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Food & Travel

Mallorca’s history is coiled in a pastry

Ensaïmada with apple.
Ensaïmada with apple.Madeleine Morrow for The Boston Globe

MALLORCA, Spain — As the church bells ring out on Sunday morning over the towns of this Spanish island, locals emerge from bakeries carrying wide, octagonal boxes. Inside are coiled, turban-shaped pastries called ensaïmadas. Translated as “enlarded,” an ensaïmada contains rendered pig fat, despite the fact that some food historians say the dish has Jewish origins.

One of the island’s traditional foods, ensaïmada Mallorquina has European protected geographical indication status and can’t be imitated. Made with yeast, water, flour, sugar, and eggs, the dough is rolled out into paper-thin sheets before being topped with a layer of lard. Each sheet is rolled into a long sausage shape before being coiled, left to rise, and then baked.

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Widely available across the island, the ensaïmada’s quality varies enormously, from the commercially produced pastry with the consistency of bread to the feather-light creations of an artisan baker. A two-week search for a top-quality ensaïmada ended in a small bakery called C’an Bisquerra, in the town of Pollença. These had the requisite slightly crunchy exterior, giving way to folded layers of light, flaky pastry. Imagine a croissant crossed with a brioche with a mild aftertaste of lard.

Through a string curtain behind the glass counter, I found the baker, Lorenzo Amengual Cerdá, a man with ensaïmada in his blood.

“Five generations of my family have made ensaïmadas,” he said while deftly rolling out a rope of dough. “My father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, and my great-great-grandfather all made ensaïmadas.”

As he coiled the dough into its distinctive spiral shape, he explained that an ensaïmada can be baked plain, filled, or topped with a range of options. A favorite filling is the crystallized pumpkin called cabello de ángel (“angel’s hair”) because of the strands of pulp that emerge from the pastry when it is cut open.

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“Ensaïmada is very, very popular,” Amengual Cerdá continued as he placed the prepared pastries into a large refrigerator where shelves were stacked with ensaïmadas to be baked “mañana.”

As he put the finishing touches on an ensaïmada topped with apple, Amengual Cerdá reflected on the origins of this intriguing pastry.

“They say it comes from Arabic culture. For me it doesn’t make sense because the Arabs don’t eat pork and you use lard in ensaïmada. The story is that it comes from the Arabs or the Hebrews. But it is not confirmed. It is a supposition.”

It is this supposition that has engaged food writers. In her authoritative book “The Food of Spain,” Claudia Roden states that the pastry has Jewish origins. Some food historians suggest that the ensaïmada, which dates to at least the 17th century, is based on the Jewish pastry called bulemas (also a stuffed, yeasted pastry) or the Arabic one called bulemes dolces. The addition of lard is thought to date from the Spanish Inquisition. In 1492, Jews were given the option of converting to Christianity or leaving Spain. Those who converted had to prove that they had embraced Christianity by being seen to eat pork. Hence, lard was added to the pastry, giving rise to its name (“saïm” means “lard”). The converted Jews of Mallorca were called chuetas, meaning pork eaters.

Whatever the origins of the ensaïmada, it occupies a central place in Mallorcan cuisine. One has to get to the bakery early lest the breakfast ensaïmadas, bursting with almond paste or custard, are sold out. Small ones, the size of a side plate, are eaten as individual breakfast pastries, whereas the large ones, the width of a dinner plate, can feed a family.

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“People like to eat it for dessert at the weekend,” Amengual Cerdá explained. “When people go from Mallorca on holiday they buy three or four ensaïmadas as presents for their friends. It is a very distinctive gift. ”

Indeed, the airport lounge was full of travelers carrying octagonal boxes, usually several.

C’an Bisquerra displayed an impressive list of fillings and toppings, including sobrasada — a cured pork sausage with an orange to dark red color and the strong flavour of pimentón. The best-quality sobrasada is made from Mallorcan black Iberian pigs. It has a soft texture and is often served spread on toasted bread as a tapa.

Ensaïmada de sobrasada, a marriage of sugar-sprinkled pastry and spicy sausage, was enticing. It was available only on demand. I asked if I might order one for lunch.

“Come in two hours,” Amengaul Cerdá instructed.

When I returned he was shaking icing sugar over a large ensaïmada. The smell of the baked sobrasada was tantalizing. When it was cut into wedges, the rust-colored juices of the pimentón leaked into the warm, delicate pastry. The piquancy of the sobrasada transformed the ensaïmada into a savory treat quite unlike the sweet variations adorning the bakery shelves. Albaricoque (apricot), manzana (apple), almedra (almond), chocolate, cream, and custard fillings were all delicious. I ate them all. Yet ensaïmada de sobrasada was the perfect union of two of Mallorca’s finest products. In Amengual Cerdá’s hands, it was the dish I would happily fly back to the island to eat again.

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C’an Bisquerra, Carrer del Jonquet 49, Pollença, Mallorca

Madeleine Morrow can be reached at madeleinemorrow@outlook.com.