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5 must-try Portuguese Christmas fritters (with bonus recipe!)

Like in many other parts of the world, here in Portugal, the original meaning of Christmas has started getting diluted in recent years, in favor of a stronger focus on family gatherings which generally revolve around food and drink, more than they’re about religious motivations.

It’s true that some people will still go to mass on Christmas Eve (which is called in Portuguese missa do galo), and besides the ubiquitous Christmas tree they also put up a nativity scene. But, when the holidays come around, the vast majority focuses on what’s going to be on the table and the gifts that are excitedly exchanged around midnight.

Christmas in Portugal is, in essence, a family affair, meaning that you’ll call your loved ones for dinner on the 24th of December in the evening (this is referred to as the consoada) and, again, for lunch on Christmas day itself. The fact that there are two main meals allows many couples to split their time and attention amongst different sides of the family.

In recent years, some restaurants, particularly those within hotels, have started serving these meals and some families opt to skip all the preparations involved to put together such a sumptuous meal. But only a small percentage of the population goes out to eat on Christmas and, when this happens, it’s certainly around urban centers.

On Christmas Eve, the traditional Portuguese meal will include cod, the much beloved salted and dry cured variety known locally as bacalhau. We prepare it in a myriad of ways across the year but, on this occasion, we keep things relatively simple (an inheritance of religious austerity) by boiling cod loins, and serving them with boiled potatoes and either also boiled or sauteed leafy greens, namely cabbage, turnip greens or collard greens.

In some parts of the country, such as the northern interior area of Trás-os-Montes, but not limited to it, the cod is served in wonderful company by boiled octopus. On the following day, after Christ is born, the meal is a bit more lavish and it traditionally includes meat, such as roasted lamb or, in more contemporary times, even turkey. 

The common denominator to both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day food wise is the impressive spread of desserts Portuguese families usually prepare. In fact, around these dates, we do not speak of dessert as a single affair, we tend to refer to it as “the desserts table” (mesa dos doces), as often there’s a separate table where deserts are put out to enjoy not only after the main meal but also to snack on throughout the day, whenever the craving arises - and, trust us, when you have such a spread in front of your eyes all day long, the cravings keep kicking in!

Portuguese Christmas desserts include a few specialities which are usually store bought, such as bolo rei and bolo rainha (crown shaped brioche like cakes with nuts and candied fruits) or broas castelares (sweet potato cookies), but most of the sweets are usually home-made. These include recipes such as aletria (a custard-like pudding with angel hair pasta), arroz doce (sweet rice pudding, common for Christmas, but also present during other celebrations all year long) and a decadent range of fritters, fritos de Natal. Maybe the other home-made desserts are somehow optional, but we’d be hard pressed to find a Portuguese home which doesn’t feature at the very least one variety of Christmas fritter during their holiday meals. 

These are the most popular Christmas fritters in Portugal:

Rabanadas | Portugal’s take on French toast

Rabanadas are basically Portugal’s version of what is in English known as French toast or, in French, as pain perdu. We’re not here to claim that rabanadas are a Portuguese invention, not at all. Many parts of the world repurpose hard bread by dunking it in milk, beaten eggs and frying it, and covering it with different sources of sweetness. In Spain, for example, this is called torrijas, and just like here in Portugal, this isn’t a common breakfast food, but instead a dessert reserved for special occasions.

Also known as fatias douradas (that is, golden slices), Portuguese rabanadas are usually prepared with wheat bread. In the north of the country, the most common type of bread would be a long dry baguette known as cacete, while around Lisbon, pão de Mafra (the typical rustic bread from Mafra) is often favored. Unlike in other countries, for instance the USA, we do not make these fritters with thin soft loaves like wonder bread, as we prefer a more spongy kind of crumb which can soak up more liquid, thus resulting in softer yet sturdy fritters. 

The most common type of rabanadas are dusted (or should we say properly coated?) with sugar and cinnamon, but there are many varieties that go beyond this standard. If you like them moist, you can drizzle your rabanadas with syrup (calda de açúcar), made not only with abundant sugar but also with aromatics such as cinnamon stick, honey or even Port wine. Perhaps the most Portuguese variety would be the one covered with doce de ovos, that is a jammy egg yolk and sugar confection which is very commonly used in Portuguese dessert making.  

For a truly different type of rabanada, head north, to the Minho region, where rabanadas de vinho are also common. In this variety the milk that is used to soften the crumb is replaced by red wine, which gets slightly caramelized as you fry the bread and adds a tremendous depth of flavor to the end result. So, next time you’re about to whip up some French toast for yourself at home, keep in mind how the Portuguese do it!

Azevias | turnovers with chickpea, sweet potato or pumpkin filling

Azevias are sweet delicacies from southern Portugal, namely from the regions of the Alentejo and the Algarve. They basically consist of thick dough, and may be stuffed with a variety of sweet fillings, amongst which the most common are chickpeas (grão), sweet potatoes (batata doce) and pumpkin (abóbora). 

Azevias have been a part of the Portuguese sweets repertoire for many centuries already. They are believed to have been introduced by the Romans during the time when the Portuguese territory belonged to the Roman Empire, that is, about 2000 years ago! The original azevias from back in those days were stuffed with chickpea purée, which may sound odd to those not used to seeing legumes featured in desserts but that, trust is, it certainly is nothing like hummus or other creamy chickpea concoctions you may have in mind. Chickpea purée is sweet, smooth and nutty, as ground almonds and plenty of sugar are added into the mix.

Fillings of sweet potatoes and pumpkin came later in history, as the recipe started suffering variations, particularly thanks to ingredients which simply were abundant. The fact that almonds and sweet potatoes are used, for example, is a testament to how southern these fritters are, as it is mostly in the Alentejo and the Algarve, where these ingredients are grown in Portuguese territory. 

Azevias may not be the most straightforward Portuguese Christmas fritter to make. Compared to other sweets which basically consist of fried dough, they are more laborious as they involve a dough and a pureed filling. But they are certainly worth making. If not, every pastelaria in the country will be selling these around Christmas time. So, keep it simple, and indulge away in this historic treat!

Filhós | Portuguese Christmas fried dough

We could translate filhós or filhoses simply as sweet fried dough, but that wouldn’t make them as appealing as they are in reality. This speciality certainly is a given for Christmas, but it also makes an appearance on the Portuguese table during other celebrations, such as Carnival and Easter.

Filhós are as democratic as it gets when it comes to desserts. They are made with simple ingredients such as flour, eggs, milk, sugar and some lemon zest for a nice yet subtle aroma. They don’t even necessarily have to be leaven - once the dough is formed and rested for brief moments, you can deep fry it, coat it with sugar and cinnamon powder to taste, and enjoy! As much as we love gourmet cuisine (like the recipes and techniques which we, for example, teach during our Michelin Secrets Cooking Class in Lisbon), we also appreciate recipes which are easy for everyone to follow and whose ingredients are usually accessible to the masses. When it comes to celebrating Christmas, and following culinary tradition as a nation, this becomes even more relevant!

These fritters are also very similar to malassadas, a sweet of Portuguese origin, specifically from the islands of the Azores, which is now-a-days an icon of Hawaiian cuisine thanks to immigration. Even though they may be shaped differently, filhós and malasadas’ dough follows the same basic principles. 

Coscorões | Portuguese angel wings

Yet another democratic dessert, Portuguese angel wings, aka coscorões, are also pretty straight forward, which obviously doesn’t make them any less irresistible. Coscorões are crispy thin fritters (to the contrary of other specialities listed above, which are more “doughy”), made with wheat flour, sugar, eggs, a source of fat (now-a-days more commonly butter but, if you are following the most traditional recipes, they’ll call for pork lard) and alcohol (aguardante, a distilled spirit from wine, being the most common, but Port wine can also be used).

Coscorões were brought to Portugal by the crusaders during the Middle Ages. Their true origins are associated with a Moorish background. They are the sweet equivalent to flat breads, that is, something that is easy to transport and that lasts some time as it doesn’t dry up as much compared to other fluffier specialties. Back in the day, the Moors used to drench their coscorões in abundant honey, which would obviously help to preserve the dough. Now-a-days, for Christmas here in Portugal, we sweeten the fritters with granulated sugar and ground cinnamon, but we may also use honey or sugar syrup. 

Even though you will find coscorões a little all over Portugal, they are more prevalent in certain regions, namely the Alentejo in the south, Beira Baixa in the center, and Trás os Montes in the northernmost interior part of the country.

Sonhos | Portuguese doughnuts, aka “dreams”

These are the fluffiest of all Portuguese Christmas fritters. Sonhos, which literally translate as dreams, are indeed dreamy. They are soft pillows of sweet dough, which may take on the simple flavors of sugar and cinnamon, or also taste like pumpkin or orange.

Once again, sonhos are prepared with simple and accessible ingredients - see the full recipe below. Besides the most straightforward version, there are also sonhos de abóbora, made richer with the addition of pureed pumpkin. 

The origins of sonhos are a little uncertain but they are believed to have come from Turkey, as now-a-days there are similar sweet fritters which are also common there, as well as in nearby countries such as Cyprus, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Greece, and even Egypt. We may not know for sure for how long sonhos have been around, but most of us grew up taking these little sweet dreams for granted when Christmas time comes around.

Besides eating them at home, in late November or at the most December, many local cafes and pastry shops will also be selling sonhos, to indulge in at room temperature. They make a fine substitution for a sweet bite along with your coffee, to give a break to the most usual pastel de nata, for example. 

BONUS RECIPE: Portuguese sonhos

American author John C. Maxwell has been credited with the quote “your dreams won’t work unless you do”. Unless you are in Portugal or within easy reach to a Portuguese bakery selling Christmas doughnuts this holiday season, indeed you are going to have to do a little work so that you can taste delicious sonhos. The good news is that they are not overly complicated to make and they are prepared with easy to get staple ingredients, which you may even already have at home!

Ingredients to make 8 to 10 Portuguese Christmas doughnuts:

- 100g (½ cup + 2 tbsp) all purpose flour

- 3 eggs

- 1 orange rind

- 1 pinch of salt

- neutral vegetable oil for deep-frying (such as sunflower or canola)

- granulated sugar and cinnamon powder for dusting, to taste

Taste Portuguese Christmas at home:

Put the water, oil, orange peel and salt in a pan and bring to a boil.

When the liquid starts boiling, put the heat on minimum and add the flour. Only do this when you are ready to start stirring non-stop. Keep whisking vigorously until the liquid together with the flour forms a smooth ball of dough. Keep stirring for a few minutes, allowing the flour to fully cook through - you know the moment has arrived when the dough starts to naturally detach itself from the pan. In case you are familiar with it, this is a similar process to French pâte à choux, or choux pastry, which is the base of desserts such as profiteroles, éclairs and even Latin churros

Remove the dough from the pan and place it directly on top of your working surface, or in a large bowl with enough space to allow for it to cool down. Make sure you remove the orange peel from the mix.

When the dough comes down to room temperature, you must add in the eggs, not all at once, but one at a time. You can mix the eggs into the dough using an electric mixer if you have one, or even with your own hands with your fingers spread apart to facilitate the blending. Just like before, the mixing must be done rather energetically. Mix in the first egg and only once it is fully incorporated into the dough, continue with the next one, and so on. The dough will start becoming more runny, more like a batter, with a glossy and velvety texture.

Meanwhile, you can start pre-heating the oil which will be used to deep-fry the sonhos. Use a frying pan with enough depth and plenty of vegetable oil, and allow it to reach 180°C / 356°F, which would be the optimal temperature for frying, which one should aim to maintain throughout the process.  

The time to shape your dreams has come! Form small balls of dough (keep in mind that they will puff up considerably) with the aid of 2 tablespoons. To avoid having the dough getting stuck to the spoons, you can quickly dip them inside the oil prior to scooping out the dough. Once you have formed a ball of dough, dunk it inside the hot oil. You should only put a few fritters inside the oil at a time, leaving enough room for them to soak up the heat and expand.

You know your sonhos are well fried when they naturally come to the surface. They also tend to rotate on their own but if you see this doesn’t happen for some reason, make sure you get in there with a slotted spoon, to make sure all sides are fried evenly. 

Once golden, remove the fritters from the oil and place them on a tray lined with paper towels to absorb the excess oil. 

In Portugal, sonhos are traditionally eaten sprinkled with a generous amount of sugar and cinnamon powder - this should be done while they are at least warm, so that the sugar sticks to the dough. You can sprinkle them for a more conservative approach or, if you’re not counting calories as one should (at least during this time of the year), mix the sugar and cinnamon on a bowl and make each sonho roll in this sweet cinnamony sand so that they are very well coated.

Enjoy warm or at room temperature, if possible, with a nice glass of Port wine!

Are you dreaming of bringing the flavors of Portugal to your Christmas table this year? Follow us on Instagram for further tips! #cookinglisbon 

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Cooking Lisbon

Rua Bernardim Ribeiro, 9

​1150-068 Lisboa, Portugal

(+351) 916 047 883


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