05 January 2012

My Portuguese Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve is a big deal in Portugal.  It is the day when the presents are opened, it is the night of the traditional meal of bacalhau, and it is the day when the family gathers together for the holiday.  So I was not too surprised when we arrived at Bacalhau Boy's sister's home for the Ceia de Natal and we were greeted by this huge sideboard of goodies:

After a couple of quick hellos and kisses and hiding the nephew's presents I headed straight for the table's fried yummies.  My mother-in-law and brother-in-law had prepared these in the afternoon so they would still be fresh for the dinner.  Americans have many varieties of cookies at the holidays, and likewise the Portuguese make different kinds of fried sweet treats for Christmas.  My mother-in-law tells me that when she was growing up, she and her mom would spend Christmas Eve cooking them all before she was tricked into going to her bedroom so Menino Jesus could show up... but more on that later.

These little gems are called sonhos, or "Christmas dreams".  They are fluffy and leave a ring of sugar around your mouth as you eat them. Although they are much smaller, they remind me of the fried dough we used to have at summer fairs in New England.  Simple, but so very good. BB's mom made another batch which had pumpkin in the dough, and those had an even richer texture.  There are apparently countless variations on the idea of sweet fried dough for Christmas treats.  Case in point:

The round ones on the left are called azevias, and they have a creamy filling hiding inside.  These were luscious, crispy on the outside and smooth and sweet on the inside, like sugary dough truffles.  I may have eaten four or seven of them, but who is counting?

The flat fried treats on the right are called coscorões.  They are crispier, thin and crunchy, with a sugary cinnamon coating that flies off with every bite.

The groaning board included more traditional appetizer fare like cheeses and sliced presunto and chouriço, which my nephew seemed to prefer.  I tried those as well, to be fair to the savory end of the appetizers, but before I filled up entirely it was time for the main event: the Christmas Eve Dinner.

The menu was: boiled saltcod, octopus, boiled sweet potatoes, boiled carrots, boiled cabbage, and boiled eggs.  Seasoning?  On the side-- there were bottles of good olive oil, vinegar, and fresh ground pepper on the table so that everyone could spice up their own plate to their liking.

The bacalhau de natal was plain as plain could be.  Nothing to taste but the brine of the bacalhau and a little olive oil and vinegar.  The Christmas Bacalhau, my friends, is no beginner's bacalhau.  I think it was serendipitous that I had nearly three years of Lisbon under my belt before tasting this one.

Now, I'm not going to pretend that this wasn't a strange meal to sit down to on Christmas Eve.  Nor will I say that it doesn't blow my mind to see my 8-year old nephew eating octopus tentacles with no jokes or a single complaint.  But I have been in Portugal for a few years now, and I guess I am getting more acculturated as time goes by... because this meal tasted pretty darn good.  As a bonus, it was light enough to make me feel a little better about all the fried dough appetizers I had eaten.

After the dinner, coffee, and round two of fried sweets, it was approaching 10 pm and the little boys were getting sleepy. How, I thought, is my sister-in-law going to pull off a Christmas Eve Santa visit?

In Portugal, Santa is called Pai Natal.  And although he is getting more popular these days, there is still a very strong tradition of another guy bringing the presents: Menino Jesus, or baby Jesus. It is still very common to see this little guy being called to windows in Portugal-- these standard red flags are scattered across the outside of every apartment building at Christmastime:

In my sister-in-law's home, secular jolly-man Pai Natal is the one who brings the presents.  But how can he secretly deliver presents to two little boys who are still awake and waiting for him?  What happens when Santa has to come on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning?

The answer lies in some well-timed distractions from Grandma and Uncle BB.  They took the boys into one of the bedrooms to play legos, closed the door, and immediately my sister-in-law darted into her bedroom.  I helped her as quietly as possible down the hall with all the bags of presents and we scattered them under the tree.  Afterwards, we calmly walked into the bedroom where the boys were and joined in playing.  After a few minutes she asked her four-year-old son to go get his dad.  Who was in the living room.  Near the tree.  Heh heh heh.

A high pitched squeal, and some shouting, "Pai Natal!  He was here!  He was here!  Finally!"  We all ran into the living room, and there were the boys, eyes shining, surveying the presents under the tree. 

They didn't survey for long.  A flurry of wrapping paper, excited shouts, scrambling to see whose name is on which gifts... it was a wonderful, giggling Christmas.  As we left the house, the little guys were still excitedly playing with their presents, and I knew the grownups would actually be glad to sleep in tomorrow.  As was I.

I hope you all enjoyed a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year!  More recipes and Portuguese kitchen experiments to come in 2012...


  1. HA!! That made me laugh out loud and remember good times with some very excellent expats in Prague. :) I can't believe I didn't think of that phrase when I saw the flags around town!! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Tomas!

  2. the food looks amazing, and i love the little history in your blogs.

  3. Thanks, Leslie! Hope you had a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year yourself!