I’ve looked for quite a long time for a Christmas recipe for Portugal. I’ve found ideas galore from Spain and Italy, but for some reason I wasn’t seeing anything from the Lusophere. That is, until now.
I’ve made little sweet potato cakes called broas castelares. The name means “Castile corn breads” and they are named after their creators, the Castelar brothers who ran a bakery called the Confeitaria Francesa, or French Patisserie, in Lisbon. It was founded in 1860 and stood in the Rua do Ouro, or “Street of Gold”, which I think is rather fitting given the colour of these cakes.
Now I say “cakes” but this recipe is a very different way of baking to the festive recipes I have tried before. This is based on sweet potato puree, which I made by roasting some sweet potatoes and scooping out the tender flesh. I thought this would give a better flavour than boiling as it would keep (and perhaps even concentrate) their flavour. Then you mix this with sugar, and the whole lot turns from sort-of-fluffy mash into a gloopy, soupy mass – I’ve seen this before making a Scottish potato-based sweet, and it seems odd that you can add dry sugar to something and it seems to get wetter!
I saw a few different versions of this recipe with different amounts of sugar. These seemed to split into Portuguese recipes and then those from everyone else. The home of Fado makes extremely liberal use of sugar, so I figured that it was safe to assume these little guys were going to be on the sweet side. This expectation was further supported by lots of non-Portuguese bakers trying to cut down the amount of sugar. Choices, choices. In the end, I decided to plump for a more authentic Portuguese version. This is a Christmas sweet after all! The version I went with came from the website of Lisbon City Council. Surely these guys would get it right?
The actual recipe is fascinating – the base is sweet potato (the orange ones, not the white ones) that you turn into a basic jammy paste. Then you mix in eggs, and add a veritable cornucopia of other nice things – ground almonds, cornmeal, coconut and orange zest. Some of the recipes suggested adding cinnamon to taste – I skipped this, but I think this could be a nice addition. You then end up with one of the stickiest doughs I’ve worked with. You leave it to chill overnight, and I thought the dry ingredients would have soaked up some of the liquid and made a thicker dough. I was wrong. The next day, it was slightly thicker but still seemed to be as sticky! But the way to deal with this is to have a plate with some neutral oil on it, and keep your hands well-coated. Any by coated, I mean pressing your palm into it, pretty often as it turned out. Then nothing sticks!
Shaping the broas was easy, provided you are making liberal use of that oil. Take a tablespoon of the mixture, roll to a ball, then form into an oval shape – I noticed that longer, slimmer ovals kept their shape better than shorter, fatter ones. The skinny ones set and keep their shape, the more squat ones seemed to spread more. Then make (or try to make) a little dent in the middle so they look like golden giant coffee beans. They are then finished with an egg yolk glaze, and baked in a hot oven.
And how do they taste? Amazing! I expected something more cake-life and reminiscent of cornbread, albeit sweet, but in fact they are more like marzipan, so I would call them a type of candy rather than a bread or a cake. As I expected, they are extremely sweet – sweet, sweet, sweet! Delicious, but for me this is something you want to eat with strong coffee or tea, rather than with mulled wine unless you’re the sort of person that wants to embrace hyperglycemia. The good thing is you can serve a tray of these and be confident that people will self-police and no-one will scoff the lot.
I hope you like this. I wasn’t sure I would and I am completely convinced. Obrigado e feliz natal!
To make Broas Castelares (makes around 40-45)
For the dough
• 1 large or 2 medium sweet potatoes (at least 500g), to yield 400g cooked flesh
• 700g soft brown sugar
• 125g ground almonds
• 50g desiccated coconut
• 125g cornmeal (fine polenta, not corn starch)
• 75g plain flour
• 3 medium eggs
• Zest of 1 orange
• vegetable oil, for your hands to work the dough
• 2 beaten egg yolks, to glaze
• tablespoon of water
1. Heat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Prick the sweet potato, then put in the oven and bake until it is soft. You should be easily insert a knife. This will take 45-60 minutes. When done, remove from the oven, cut the potato in half and scoop out the flesh – you want 400g of cooked sweet potato.
2. Put the cooked sweet potato flesh in a saucepan, and mash it. Do this manually – if you use a blender it may affect the texture. Add half the sugar and mix – it will look a bit transparent and become wetter. Cook over a medium heat for around 5 minutes, stirring constantly. It is done when you pull a wooden spoon across the base and leaves a clean trail that holds for a few seconds. Remove from the head and leave to cool to lukewarm.
3. Put the potato mixture in a large bowl. Add the eggs, and mix well. Stir in the remaining sugar, ground almonds, coconut, orange zest, flour and cornmeal. Mix to a smooth batter – it will be thick but sticky. Cover and chill overnight.
4. The next day, preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Prepare a few sheets of greaseproof paper and rub each with some vegetable oil.
5. Get your hands covered with vegetable oil, and keep some extra within easy reach to re-coat your hands as needed. Take a tablespoon of the mixture and roll it into a ball. Now shape into a long oval between your palms. Place on the greaseproof paper, then flatten and make a dent in the centre so they look a bit like coffee beans. Repeat until the sheet is covered – they will spread slightly so leave at least 5cm between them.
6. Make the glaze – mix the two egg yolks with a tablespoon of cold water, and mix well.
7. Slide the tray under the paper, then glaze the broas. I found it best to do this just before baking, and really get in around the sides and base as this seems to help them keep their shape. Bake for 15 minutes – the top might look mottled and very dark in some places, but this is normal. Leave for a moment to cool and set, then transfer to a wire tray.
Note: the broas are a little crisper on the outside when they are fresh, but will soften if you store them overnight in an airtight container.