Heavenly Sweets

Nun making sweets
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Many of Alentejo's rich egg desserts trace their roots to the 15th century, when Portuguese nuns starched their habits with egg whites and found themselves with an excess of yolks. To put all those orphaned yolks to good use, the sisters dreamed up a constellation of celestial desserts and prepared them in their convent kitchens. While researching my cookbook The Food of Portugal (William Morrow, 1986), I learned from a culinary instructor in Faro that there were friendly rivalries among the nuns as they competed to create the most imaginative, whimsical, and delicious egg sweets. Among the hundreds of sugary egg desserts to have come out of Portugal's convents are such Alentejo classics as encharcada—a soft scramble of egg and sugar syrup traditionally caramelized under a broiler, popularized by Evora's Convento de Santa Clara. Sericaia, an airy soufflé dusted with cinnamon, originates in the episcopal town of Elvas and is sometimes served with locally grown sugar plums. As if to prove that the cloistered sisters had a sense of humor, they often gave their creations mischievous names such as papos-de-anjo, "angel cheeks," tender rounds of baked egg custard poached in sugar syrup, and toucinho do céu, "bacon from heaven," a dense, yolk-enriched almond cake traditionally made with lard. The desserts are so integral to Alentejo's regional cuisine, they are still created faithfully by Portuguese home cooks.