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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Angel wings, Camel Drool and other Portuguese Christmas Treats

Christmas came early for me this year.

Just the other day, I was searching my cookbooks for a recipe and there it was. Tucked way in the back of the ancient Betty Crocker Cookbook which my mother gave me in 1970 was an envelope so full of papers it could barely close.

I opened the envelope and there it was! Something I had been looking for these last five years.

All of the recipes for my grandmother's Christmas treats.

The little kid that still lives in my heart let out a most joyful yelp.  I didn't know I could still make that kind of happy noise. Indeed, just hearing it, combined with my find, brought tears to my eyes.

As I opened the envelope, all of the treats and tastes and sounds that filled my childhood Christmas came tumbling out.

There I was, six, maybe seven years old. Standing at the stove as my grandmother fried up the Coscoroes - the Angle Wings - two or three or four at a time, lifting the delicate fried dough out of the oil and letting them drain on newspaper (no paper towels in mia VaVoa's kitchen) then sprinkled with a mixture of cinnamon sugar.

In the oven the Cavacas - Portuguese popovers - were baking - light, airy confections, drizzled with icing with just a hint of orange rind and a few drops of orange juice. At least, that's how my grandmother made them.

And, in the pressure cooker - didn't EVERY household in the 50s have a pressure cooker? - was a can of sweetened condensed milk, slowly boiling into the can, transforming itself into caramel. It would be used, along with egg yolks and fluffy egg whites, to make the yummy, sweet, sorta-pudding-kinda- mouse confection known as Baba de Camelo - Camel Drool.

My mother hated that my grandmother called it that, but that's exactly what she called it, so we kids did, too. My mother consented for us to call it "Baba".

Only "Baba". We had to leave off the "de Camelo". She reasoned that babies drooled. So did old men when they saw beautiful women. And drooling was the highest compliment you could pay a cook who had prepared an amazing holiday repast.

So, "Baba" was okay. Say "Baba de Camelo" and you'd see the back side of my mother's hand slap you right upside the head. And then, stars.

My grandmother had a wonderful story with each of the treats on the table. We heard the story as she was making the confections in her kitchen and then again on Christmas night. Except on Christmas night, she would select one of us to tell the story. We thought she was testing us. I have come to believe it was her way of making sure we'd know the story so well, we'd tell it to our children and our children's children.

Cavacas in the foreground - Chocolates in the back.
She would begin with the Cavacas - the Portuguese popovers. My grandmother would say, "Who knows why we eat these beautiful, light buns?"

We'd all shoot our hands up in the air, hoping she'd call on us for this one. It was the easiest.

She would always choose one of the littlest ones to answer. "After the angel Gabriel left Mary," one of the kids would say, in that sing-songy way little kids always have, "suddenly, there appeared in Mary's belly" . . . . ."

. . . . at which point someone would always stop and say, "Wait! Wait!"

"Oh, yeah," the child would blush, I almost forgot." She'd shoot a look at my grandmother who smiled lovingly.

"After the angel Gabriel left Mary - AFTER Mary said 'YES' to the angel - suddenly there appeared in Mary's belly (and, we'd all join her in saying) . . . a . .. .  little . . . round . . . . . BUMP."

"That was the sweet BABY JESUS in there!" she'd squeal, "A sweet bun in the oven! Filled with the breath of God!"

And we would all applaud, and then look around for whichever aunt was pregnant that year. And, there was always an aunt somewhere who was pregnant that year. She'd be hovering over by the kitchen door, an uncle draped over her, one hand on a beer bottle, one hand on her belly, looking so proud he could burst.

Now, understand, please, that this expression, "bun in the oven" is not from the Portuguese culture. I'm not sure but I suspect this was my grandmother's cultural adaptation to her new American home. I don't know what they called it in their little village in Portugal, but I'm sure there was some Victorian euphemism for pregnancy.

God forbid one should be so bold and brash as to use the word "pregnant" to describe such a delicate condition. After all, even scripture never uses the word, "pregnant". It says, "with child". 

My grandmother would then hush the squealing by announcing, in her Church Voice, "Hail, Mary!" And, we'd all join her solemnly reciting the prayer we learned even before the "Our Father."
"Hail Mary, full of grace! The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus (Always a slight pause and heads solemnly bowed here.) Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen."
Except, we'd all say the prayer in Portuguese, because that's how our grandmother taught it to us. It would be said in that sing-songy kinda way all kids have when they are reciting something.
Avé Maria, cheia de graça, o Senhor é convosco. Bendita sois vós entre as mulheres bendito é o fruto do vosso ventre, Jesus. Santa Maria, mãe de Deus, rogai por nós pecadores, agora e na hora da nossa morte. Amen
I can still hear our high, sweet voices, lilting above the voices of adult men and women who had gathered 'round the dessert table to join the ritual.

Then, we'd move down the table, onto the Coscoroes.  That was my favorite story.

Turns out, when the Baby Jesus was born, there was great rejoicing in heaven. A special choir of the newest angels was selected to accompany the Angel Gabriel to sign to Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus.

But, when they arrived at the manger, the angels were simply aghast that the newborn Prince of Peace was wrapped in swaddling clothes and his bed was a manger of straw.

So, they decided to make a proper bed of their feathers from their angel wings for Jesus. They also used their wings to cover his swaddling clothes with a blanket woven from their wing feathers.

The angel Gabriel was quite upset when he saw this and scolded the angels for what they had done.

"This child," he said, "while one of us, is also very human. That's the whole point of this project from God. Jesus has come to know everything about being human - their thoughts, their feelings, their suffering, their joy - so that they may know the unconditional love of God."

But, the angel Gabriel also had great compassion on the Choir of Angels, so he sprinkled some white, sugary angel dust on the bed and blankets. At that moment,  the angels and Mary and Joseph could see them, but to everyone else, they were invisible.

All the shepherds saw - and the Wise Men when they arrived - was straw and swaddling clothes.

My grandmother said many miracles happened that night that have not been told. This, she said, was just one of them.

Coscroes are very light, fried dough, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. They melt in your mouth and are, well, simply heavenly.

The Baba de Camelo always held the last spot on the table - only because it was the story for Little Christmas - the Epiphany - when the Wise Men came on their camels to bring presents to the Baby Jesus. So, of course, they drooled.  Of course.

The Baba would make a reappearance at the dessert table at Little Christmas, complete with the story of the Wise Men. I don't remember them having names when my grandmother or someone from the family told the story. I didn't learn that until I went to school.

The thing is that we didn't exchange gifts at Christmas. Not in my grandmother's house, any way. We did that at Little Christmas. My grandmother wanted to keep the focus of Christmas on Jesus. We exchanged gifts on the day when the Wise Men brought presents to Jesus.

When my children started getting older and starting their own families, I restarted this tradition. My Christmas gift to them is to be and do whatever they need to do on Christmas Day. But, on Little Christmas, we all get together - the whole family. It's our favorite family day. The only thing that has stopped us in the past is the weather, but we wouldn't miss it for the world.

As a kid, the Coscores and Cavacas, also made a reappearance at my grandmother's Little Christmas celebration, along with a huge platter of Pasteis de Nata - Portuguese Custard Tarts. They are little mouthfuls of divine egg custard nestled in light filo dough. I could pop a half dozen in my mouth without breaking a sweat. Heavenly stuff. Trust me on this.

I'm going to leave you with my grandmother's recipes, including her little notes and cooking tips.

I can not even begin to tell you how much it means to me to have these recipes back in my recipe stack.  I mean, they were always right there. I just found them again.

Sort of like the "original blessing" in the garden was there but we misplaced the recipe for awhile. So, Jesus had to come to show us the way back to Paradise.

Feliz Natal!

Pasteis de nata


For the Pasteis de Nata dough
  • 2 cups minus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 3/4 cup plus two tablespoons water
  • 16 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature, stirred until smooth
  • For the custard
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/4 cups milk, divided
  • 1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 6 large egg yolks, whisked
  • For the garnish
  • Confectioners’ sugar
  • Cinnamon


Make the Pastéis de Nata dough 

In a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, mix the flour, salt, and water until a soft, pillowy dough forms that pulls away from the side of the bowl, about 30-60 seconds.

Generously flour a work surface and pat the dough into a 6-inch square using a pastry scraper. Flour the dough, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rest at room temperature for 15 minutes.

Roll the dough into an 18-inch square. As you work, use the scraper to lift the dough to make sure the underside isn’t sticking to your work surface. 

Brush the excess flour off the top of the dough, trim any uneven edges, and, using a small offset spatula, dot and then spread the left 2/3 portion of the dough with a little less than 1/3 of the butter being careful to leave a 1 inch plain border around the edge of the dough.

Neatly fold the unbuttered right 1/3 of the dough (using the pastry scraper to loosen it if it sticks) over the rest of the dough. Brush off any excess flour, then fold over the left 1/3 of the dough. Starting from the top, pat down the dough with your hand to release any air bubbles, and then pinch the edges of the dough to seal. Brush off any excess flour.

Turn the dough 90° to the left so the fold is facing you. Lift the dough and flour the work surface. Once again roll it out to an 18-inch square, then dot the left 2/3 of the dough with 1/3 of the butter and smear it over the dough. Fold the dough as directed in steps 4 and 5.

For the last rolling, turn the dough 90° to the left and roll out the dough to an 18-by-21-inch rectangle, with the shorter side facing you. Spread the remaining butter over the entire surface of the dough.

Using the spatula as an aid, lift the edge of dough closest to you and roll the dough away from you into a tight log, brushing the excess flour from the underside as you go. Trim the ends and cut the log in half. Wrap each piece in plastic wrap and chill for 2 hours or preferably overnight. (The pastry can be frozen for up to 3 months.)

(Yes, of course, you can use philo dough, cut into small rectangles and fitted into a nonstick 12-cup mini-muffin pan 2-by-5/8-inch size. Caution: my grandmother might rise up from her grave and give you such a smack upside the head. But, you will do what you will do. )
Make the custard

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour and 1/4 cup milk until smooth.

Bring the sugar, cinnamon, and water to a boil in a small saucepan and cook until an instant-read thermometer registers 220°F .(It will look like syrup.) Do not stir.

Meanwhile, in another small saucepan, scald the remaining 1 cup milk. Whisk the hot milk into the flour mixture.

Remove the cinnamon stick and then pour the sugar syrup in a thin stream into the hot milk-and-flour mixture, whisking briskly. Add the vanilla and stir for a minute until very warm but not hot. Whisk in the yolks, strain the mixture into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside. The custard will be thin; that is as it should be. (You can refrigerate the custard for up to 3 days.)

Assemble and bake the pastries

Heat the oven to 450°F . Remove a pastry log from the refrigerator and roll it back and forth on a lightly floured surface until it’s about an inch in diameter and 16 inches long. Cut it into scant 3/4-inch pieces. Place 1 piece pastry dough, cut side down, in each well of a nonstick 12-cup mini-muffin pan (2-by-5/8-inch size). Allow the dough pieces to soften several minutes until pliable.

Have a small cup of water nearby. Dip your thumbs in the water, then straight down into the middle of the dough spiral. Flatten it against the bottom of the cup to a thickness of about 1/16 inch, then smooth the dough up the sides and create a raised lip about 1/8 inch above the pan. The pastry sides should be thinner than the bottom.

Fill each cup 3/4 full with the slightly warm custard. Bake the pasteis until the edges of the dough are frilled and brown, about 8 to 9 minutes.

Remove from the oven and allow the pasteis to cool a few minutes in the pan, then transfer to a rack and cool until just warm. Sprinkle the pasteis generously with confectioners’ sugar, then cinnamon and serve. Repeat with the remaining pastry and custard. These are best consumed the day they’re made. That won't be a problem. Trust me on this.

Baba de Camelo (Caramel Mousse) "Camel's Drool"

1 can of sweetened condensed milk
6 eggs

Place the can in a pressure cooker, cover completely with water and cook for one hour. Be sure to remove the label from the can before placing it in the water.  (Note: I do not have a pressure cooker so I just use a large pot and cover the can completely with water. I cook it, covered, for 2 hours)

After the proper cooking time, remove the pot from the heat and carefully remove the can from the pot. Allow the can to cool.

While the can is cooling, separate the egg yolks from the egg whites and whisk the egg yolks. When the condensed milk has cooled, blend well with egg yolks, either with a whisk or mixer.

Separately, beat the egg whites with a mixer until stiff peaks form.

Carefully and slowly, fold the egg whites into the condensed milk/egg yolk mixture until all ingredients are well blended.

Pour the mixture into a large bowl or individual serving bowls.

Before serving, garnish with your choice of chopped almonds, chopped walnuts, sliced strawberries or even crumbled sweet Madelines or sugar cookies or, if you want to get fancy-schmancy, Piroulines

Cavacas (Portuguese Popovers)

This recipe makes 24 but it can easily be cut in half. You'll have 24 if you use regular muffin pans. If you use a proper popover pan, you'll have 12. If you've only got one popover pan, like I do, I would make this in two batches. It's really important that you use the batter immediately.


2 cups flour
1 cup oil - my grandmother always used olive oil but you can use vegetable oil
1/2 cup whole milk (or whatever you use - I wouldn't use skim)
8 large eggs at room temperature.

Sugar Glaze

2 cups Confectioner's Sugar
Zest of 1/2 orange
2 T of milk - more or less depending on the thickness you like


Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease regular size muffin tins or popover tin.

Using an electric mixer, beat all ingredients for 20 minutes without stopping. (Yes, my grandmother stood there for 20 minutes. I strongly recommend using a stand mixer set on level 6.)

Once the ingredients have been mixed for 20 minutes, immediately fill the muffin or popover tins half full. No more than that. Trust me on this.

Bake on the middle rack for about 45 minutes; if you want the Cavacas to be on the dry side, bake for an hour. They will turn a golden brown and "popover" the pan.

While they are still warm, dip the sugar glaze or drizzle glaze over them. You can sprinkle them with green and red sugar or, if you prefer, some orange zest.

Coscoroes - Angel Wings (Fried Pastry)


5 -6 cups of flour
4 eggs
zest of one orange
juice of one orange
4 T melted butter
4 T sugar
2 oz whiskey (not to worry, the alcohol bakes off)
pinch of salt
oil for frying.


Beat the sugar, eggs and butter. Add the pinch of salt, orange rind, orange juice whiskey and the flour and continue beating until the batter is smooth. Cover the bowl and set aside for one hour.

After one hour, pour the batter onto a very floured counter. Kneed the dough with enough flour until the batter is no longer sticky. (Note: this could take a while and use more flour than you think.)

Roll out the dough into 3x5 inch rectangles, about 1/4 inch thick. Make cuts lengthwise in the center of the rectangles.

Fry in hot oil until golden brown (I use a large cast iron skillet, filled about 3/4 full with vegetable oil. this allows me to do 2-4 at a time, depending on how large I make the angel wings)

Place on paper towels to absorb any grease (my grandmother used newspaper or sheets of an old calendar - never paper towels. Then again, she used newspaper and sheets of old calendar for toilet paper, too. Waste not, want not.)

Blend sugar with cinnamon in a bowl and coat each Coscoroes.

A final note: 

My grandmother would make a pot of hot, strong, black tea and pour each of us a cup into which we would add several teaspoons of sugar and lots of milk. Then, we'd sit down at the kitchen table, near the pot bellied stove, and much on a few angel wings as she'd tell me a story. Like, her life in her village outside and to the north of Lisbon and her six older brothers. Or, the day her mother died. Or, her trip on the boat alone from Portugal to America. Or, some of the memories of her childhood.

Making these Portuguese treats brings each one of her stories back, and I feel connected to her and a part of my identity.

These recipes are really part of my "incarnation".  May they become symbols of incarnational, unconditional love for you.

Merry Christmas!


Lindy said...

What a great post. I loved hearing your stories. And I may try a few of these when I get back to the USA!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Stories, food and Christmas. What's not to love? When you back to the USA, come to DE and we'll do some cooking together. I'm sure you could teach me some of the things you've learned while living in China. Yum Yum.

Colette said...

This was so fun, hearing about someone's Christmas memories. And then you left us with recipes, too! Thanks. How many of us have multicultural norms within our own families? We all need to be reminded how varied and wonderful life can be.