Wherever you go in Portugal you are likely to come across pão de ló, whether it’s in the window of a pastelaria (cake and pastry shop) or on a market stall. It is a cake that appears at most Portuguese celebrations, particularly at Christmas and Easter. Pão de ló is a light and fluffy fat-free sponge cake made with three ingredients: sugar, flour and eggs – lots of eggs! As with many Portuguese cakes and desserts the recipe is said to have originated in the convents where the nuns had lots of egg yolks left over after using the whites to starch their habits and naturally there are lots of regional variations to the recipe. The standard recipe for pão de ló uses six eggs and six egg yolks. Air is added to the mixture by whisking the eggs and sugar until it has doubled in size (Chef Nuno Mendes suggests whisking the mixture for 20 minutes!). The flour is then gently folded in and the mixture is poured into a cake tin lined with greased greaseproof paper, high at the sides to allow for the cake to rise. Traditionally the cake is cooked in a fluted cake tin (which gives it a hole in the middle), however, this is not essential and many recipes, including one from Nuno Mendes, use a normal round cake tin. It is not the prettiest of cakes, as it rises up very high during cooking and then deflates as it cools down, giving it a wrinkled and cracked appearance, but that is part of the charm. After it is cooked it should be crisp on top and slightly moist inside. The taste reminds me of the Italian savoiardi biscuits (ladyfingers) that are used to make tiramisu and, like those biscuits, pão de ló can be used as a base for other desserts but often it is served on its own with a cup of coffee or tea or even a glass of port.
As it is Easter I have decided to make a chocolate pão de ló in celebration of the season. Feliz Páscoa!