditional Portuguese Cuisine), written by Portuguese gastro-legend Maria de Lourdes Modesto, who the New York Times described as “Portugal’s Julia Child” in 1987.  (Times subscribers can read the original article by searching the title “In Portugal, Cooking Via Molière.”)  Modesto died in 2022 at the ripe old age of 92, and tributes to her work over the years promoting Portuguese cuisine poured in afterwards.
modesto book
Picture of my personal copy of the book.
First published in 1981, Cozinha Tradicional Portuguesa is, nominally, a recipe book but it’s also an anthropological gem, broken down into recipes by region, with photos by Augusto Cabrita from the time period that have been maintained throughout subsequent editions of the book.  Many of the same dishes appear in multiple regions of the country but with subtly distinct recipes, and the pictures of Portuguese rural life, such as widows dressed all in black washing tripas, or tripe, in a stream, are as fascinating as the recipes themselves.  (And as a widow, they also remind me that there’s no time like the present…).
modesto tripas
Photo by Augusto Cabrita, in Cozinha Tradicional Portuguesa by Maria de Lourdes Modesto.
Below is a non-exhaustive list of 8 common Portuguese desserts in order of the number of eggs the recipe calls for in Cozinha Tradicional Portuguesa, which is typically for a batch of cookies or an entire cake.  Since these desserts are produced in many regions of the country – and of course every baker has their own interpretation – I include the regions identified in the book whose recipe calls for the most eggs.  However, all the regional variations are worth trying, give or take half a dozen eggs.
Note: some of these desserts have ready English translations but many don’t, so I use my own approximate translations or an explanation instead.  Opinions about said desserts reflect the author of this post, and not Maria de Lourdes Modesto, her descendants, or her descendants’ descendants.  That I know of, anyway.

Pastéis de Nata (Custard Tarts)

Region: Estremadura (a historic region that no longer exists, but once included Lisbon and surrounding areas)
After wine, pastéis de nata, or just natas as people refer to them here, are probably the most emblematic Portuguese food, or at least the first thing (if anything) people think of when the topic of Portuguese cuisine comes up.  (Extra points if you said “no wait, it’s sardines!” which are also a Portuguese staple and one of my favorite seafood dishes here.). With a flaky crust and a sweet, creamy center, it’s no wonder that they have captured the culinary heart of so many visitors.  Still, I am going to say something blasphemous:  I think natas are…just sort of ok.  Sure, a freshly baked nata and a latte on a cold winter day? Great.  But would I wait in a sweaty line of tourists on an August afternoon in Lisbon to pick up some natas to-go from the world-famous Pastéis de BelémNo way.  However, I would go inside their café to order them at a table because the line moves more quickly.  (Pro tip: try their chamuças or samosas, too.  Dee-lish.) 
A batch of natas, though, will only set you back 8 egg yolks.  Childs’ play.

Ovos-moles (an egg dessert wrapped in rice paper)

Region: Aveiro
ovos moles
The coastal town of Aveiro is the birthplace of ovos-moles,essentially a bomb of eggy-sugar wrapped in a host wafer.  My children absolutely love them, and for health reasons, I prefer that they eat ovos-moles instead of ripping open packets of raw sugar and downing them straight.  More protein.  Aveiro is sometimes (generously) called the Portuguese Venice and makes for a nice day trip.  (Pro tip: if you bring young, Portuguese-speaking children to Aveiro trying to interest them in the history of the boats, be prepared to hear crickets chirping, followed by “ovos-moles! ovos-moles!”)
I was actually surprised to discover that a batch of ovos-moles contains only 8 egg yolks, since it looks like it’s comprised of 99% egg, so it’s time to step up our game.

Fio de Ovos (Egg Threads)

Region: Ribatejo (a historic region that no longer exists, but once fell in eastern Lisbon and Santarém)
Eggs and sugar pulled into angel hair spaghetti-like threads is a sight to behold.  You can munch away on a pile of it on your plate or arrange a clump as fake grass for a novelty lamb cake.  The structural possibilities are endless.  My favorite iteration comes from a picture in Modesto’s Cozinha Tradicional Portuguesa, which imagines the fio de ovos spilling over tiered crystal like a champagne waterfall.  Of eggs.
modesto fio de ovos
Photo by Augusto Cabrita, in Cozinha Tradicional Portuguesa by Maria de Lourdes Modesto.
Fio de ovos clocks in at 12 egg yolks plus 2 egg whites, which is pretty solid, but we’re just getting warmed up.

Queijadas (Cheesecake Pastries)

Region: Trás-os-Montes
Queijadas are a Portuguese café standard everywhere.  They are something of a cross between American-style cheesecake and a denser flour-based cake.  If I had to choose between natas and queijadas, I would probably be in the minority opting for queijadas.  I say that because I have tasted many mediocre natas in my day, but queijadas are simpler to make and more difficult to get wrong.  Also, they’re not as messy to eat.
A batch of queijadas will set you back 12 egg yolks plus 3 whole eggs.  Now we’re talking.

Castanhas de ovos (Egg Chestnuts)

Region: Viseu
castanhas de ovos
Castanhas de ovos
Castanhas de ovos are another café standard.  The advantage they have over some other desserts with similar ingredients is their size: small, round, and about as big as a chestnut.  Sometimes they come with a little cherry on top.  If you’re egg-dessert-curious, but not ready to take on something like, say, doce de ovos, which is literally a bowl full of a runny mixture of eggs and sugar (14 egg yolks, but something you’re more likely to find in a full-service restaurant, so I didn’t include it in this list), castanhas de ovos are a safe introduction to the genre.
Still, castanhas de ovos clock in at a mere 15 egg yolks per batch. 

Cavacas (a type of cookie)

Region: Beira Baixa
There are many local variations of cavacas, but most are essentially an eggy sugar cookie with a swirl of merengue on top.  Unlike some of the other entries on our list, cavacas don’t have the intense yellow color of a dessert centered on eggs.  But don’t be fooled.
Cavacas take 16 whole eggs plus 4 egg yolks.  In case you’re not counting, this requires breaking 20 eggs, almost two dozen.

Trouxas de ovos (candied eggs in syrup)

Region: Caldas da Rainha
trouxas de ovos
Trouxas de ovos
By the time I first encountered trouxas de ovos, I was certain there couldn’t possibly be anything else the Portuguese could do with sugar and eggs.  Wrong.  Sheets of eggy sugar are rolled into a tube and topped with a sugary syrup.  The blinding yellow color is surpassed only by the sheer audacity of topping a dessert that involves only two ingredients, eggs and sugar, with even more sugar. 
For the health conscious, though, trouxas de ovos may be a better option than cavacas:  18 egg yolks plus 2 egg whites.  You still have to break 20 eggs, but you’re shaving off a few heart-pounding yolks.

Pão-de-ló (a type of sponge cake)

Region: Soure
pao de lo
If any Portuguese are reading this, I apologize in advance and must admit to having a conflicted relationship with pão-de-ló.  Every year at Christmas, pão-de-ló makes an appearance at the dessert table, every year it takes up more table space than any other dessert, and every year it goes half uneaten.  Pão-de-ló is basically a big, spongey, yellow cake that I suspect people like mostly for its lack of texture than anything special about its flavor.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement, I know, but it’s also versatile: many pão-de-ló fans top it with queijo da Serra, a delicious semi-liquid sheep milk cheese.  Personally, but I find this an abomination — why ruin a perfectly good queijo da Serra with cake? – but you have to do something with the leftover pão-de-ló four days after Christmas.  Might as well make it lunch, I guess.
Wherever you stand on the virtues of pão-de-ló, it rounds out the list with an eye-watering 26 egg yolks plus 6 whole eggs, thus requiring you to purchase three whole cartons.  Take that, cholesterol. 
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