When we think about Christmas, a few things come to mind: gifts, Santa Claus, family and, of course, food! In Portugal, traditional Christmas dishes include codfish, “rabanadas” and the one and only Bolo Rei, a delicious dessert that many wait all year for and bas been appreciated by the Portuguese people over generations.
Christmas food in Portugal
Portuguese cuisine is known for its diversity and wonderful taste, and Christmas food is no exception. Every year, once December approaches, Portuguese families start to prepare one of the most anticipated meals of the year. After all, Christmas is one of Portugal’s most celebrated holidays, joining food, family and tradition… three of the things the Portuguese people most cherish.
When it comes to traditional Christmas food in Portugal, some things you can expect to see around the family table include:
Rabanadas – This pastry is made of sliced wheat bread which is fried after being soaked in milk or wine, sugar syrup and eggs.
Sonhos – This is another delicious fried pastry made with milk, lemon rind, salt, wheat flour and eggs. In some regions of Portugal, recipes also include a bit of freshly squeezed orange juice or just a splash of “aguardente”, one of Portugal’s most traditional liquors.
"Bacalhau" – This traditional dish is usually served on the night of the 24th of December, during Christmas Eve dinner, which in Portugal is called “consoada”. This very simple traditional Christmas dish is made of boiled codfish, accompanied by potatoes and vegetables drizzled in olive oil!
Roasted Turkey – This very popular dish is typically served during lunch on the 25th of December. It’s also accompanied by potatoes, vegetables and even rice.
Bolo Rei – Although traditional Christmas food in Portugal varies from region to region, there is one element that is almost always present, and that is Bolo Rei!
What is Bolo Rei?
The famous Bolo Rei, or king cake, is a round fruit cake with a hole in the center that represents a crown. It is mainly eaten during the Christmas season in Portugal, but you can also find it around Easter depending on the region you’re in.
Besides being known for its colourful appearance and delicious taste, Bolo Rei is also famous for its history, representing the gifts given to baby Jesus by the Magi King. The crust of the cake represents the gold, the dried fruits and nuts represent the myrrh and its characteristic aroma represents the incense – the gifts offered to Baby Jesus in the traditional nativity scene, known as "presépio", that is also present in many Portuguese homes.
Where can you find the best Bolo Rei in Portugal?
Personal taste plays an important role when it comes to Bolo Rei, as many Portuguese actually prefer a less traditional version called “Bolo Rainha” (Queen Cake), which is essentially the same but does not have candied fruits, only nuts.
However, if you want the “real thing”, during the Holiday season finding a traditional Portuguese Bolo Rei is a relatively simple task! You can buy one in any pastry shop or supermarket. And the richer, the better!
If you’d like to taste a prize-winning Bolo Rei, these are some of the most famous Portuguese pastry shops where you can find one:
Pastelaria Trigo Doce, Lisbon
Confeitaria Nacional, Lisbon
Pastelaria Restelo, “O Careca”, Lisbon
Flor de Aveiro, Aveiro
Padaria Dias, Covilhã
Pastelaria Briosa, Coimbra
Pastelaria Alcôa, Alcobaça
Atelier do Doce, Alcobaça
Confeitaria Petúlia, Porto
Padaria Ribeiro, Porto
Although Bolo Rei cannot be considered a cheap dessert when compared to other traditional Portuguese cakes, in supermarkets you can buy one from anywhere between €5 and €15, depending on their size and ingredients. In a pastry shop, expect prices from €19 to €25 per kg. Gourmet versions offer more fruits and nuts and sometimes also include “fio de ovos” or special fillings such as “gila” (Malabar gourd jam).
If you're not a fan of fruit cake, there are many other versions you can try! Throughout the years, Bolo Rei has inspired pastry chefs in Portugal to create new interpretations of the traditional recipe that some believe to be equally delicious.
Famous versions include chocolate and apple fillings, instead of the traditional candied fruits and nuts. Both are very similar to the original Bolo Rei in terms of shape and preparation, but the taste is quite different!
Some people find the traditional “king cake” a bit too dry or lacking taste, so for them, the chocolate or the apple Bolo Rei, both available at the famous Atelier do Doce pastry shop in Silver Coast Portugal, are excellent alternatives!
How to make a Bolo Rei?
If you are away from Portugal and would like to try to bake your own Bolo Rei, the recipe is quite simple!
Bolo Rei recipe
750 g wheat flour
30 g baker's yeast
150 g vegetable margarine or butter
150 g sugar
150 g candied fruits
150 g nuts (pine nuts, walnuts, raisins, hazelnuts and almonds)
Zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange
100 ml Port wine
1 teaspoon salt
Powdered sugar for decoration
Finely chop the candied fruits and nuts, then add them to the Porto wine.
Dissolve the yeast in 100 ml of warm water and add it to a cup of flour. Mix them together and let it sit for about 15 minutes.
In a bowl, join the butter, sugar, lemon and orange zest. Then add the eggs, one by one.
When everything is well combined, add the remaining flour, sifted with salt. Knead the dough until it is soft and elastic. If it is too stiff, add a bit of warm milk. Mix in the fruit macerated in the wine.
Sprinkle the dough with a bit of flour, cover it with a cloth and wrap the bowl in a blanket. Let it sit in a warm environment for about 5 hours, or until it doubles in volume.
When the dough is ready, shape it into a ball and on a greased tray make a hole in the middle. Let the dough rise for another hour.
Preheat the oven to 180º C.
Brush the cake with a beaten egg yolk and garnish the entire surface with the remaining candied fruits and nuts.
Spread powdered sugar in 4 little mounds on top of the cake and bake in the oven for 35 to 45 minutes. To prevent the circle from closing, you can insert an oven-safe bowl into the hole.
Regardless of baking your own Bolo Rei or buying one, whether it's a traditional cake or a more modern version, remember: the most important thing is to share it with your loved ones.
May the symbolism of Bolo Rei bring you all the magic and warmth of this special season!
Christmas traditions in Portugal - celebrating family, food and faith
Christmas has always been an important holiday in Portugal. A time for everyone to come together around the table and share the warmth of this holiday season, regardless of one's religious beliefs. It is also a time for celebrating ancient old traditions and the love the Portuguese have for food and spending quality time with friends and family...