Talking about sweet treats in the context of Portuguese cuisine almost makes it compulsory to talk about pastéis de nata. After all, Portuguese custard tarts are the most iconic of all pastries in Portugal and, quite possibly, the most internationalized of all Portuguese foods.
We have talked extensively about the history of these confections and, more importantly, where you can eat the best pastel de nata in Lisbon. Not to mention that you can learn how to bake your own with us here at Cooking Lisbon!
When you are in Lisbon, or pretty much anywhere else in Portugal, you will see natas in most cafes and pastry shops, which go locally by the name of pastelarias. Pastelarias are part of the Portuguese lifestyle: this is where we often go for breakfast or, if we’ve eaten the first meal of the day at home, where we go for our mid morning caffeine fix, quite likely, with a little sandwich or sweet to go along with our hot beverage. Pastelarias may also serve quick lunch meals and, for sure, they’re open until the evening, as grabbing another coffee and a pastry mid afternoon, a meal locally known as lanche (not to be mistaken with lunch - that, in Portuguese, would be almoço), is also a very common occurrence.
Even though we sure love our pastéis de nata, there are certainly other Portuguese cakes and pastries which we like very much too, and which are common in pastelarias all over the country. And which are not to be mistaken with desserts served in restaurants, as these are of a different category of sweets (just like you wouldn’t normally see pastel de nata be served as a dessert in Portugal itself, but Portuguese restaurants abroad seem to do it rather often).
Besides custard tarts, these are the other pastries you should try in Portugal:
Croissant brioche | brioche croissant
You may think it’s weird that we mention a croissant as the first item on a list of supposedly very Portuguese pastries. We get it! But hear us out…. Forget about the idea of a French croissant you may have in your head. Portuguese croissants aren’t flaky, they’re not based on puff pastry, and they may not even be made with butter but, instead, vegetable margarine is used in most cases. We are talking about brioche style croissants, which are indeed shaped like a half crescent but are instead fluffy, somehow dense and with a glaze which may vary. The best croissants brioche are those from the northern city of Porto, therefore sometimes also referred to as Croissant Porto style. Those are somewhat flat, not too leavened, and there are folks who actually care for the slightly undercooked doughy center - we understand this may sound odd to those unaccustomed to eating raw(ish) dough, but trust us when we say that there’s a whole section of Portuguese society into this, and you can find them flocking to Careca (Rua Duarte Pacheco Pereira 11D), in Lisbon’s neighborhood of Restelo, a shop which became famous for their undercooked sugary croissants.
A good croissant brioche is like a milky bread taken to the next level, with the top more toasted than the rest of the pastry, brushed generously not only with syrup, but a caramel like substance that indeed includes a generous amount of sugar, but also aromatics like lemon zest, cinnamon stick and, very important for an extra luscious touch, Port wine (explaining the name which is sometimes also given as “Port wine croissant” or “croissant do Porto”). You may eat a croissant brioche on its own, but you can also order it with savory fillings such as ham (fiambre), cheese (queijo) or ham & cheese (misto). If you care for the combination of sweet and savory elements, you will enjoy this contrast between the slightly sweet but not overpowering dough and the salty fillings.
Queijada | cottage cheese tart
Queijada could somehow be translated as cheesecake, but that would probably plant wrong ideas inside your mind. But, in reality, that is essentially what a queijada is: a cake made with cheese, in this case, cottage cheese, which is baked to a moist but medium-hard consistency. The concept of a queijada is incredibly versatile and the recipes vary tremendously from place to place. A plain queijada consists of a milky sweet filling, but you can have variations featuring popular flavors such as orange (pictured here), lemon, or cinnamon, amongst others. The consistency of queijadas is super velvety and moist, with eggs added to help the filling settle, thus bringing another level of richness to them too. Queijadas may or may not have an outer casing of thin delicate dough, and are usually presented in pastelarias’ counters on a cupcake-style liner.
When you visit Lisbon, chances are you'll plan at least a day trip to neighboring Sintra. This historic town has become extremely popular for their travesseiros (see up next) and queijadas, here usually referred to as queijadas de Sintra. These local versions do include the outer layer of pastry and they are tiny but packed with flavor! You can try them in the town’s center at the tourist hot spot Casa Piriquita (Rua Padarias 1, Sintra) or head to Fábrica das Verdadeiras Queijadas da Sapa (Volta do Duche 12, Sintra), whose name translates as “the factory of the true queijadas from Sapa”, and which specializes in queijadas since 1756 - we promise going there just to taste these little sweet bites from heaven will be worth it!
Travesseiro | puff pastry “pillow”
Travesseiros are Sintra’s most celebrated cakes. In fact, we could draw a parallelism and say that travesseiros are to Sintra what pastéis de nata are to Lisbon. So not only no visit to Sintra would be complete without eating a travesseiro, we would even argue that a trip there just for the sake of indulging into this sweet pastry is worth the travel time alone! After all, Sintra is just a 40 minute train ride from central Lisbon. Traveseiros are calorie packed, but Sintra invites you to walk up and down its steep roads to visit its Moorish walls and many palaces, so you may even need to eat more than one to keep up your energy levels to explore everything one would like to see! As travesseiros are fairly sugary, we like having them with a cup of coffee, which balances out the sweetness on the palate.
Travesseiros are, literally, “pillows” of flaky puff pastry, stuffed with a rich filling made with egg yolks, ground almonds and cinnamon. The recipe was developed by Casa Piriquita in the 1940s, after this bakery and pastry shop had already gained popularity for their queijadas (see above). Now-a-days, you may see travesseiros that are similar to those baked at Piriquita, in other Portuguese establishments, especially around the Greater Lisbon Area. But the team behind this family run confectionery assures us that, besides eggs, cinnamon and almonds, their filling has a secret ingredient that makes their pastries stand out… we don’t know what it is, but we invite you to go there and taste them, and try to figure it out for yourself!
Bolo de arroz | rice muffin
If you’re following a gluten-free diet, please don’t get excited as, in spite of the name, Portuguese rice muffins do also contain wheat flour. Bolo de arroz is a muffin with a slightly different consistency than a regular muffin, as it also contains some rice. It’s an ever-present item in Portuguese pastry shops and you’ll always be able to easily recognize it as it’s customary wrapped in a white parchment paper with blue letters that read “bolo de arroz”, so you can’t really go wrong! Wherever folks speak Portuguese around the world, that is, mostly Portugal’s ex colonies, bolo de arroz is a given. This is the kind of cake you’d want to order if you like dipping into your milky coffee, as its spongy nature makes it ideal to soak up your beverage. Just like a good muffin, the top of a bolo de arroz is always the best part. It's dusted with sugar that slightly caramelizes when the cake is being baked, thus resulting in a slightly crispy top which, if you know how to roll, you’ll save to eat last as the very best part!
Even though it looks “plain” compared to other creamier pastries you’ll find at your regular Portuguese pastelaria, bolo de arroz is even more caloric than, for example, a pastel de nata. Don’t be mistaken just because it looks like a dry sponge cake. Precisely so that it is not overly dry and boring, bolo de arroz has quite a lot of fat. But we’re not here counting calories so, order your favorite hot beverage, and get dipping!
Pão de deus | God’s bread
Developing a recipe and calling it “god’s bread” might sound pretentious but, the truth is that, in Portugal, the sweet fluffy bun known as pão de deus almost has a religious following! Pão de deus is what happens when you mix a soft and milky brioche dough with a coconut cake. These round buns are topped with shredded coconut, which is attached to the dough with an in-between layer of doce de ovos. Pão de deus is dusted with powdered sugar and, even though it’s sweet, it’s certainly not overly sweet. That is why, similarly to croissant brioche above, you can eat it as it is or, like many of us do, order it with a savory filling of ham, cheese or both. When you order a stuffed pão de deus (and the same rule of thumb applies to most sandwiches in Portugal), they may serve it to you with a layer of butter too. They may or may not ask but, if you want to skip the butter, ask for “sem manteiga, por favor”. On the other hand, if you feel like the dough of pão de deus could be enriched further, you could simply ask for a “pão de deus com manteiga”, that is, for your coconut brioche to be spread on with some butter - this is a go-to breakfast for many Portuguese, who like the combination of sweet dough and salty fillings.
The name “god’s bread” comes from the fact that, initially, this cake was enjoyed during the religious holiday of All Saints Day. Now-a-days, thankfully, we don’t have to wait until the 1st of November to be able to indulge in what is, no doubt, one of the Portuguese cakes with the most national identity you ought to find in local pastry shops!
Pastel de feijão | sweet bean tart
Alongside pastel de nata, a sweet bean tart is, quite probably, the most ubiquitous Portuguese tart you’ll find in local establishments. It may not look as flashy as a custard tart but this is one of local people’s very favorite Portuguese cakes! Pastel de feijão is a typical pastry from the city of Torres Novas, but you can find it all over the country. It consists of a rich creamy filling made with mashed white beans, egg yolks, sugar and ground almonds and, surprisingly, it doesn’t really taste like beans. In fact, the buttery beans are added for consistency, as once mashed they present a lovely velvety texture which, allied with the other ingredients in the mix, make for a gratifying bite.
This is a great little cake to have when you go out for coffee and crave something sweet but not too big. It’s about the same size of a pastel de nata and, just like it happens with custard tarts, the filling is surrounded by pastry, in this case, by a thin and delicate dough which protect the filling while also adding a layer of crunch when you bite into a pastel de feijão. In some cases, pastel de feijão may also have a little “lid” or hat, made with the same dough which, as the recipe varies from confectioner to confectioner, may also be slightly puffy and less on the shortcrust style of dough.
Salame de chocolate | chocolate “salami”
Despite its name, salame de chocolate has nothing to do with meat. The shape resembles a traditional meat salami and, as this treat consists of an amalgamation of cocoa, butter and crushed biscuits, the lighter colored Marie biscuit crumbs in between the dark chocolatey “meat” do make it look like the fatty parts of a salami. Even though it's prepared as a log, salame de chocolate is served by the slice, and that is exactly how you’ll see it in Portuguese cafes, oftentimes atop a piece of paper, just like a muffin. Sometimes, the outer edges of the salami may also be covered with sugar, but that isn’t always the case.
Chocolate salami is the perfect middle ground between a chocolate bar and a pastry, something that will very easily and nicely go along with your coffee, for example after a meal, when you feel like ending on a sweet note but not necessarily eating something doughy and heavy. This is one of those sweets both kids and adults love and, even though you can also easily find it in other parts of Europe and even the wider world, it’s indeed a part of the Portuguese pastelaria habits.
Bola de Berlim | Berliner
Presenting a Berliner here might sound like a similar case to croissant brioche above - it sounds like this cake is from Berlin, Germany, right? Well, that’s actually because it is. Many countries have their version of deep fried dough coated in sugar and/or stuffed with a variety of sweet fillings. That is basically what doughnuts are and, in fact, some translate bolas de Berlim as “Portuguese donuts”. Portugal has made Berliners their own by stuffing them with one of the most Portuguese confections there is: doce de ovos. Doce de ovos is essentially an egg yolk jam, that is, yolks and sugar cooked until they have a sirupy jam-like consistency. Doce de ovos features in an immense variety of Portuguese sweets, namely in many of our so-called conventual sweets, which are historical recipes which were developed inside convents and other religious institutions, where egg whites had multiple uses (such as glue for ornaments in altars and ironing and starching religious habits), and so egg yolks were abundant and used to create new recipes.
If you go to the beaches near Lisbon during summer, you will very likely come across bola de Berlim vendors who walk up and down the extensive sands all day, selling these treats. They shout out tirelessly “com creme… sem creme”, that is, with or without filling. Take your pick and you’ll see that, as you take that first much awaited bite, the sugar that coats the outside of a bola de Berlim feels glorious as it contrasts with the salt on your lips after you’ve taken a dip in the Atlantic ocean.
Jesuíta | Jesuite
Portugal’s history of making sweets is intrinsically related with religion, as many of our most iconic desserts have been invented inside religious institutions. As such, the names of the recipes refer to their origins. Jesuítas, originally from the northern Portuguese city of Santo Tirso, are triangles of puff pastry with a sugary coating. Some theories support that they do indeed have religious related origins, while others, more commonly spoken about, explain the name “Jesuite” simply because the appearance of this pastry resembles the clothing worn by Jesuit monks back in the day.
Eating a jesuíta tends to be a messy experience, but a very delicious one! A good jesuíta is so flakey that, as you bite into it, for sure pieces will disassemble and fall. We’re talking about the puff pastry in itself, but also the top layer, which can vary. Traditional jesuítas have a medium hard glaze that cracks as you eat it (or even before as it's been handled, as it’s extremely delicate), but you can also find variations of the cake dusted with powdered sugar and, in some cases, slivered almonds. Jesuítas have a filling of doce de ovos, which adds a layer of creaminess in between the cracking dough. Jesuítas are a northern Portugal speciality - indeed you’ll find better ones around Porto than in Lisbon, we’re not going to lie. But to eat an unparalleled jesuíta in Lisbon, we would definitely recommend visiting Pastelaria Alcôa (Rua Garrett 37), right downtown.
Pirâmide | pyramid
Quite possibly, this is the most peculiar of all Portuguese cakes you’ll find in regular pastry shops. Shaped as pyramids, pirâmides are the materialization of the zero waste philosophy applied to Portuguese pastelarias. Don’t be turned off when you find out that these sweet cones are made of bits and pieces of leftover cakes. In Portugal, that is a known fact, and we still love to eat this blend of cakes, covered in chocolate, and topped with the tiniest bit of whipped cream and a candied maraschino cherry.
One of the greatest things about eating a pirâmide is that it is never going to taste 100% the same, as different cakes are used in its making. We’re talking about regular sponge cakes and queques (Portuguese muffins), never creamy cakes, here enriched by sugar syrup and by the powers of a slightly crunchy chocolatey exterior. Pirâmides were super popular back in the 90s and, after a while, they lost some of their appeal for the general masses. But, today, you can still find them in the most traditional pastry shops (see our recommendations below). If nothing else, eating a pirâmide while in Portugal is quite the experience!
BONUS: the best pastry shops in Lisbon
So now that you know what pastries you should try when you travel to Lisbon, we would love to recommend some of our favorite places for typical sweet treats in the Portuguese capital. If it’s true that these are standard pastries you can find in most cafes all over the country, we won’t pass the opportunity to suggest you some of the best pastelarias in Lisbon:
This is one of Europe’s oldest and still running pastry shops. Confeitaria Nacional dates back to 1829 and, back in the day, they even used to cater to the Portuguese royal family. They’ve risen to fame for the quality of their cakes as well as the elegant ambiance you can enjoy when you sit here for a coffee or tea break with something sweet. Confeitaria Nacional makes several signature cakes, but amongst the well known ones, we ought to say that their bolo de arroz surely stands out!
📍Praça da Figueira 18B, 1100-241 Lisbon
Experience the traditional side of Lisbon’s pastry shops at Pastelaria Versailles, which has been open since 1922 and has several locations around the city. All of Portugal’s best pastries are available here, and somehow seem shinier under Versailles’s bright chandeliers.
📍Av. da República 15 A, 1050-185 Lisbon
📍Rua do Arco da Graça 89, 1150-329 Lisbon
📍Av. Lusíada 2, 1500-392 Lisbon
Open since 1838, you bet this pastry shop has had the time to perfect the recipes during all this time! Príncipe Real, the neighborhood that Confeitaria Cistér is a part of, may be known for its trendy vibes and nightlife these days. But starting the day here with one of their highly acclaimed queijadas, might just show you a very different side of the neighborhood that you will not want to overlook again!
📍Rua da Escola Politécnica 107, 1200-424 Lisbon
Open in Campo de Ourique since 1976, Lomar is a reference for all things sweet in this medium-upscale neighborhood of Lisbon, where consumers tend to have rather high standards. This is a Portuguese pastelaria, as typical as they come - this means here you’ll find our favorites, not to mention it’s a lovely spot to feel like you are eating Portuguese pastries amongst the locals.
📍Rua Tomás da Anunciação 72, 1350-093 Lisbon
Fim de Século
Get away from Lisbon’s tourist center and head to the neighborhood of Benfica, which is pulsing with local life. At Pastelaria Fim de Século (entrance pictured above) the variety of Portuguese pastries is astounding and they have many of them in miniature versions. We’re not suggesting you should necessarily go for the small ones, but it can be a great way to help you try as many things as you’d like to!
📍Estr. de Benfica 550, 1500-087 Lisbon
Are you by any chance craving a sweet bite right now? Travel to Portugal and you’ll be amazed at the sheer offer of cakes and pastries our ubiquitous pastelarias and cafes have! We can’t wait to welcome you at Cooking Lisbon to bake with you some of these specialities. Until then, please keep in touch via Instagram! #cookinglisbon