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Cooking the Classics: Mallorcan Ensaimada

Cooking the Classics: Mallorcan Ensaimada

How to make ensaimada, a traditional pastry product from the Spanish island of Mallorca. It's prepared with mother dough and saim, a rendered pork fat.

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Saȉm means “pork lard” in Catalan, but don’t let that put you off. Lard can make for delicious (if not vegetarian-friendly) pastries. Just ask the friendly folks on the Balearic island of Mallorca. Ensaȉmada recipe is their local specialty food, and while you can find versions just about anywhere there was a Spanish colony (from the Philippines to Central America), this is its heartland. Or heart-island.

You can find books referencing ensaȉmada dating back to the 17th century, when Archduke Luis Salvador of Austria wrote of them in his Die Balearen books on the islands.

The name owes its origins to the Arab word for “lard,” shahim (although this was of course not derived from pork). But lard provides the fat necessary to integrate the other ingredients. You could swap it out for butter, but in keeping with tradition, and with the experimental nature of this column, we will plow ahead with pork product.

What is Ensaimada Recipe?

The ensaimada recipe sounds pretty basic: wheat flour, water, sugar, eggs, saȉm and mother dough. You don’t strictly need a mother dough to make ensaȉmada, just like you don’t need saȉm as your fat, but let’s be true to the roots of the ensaimada recipe. But how do you make saȉm, you reasonably ask? Ensaȉmada looks pretty easy at first, but it does require two ingredients that must be prepared separately. Good thing they are relatively easy. Vegetarians: avert your eyes and skip the following paragraph.

How to make saim, rendered pork fat

Saȉm is rendered pork fat. When you think of pork fat, you probably think about crackling (crispy knots of fried fat or skin), or about heavily pig-flavoured spread. But well-rendered pork fat is actually quite healthy, if it comes from a heritage, pastured animal. Most of the fat is in the form of oleic fatty acid—which happens to be the exact fatty acid that is found in olive oil, and is hailed as a health-boon, reducing the risk of heart problems (the meat from pastured piggies is also a great source of omega 3 fatty acids).

If made properly, rendered fat has no piggy-ness about it, and is a beautiful creamy, smooth white, so it works perfectly well for sweets like this. The best fat of all is poetically called “leaf lard,” and comes from around the pig’s kidneys and is the best for pastries. To make saȉm, ideally take the leaf lard only and shave it into little pieces (the better to melt).

Put a small amount of water at the bottom of a crock pot, add the lard, and put on a low burner for an hour or so. What you don’t want is for the fat at the bottom of the pot to start to burn. Then it turns piggish and crackling starts to develop – this is good for some dishes, not so much for pastry.

Crackling inevitably bubbles up in the rendering process, but this is pretty easy to scoop out and place elsewhere (I save it for making breakfast eggs or mixing into mashed potatoes). As you approach two hours, the crackling will sink to the bottom of the pot, so you can skim the white, rendered lard off the top. Even easier: pour the whole mixture through cheesecloth into a bowl. The crackling will be captured in the cloth, and the melted, rendered fat passes through into the bowl. Voila.

And now, back to our program. With the ingredients in hand, preparing the actual ensaȉmada recipe is pretty easy, but it requires time. And, if you follow a traditional Mallorcan recipe, you need to know what an almud is. It’s a unit of measurement, in this case for dough that has been mixed thus: a kilo of sugar, a dozen eggs, a litre of water, and as much “strong” flour “as it can take,” according to one recipe. Yeast is added and, as you can imagine, one almud makes a whole lot of ensaȉmadas.

Fist-sized pieces of dough are removed, rolled thin, spread with lard on one side, then coiled into a circle (always clockwise, I’m told). You can get them filled or with toppings these days, but au naturel is most traditional (perhaps topped with powdered sugar).

On Mallorca, ensaȉmadas, sold in striking octagonal boxes, make for a popular gift. A Mallorcan immigrant named Joan Puig opened a bakery in Argentina and helped found the National Ensaȉmada Festival there.

And just in case you have some leftover ensaȉmada lying around, there is even a recipe to recycle it into a new dish, the wonderfully-named greixonera – like a bread pudding made of leftover pastries, cubed and baked.

I’m told that there’s a trick that ensaȉmada veteran eaters use to tell if it has been made properly (with pork fat) or not: the piece of paper on which it is served should be gently stained with oil. Good thing I’ve developed ninja lard rendering skills.

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