For the third instalment of our festive baking frenzy I decided to take things a little easier and go with a fairly straightforward recipe. These little treats are called Mantecadas de Astorga, and they are exactly what they look like – very simple but very delicious little cakes.
Truth be told, they are similar to sponge cakes or pound cake. While modern recipes suggest adding cinnamon, citrus zest of even just some vanilla, traditionally there is no additional flavouring. Does that mean they are not interesting? Well, they’re more interesting than our modern tastes might lead us to think.
A lot of Spanish baking uses olive oil or lard. Think of the similarly-named mantecados which are crumbly shortbread cookies where lard is essential to get the right texture. Seen against these other recipes, the use of butter was a differentiator. Perhaps a sign of a luxurious good when they were first created. Today we might see butter cookies are being rather plain, but there was a time when enjoying a sweet, buttery treat at Christmas would have been something quite special.
Of course, having just said all that, there are plenty of recipes for these case that use either just lard or a combination of lard and butter, but I’ve opted for the dairy-loving approach here as I don’t use lard in my baking.
These cakes hail originally from the Spanish city of Astorga in the north-west of the country near the border with Portugal. And if you are being correct, they should to be baked in little paper cases called cajillas. And to get authentic cajillas you need to take pieces of paper and carefully fold them so that when the cake is unwrapped we see the shape of a cross left on the paper. Of course I tried making them. I first gave this a go with some greaseproof paper but it didn’t work as the folds kept unravelling. The lesson: you need to use plain paper and ensure you have oodles of patience. And if you doubt the seriousness with which these paper cases are taken in the city of Astorga, there is even a mural in the old town to the ladies who specialise in making them.
While Mantecadas de Astorga are traditionally made in a small square or rectangle shape, it is not going to change the flavour if you use a round pan, but I do quite like the square shape as they look just a little touch more special. I’ve previously bought specialist square cupcake cases to use in a muffin tray with square holes, but then discovered that you can just use normal round cases, press them down, and they’ll fit the square shape. If you’re not folding your own cases, that is…
I did wonder whether these cakes would be worth making. No spice, no citrus, no chocolate, no nuts. It turns out they are really nice. Simple, but nice. Perfect with tea or coffee. Rich, buttery and sweet, but also very light. That said, they’re probably not a viable diet option (they do contain all that glorious butter after all) but they do seem light. Sort of in the way that a croissant is light, and we know we ought not to consume too many of those.
So I encourage you to try these – they’re easy to make, you probably have the ingredients already, and you get all the thrill of making your own paper cases. If you are so minded, I followed this online tutorial. It is in Spanish, but easy to follow, and after the first few you get into the knack of it. Soon you’ll be giving the mural ladies a run for their money!
To make Mantacadas de Astorga (makes 12-16, depending on size)
• 125g butter
• 125g sugar
• 3 medium eggs
• 125g self-raising flour
• granulated sugar, to finish
1. Prepare your cake cases. Either make the paper moulds by hand, or line a muffin tin with paper cases.
2. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F).
3. Put the butter into a bowl. Beat until very soft. Add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Finally fold in the flour.
4. Divide the mixture between the prepared cake cases. Even it out with a spoon (it won’t be perfectly flat). Sprinkle generously with granulated sugar. Bake for 18-20 minutes until the cakes are risen and the tops are a rich golden brown.