Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Nun's Kiss and Other Olinda Treats

About 5 miles (8 km.) north of the city of Recife in Brazil's Pernambuco state lies the small historic city of Olinda. With its baroque architecture and cobblestone streets remarkably preserved, it's no wonder that it has been honored with inclusion in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

During the February Carnaval season, Olinda is loud, crowded, packed and crazy, but during the rest of the year it's a tranquil small town of artisans, musicians, visitors and retirees. Many of the local houses have been converted into pousadas (small inns or hotels) or restaurants. Others house art galleries or craft shops. Some come for a day's visit from Recife, some stay a week, and some visitors never leave.

One of Olinda's architectural highlight is the number of baroque religious buildings still in use- a cathedral, many churches, convents and monasteries. A large number of these convents and monasteries are cloistered, shut away from the world outside the front door. And, in a tradition that can be traced back to Portugal, many of these convents and monasteries are famous for their sweets and pastries. These can sometimes be bought at the door to the convent or monastery, but are also often offered up for sale in local bakeries and pastry shops.

The Convento dos Amarantes is known for its Pão de Ló (Bread from Lo), a sponge cake made with an extraordinary quantity of eggs. The Convento de Santa Maria das Celas makes a famous manjar branco (blancmange), and the Convento de Vila do Conde makes the intriguingly-named Beijo de Freira (Nun's Kiss) which is a small shortbread cookie flavored with coconut.

The most famous cake of Olinda is not associated with any particular convent, but is known all over Brazil as a treat from Pernambuco and is called bolo de rolo (rolled cake). This cake is rarely made at home due to the difficulty in working with the thin layers of cake and filling, but can be bought at pastry shops and even supermarkets everywhere in Brazil. It is what we might call in English a jelly-roll cake, but an extremely refined example of that genre. A super-thin layer of cake is spread with guava jelly, then rolled up. A well-made bolo de rolo might have up to twenty layers by the time it is fully rolled-up. Slices or entire rolls are sold, but it's always served sliced to show the delicate spiral of jelly, and often served with whipped cream (nata) on the side.

Those who have been reading Flavors of Brazil for a while might remember my posts about acarajé and how it's been accorded national status as an Immaterial National Treasure (click here to read more). In 2002 the legislature of Pernambuco state accorded similar status, though not on a national level, to the bolo de rolo, declaring it part of Pernambuco's cultural patrimony.

Although almost no one attempts to make a bolo de rolo at home, I'll provide a recipe in my next post, just for information's sake. The equipment required and the necessary skill in handling the cake are usually lacking in the home kitchen, but perhaps some reader of Flavors of Brazil will be crazy enough to make bolo de rolo at home.