Updated: Nov 5, 2022
If you have a sweet tooth and crave some wonderful desserts you can probably thank the Nuns; no matter your religion. The kitchens of monasteries and abbeys across Europe have been responsible for the invention of more than a few popular pastries and desserts, including many we seek out today. Conceived by cloistered nuns who were up at four in the morning to say their prayers, followed by work and a lot more than just praying. It would be impossible to understand the history of baking sweets without several incidents; Arabs bringing almonds and spices, cane sugar introduced in 1400s, and the late 15th century discovering that beets could be processed to make a sweet substance that could replace honey or cane sugar. But the answer probably lies in the abundance of egg yolks the nuns were saddled with - egg whites were used to clarify wine, apply gold leaf to church altars, and starch the head coverings and habits nuns wore.
The Nuns luckily unleash their gastronomic creativity. Nunneries were able to support themselves through donations of land, houses, money and goods from wealthy benefactors. And they could be self-sustaining by growing their food and selling specialty items.
Nuns still today bake and sell pastries in order to support their communities. Personally, my own wedding cake was baked by the Nuns at Convento das Nais Dominicas in Bayona….their convent was built in 1547 and has both a farm and orchard to provide most of their baking needs.
In the medieval streets of Santiago de Compostela we can find Monasterio de San Pelyo, where the cloistered Benedictine nuns make their famous (almond) Tarta de Santiago. I have gone there to buy their detectible desserts there. Walking into the lobby you find 2 windows with old, wooden turntables – just ring the bell and transactions commence.
The Convento de San Leandro is one of the oldest in Seville, dating back to 1369. The order of Augustinian nuns who live here goes back even further, being first founded in 1295! As is customary at most convents, they use the traditional torno (turntables) to buy their traditional Spanish Yemas de Santa Teresa cookies. The name “yemas” means "egg yolks." Another convent supplies the delicious “Sevillian naranjitos” from the Madre de Dios convent, which is a combination of almond, egg, orange jam and sugar creating a marzipan coating.
The world famous Portuguese egg tart, the Pastel de Nata, dates back over 300 years, to Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, just west of Lisbon. Today the monastery is a major tourist hotspot and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but at the time it was a just a busy civil parish where, in the absence of laundry detergent, nuns would use egg whites to wash and starch their clothes. This process meant there were lots of egg yolks going spare, so to avoid these going to waste, they were instead used as a major ingredient in desserts. The monks of the monastery soon created a secret recipe to perfect their custard tarts, which they began selling as a means of creating income to support the monastery. When the monastery closed in 1834, this recipe was then sold to the owners of the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, which opened in 1837, and is the most famous place to try custard tarts in all of Lisbon. Today, the recipe is still a closely guarded secret, and the tarts sold in this location are known as Pastéis de Belém. Just a three minute walk from the monastery, they’re a must try for anyone keen for a little bite of Portuguese history.
In Sicily, though made for pious purposes, minni di virgini are one of the most arousing Italian pastry made by nuns. These sugar-glazed breast-shaped cakes topped with cherry nipples were made in Catania in honor of their hometown Saint Agatha's torture and martyrdom. Saint Agatha refused Roman Governor Quintianus’ proposal of marriage, so he decided to punish her and – ahem – detached her breasts. Artists in the 16th century portrayed her carrying her ex-bosom on a platter, which gave Sicilian nuns yet another stroke of genius. These ricotta stuffed mammaries are one of the few sweets still crafted in convents in Sicily. Actually, each February, thousands flock to Catania to honor Saint Agatha in a three-day celebration. The centuries old festival features an all-night procession and the delicious perfectly round pastry topped with ricotta, adding chocolate or a piece of boozy sponge cake filling covered in pistachio marzipan, a creamy glaze and of course, the candied cherry.
Canelés a popular French pastry, and like many classic cakes, originated in a convent. Canelés, a specialty of the Bordeaux region of France, are small pastries baked in molds with fluted edges, cooked to a deep caramelized brown and flavored with rum and vanilla. They have a soft and tender custard center and a dark, crunchy crust. “One of the oldest stories refers to a convent in Bordeaux, where, before the French Revolution, the nuns prepared cakes called canalize, made with donated egg yolks from local winemakers, who used the whites to clarify their wines.
And the original Macarons des Sœurs were created by two 18th Century nuns, Marguerite Gaillot and Marie Morlot, who lived in an abbey in the heart of Nancy. It's possible one of the nuns brought some form of the recipe with them upon joining the sisterhood and then perfected it. In 1792, a decree abolishing religious congregations led to their expulsion from the abbey. The nuns fled and took refuge with a local doctor, supporting themselves by making and selling their macarons.
Unlike the better-known, pastel-coloured "Paris" macaron, which comes in a variety of shapes, colors and flavors, the Macarons des Sœurs have no ganache, are a uniform pale brown, are finely cracked on top and taste like toasted almonds. They are essentially the top half of their more famous counterpart. Eating them is an exercise in history; the recipe has never changed in the 230 years since their invention, and it has only ever been passed to the succeeding pâtissier of the Maison des Sœurs Macarons. "The recipe and the secret are passed on orally, they've never been written down, and, in the contract with the new pâtissier, both sides swear to never teach the making to anybody else," explained Genot. "The owner of the pâtisserie is the only one who makes the macaron, alone and away from prying eyes."
But while the Macarons des Sœurs are a unique type of macaron, the treat potentially existed many centuries before. The word "macaronic" describes the mixing of different languages in speech, prose and poetry. The term is thought to have originated in 15th century Italy, stemming from the word maccarona, a kind of stodgy dumpling, which is the provenance of the French word macaron. With a bit of artistic license, macaronic is the perfect word to describe the mixed origins of the macaron itself.
A widely held belief is that Catherine de' Medici introduced the macaron to the tables of the royal court of France in the 16th Century, although food historian Marie Josèphe Moncorgé disputes this. "This is just a legend," she said. "In general, pastries with almonds are often of Arabic origin, they then moved on to Catalonia and Italy before arriving organically in France." Given the Italian origin of the word and the existence of recipes describing a macaron-like pastry brought to Sicily by Arab soldiers before the 13th Century, this seems likely.
The story of the Ladurée macaron starts in the middle of the 19th century with Pierre Desfontaines, who first thought of taking two macaron shells and joining them with a delicious ganache filling. The recipe has not changed since. Under the Second Empire, cafés developed and became more and more luxurious. They attracted Parisian high society. Along with the chic restaurants around the Madeleine, they became the showcases of the capital. The beginning of this century found Paris wrapped up in a frenzy of entertainment and going out on the town. Parisians flocked to the Universal Exposition. Women were also changing. Thus Louis Ernest Ladurée’s wife, Jeanne Souchard, had the idea of mixing styles: The Parisian café and pastry shop gave birth to one of the first tea rooms in town. The ”salon de thé” had a definite advantage over the cafés: women could gather in complete freedom.
Today, Ladurée is a veritable celebration of sweets and pastry innovation. Every moment of creation is an intense experience. Twice a year, like fashion designers, Ladurée imagines news desserts such as the Rose Religieuse, the Rose- Raspberry Saint-Honoré, the Liquorice Millefeuille and the Blackcurrant-Violet Macaron. No one comes home from Paris without a box of these creations to savor not just the flavors but also the memories.
So remember as you take a bite from any of these heavenly treats, say a little prayer to thank the nuns that came before.