The Secret of the Pastel de Tentúgal

The recipe for the pastel de Tentúgal was born somewhere in the 16th Century by the hands of the Carmelite nuns of the convent of Nossa Senhora do Carmo (or Natividade) of Tentúgal. At the time, monastic life was the fate of many high-born young women. The noble origins of these nuns lead to the migration of many a home recipes into the convent, as well as the maids who knew how to make them.

That heritage allowed the nuns to enter a culinary turmoil, in between their religious activities. The convent itself had a whopping thirty kitchens. Inside its walls, the nuns had had all the time in the world to engage in the art of pastry. That, and a privileged access to sugar and spices, as well as produce from the convent’s farm. Confectionery would become not only an occupation but also a means of sustenance and repaying favors. However, the nuns of Tentúgal created something far beyond conventional conventual pastry. They created a technique that is simply a gastronomic spectacle.

pastel de tentúgal
via YT

The recipe of the pastel de Tentúgal was kept an inside secret and transmitted by oral tradition until the extinction of the convent and the death of the last nun, in 1898. But someone—some say the last nun, others say a maid—wanted to make sure the recipe lived on and passed it to the women of Tentúgal, who have cherished it until today.

When you observe a pastel de Tentúgal you can’t help but notice the thin, almost transparent pastry, that in apparent fragility withholds a sublime ovos moles ( sweet egg) filling. Oh, how its slightly crunchy texture dissolves in your mouth. A true delight, that becomes even more intriguing when you perceive the most beautiful moment of its creation: the stretching of the dough.

But what is the secret behind this enigmatic dough whose elasticity seems to have no limits? According to the bakers, the secret is in the flour, the hands, and the climate.

Let’s talk about one of the most important components of human nutrition—flour. Flour is multifaceted; it may come in a variety of textures and compositions, and thus one can achieve distinct doughs. All flours are constituted by carbon hydrates (starches), as well as fibers and proteins, in a lesser amount. The importance of the protein content cannot be ignored, much to the contrary. For instance, a high protein flour will produce a more elastic dough, which is perfect for bread and certain pastry. Whereas if the protein content is lower, the dough will become fluffy and flaky, thus ideal for cakes, cookies, and pies. But how does one explain this phenomenon?

In the realm of flours, wheat sits on the throne. Its popularity can be easily explained: it’s rich in gluten-forming proteins, which allow it to stretch. A lot. The amount of protein in the flour is roughly equivalent to the amount of gluten. However, not all wheat flours are equal. Those made with hard wheat (Triticum durum) have more protein than those made of soft wheat (Triticum aestivum). This wheat derivative is, in fact, one of the great secrets of the pastel de Tentúgal. Nevertheless, we know that most bakers use “flor de farinha”, a special refined flour with a very fine texture (T45), ideal for specialized pastry. Records from the convent revealed that the nuns used silk sieves, which just goes to show how fine the flour should be.

Flours from other grains, such as oats, corn, and rice, are fruitless in the field of elasticity, as they do not contain gluten. They aren’t fit for this use, at least not when used alone.

GLUTEN AND ELASTICITY

Gluten was first described in the 6th Century in the Chinese agricultural encyclopedia Quimin Yaosu. It was later referred by the Chinese as the “muscle of flour”. Such a designation comes from the fact that they were able to observe the amazing mechanical properties of gluten: its plasticity and elasticity.

Gluten is formed when two proteins present in flour, glutenin, and gliadin, come into contact with water. In the presence of water, the elastic glutenins connect infinitely and form enormous chains. The plastic gliadins also chain together and link weakly to each other and to the glutenin chains. This aggregate is called the gluten network, which we can imagine as a ball of yarn of disorganized chains.

© Scribner

When flour is mixed with water, hydration and autolysis begin. Hydration is a fundamental step in the strengthening and lengthening of gluten strains, thus forming a cohesive network. Autolysis occurs when the dough is resting—which in the case of the pastel lasts for around an hour and a half—and where naturally present enzymes kick in by cutting long chains into smaller, more malleable fractions.

When the gluten network is sufficiently developed, it’s time to organize it. Taming the gluten is achieved by kneading, that elongates and organizes the gluten chains side by side so that the dough is malleable enough to stretch. The pivotal point is when the dough stretches enough so that one can see through it. In its transparency, you can clearly see the gluten network. It’s ready for the most impressive step: the big stretch.

A DOUGH THAT SOARS

Now, Tentúgal becomes a unique phenomenon. The ritual begins when a lady in white walks barefoot over a great cotton sheet holding a round metal tray. She drops a great ball of dough on the floor. She grabs the edges of the dough and stretches it. Meanwhile, she makes sure air is trapped in the center of the dough, forming a bubble. Giving it a little time to rest, she comes back. At each stretch, it seems to levitate. The bubble is restless, it grows at every lift of the dough, like a beige bedsheet against the wind. It’s done… enough dough to cover fifteen or twenty people, as thin as paper. This is the genesis of one of the most fantastic elements of Portuguese conventual pastry, that can achieve a thickness of only 0.06 mm.

Climate is also a vital player in the relationship of the bakers with the dough. The maritime influence over Tentúgal allows for moderate temperatures, which ease the manipulation. However, when the temperature rises and the humidity is low, the dough loses moisture and tends to rip.

The dough dries at room temperature (or with the help of a blowtorch) and is then delicately cut into circles or half-moons. It flows into the kitchen, where the pastel de Tentúgal is assembled. The pastel comes in two formats: cigar (palito) or half-moon (meialua). Experienced bakers take just a few seconds to grease two sheets of pastry with butter (using a chicken or turkey feather), fill them with a few flaked bits of pastry and ovos moles (beaten egg yolks in syrup), roll it up and close the tips, thus forming a cigar. The process for the half-moons differs in shape, but also in the addition of almond meal to the filling. This difference in the filling is believed to have originated with the pastel’s initial purpose: the cigars were for the sick and poor (ovos moles were considered a restorative food), while the more expensive half-moons were for the convent’s patrons. At last, they are baked in an oven and ready to satiate your appetite.

The debate over the origin of the pastel de Tentúgal’s pastry remains. It’s possible—and quite likely—that its existence arises from Arab influence, given its similarity to phyllo pastry. Phyllo pastry is believed to have been created by the Turks, that transported it around the Ottoman empire. We find phyllo and its adaptations in baklava, strudel, and spanakopita, among other delicacies. Did this pastry appear simultaneously in two distant lands – Turkey and Tentúgal? Were the centuries of Moorish domain in Coimbra a gateway for the base of this pastry? One thing is for sure: the geniality of the Carmelites’ technique makes it absolutely unique, and it was perfected and transformed into an art for over four-hundred years.

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