Like doughnuts? Then you’ll love this Portuguese confection

“We don’t make doughnuts, we don’t make crullers,” Steve Chaves says.

“We make malasadas. That’s our specialty.”

We’re standing in a small kitchen at the back of his bakery, Malasada World, in downtown Cambridge, Ont.

For the past hour, Chaves has been standing over an industrial-sized dough mixer, watching as the large spiral hook folds together what he calls his “enriched dough,” which he’ll use to make malasadas.

Malasadas are a Portuguese confection — a type of fried pastry, similar to a doughnut, but different in shape and texture. Throughout Portugal you can find a variety of this style of pastry, and each region is known for its own shape — and in some cases, its name.

“The Azores is where it originated centuries ago, but each island has its own version,” Chaves says.

“In San Miguel, it’s more stretched out: the size of a dinner plate. My version is more like the Santa Maria-style — golden brown with some substance to it.”

The Cambridge-born chef has cooked his way through an impressive lineup of restaurants from Prince Edward County to Niagara to Toronto. But what drew him to opening his shop was a calling to dig deeper into his own background.

“I grew up in a traditional Portuguese household,” he says. “I learned about cuisine at a young age from my parents, grandparents and aunts.”

Cambridge has a sizeable Portuguese population, notably those of Azorean descent. For Chaves, opening a malasada shop in the region seemed like a natural fit. He spent a few years tweaking his recipe at various pop-ups before opening the bakery.

“Malasadas seem simple when you look at them, but they are a complex pastry,” Chaves says.

His enriched dough is made with an extra amount of eggs and butter. Chaves’s version, he says, is inspired by a few family recipes. After the dough is proofed overnight, it is portioned into small balls and set to rest.

When the dough is ready for the fryer, Chaves stretches each ball.

“There’s a certain texture I’m looking for,” he said. “It’s tackier and stickier than traditional dough.”

Once fried, malasadas have a thin, crispy shell on the outside with a puffy centre. They’re light and airy with teases of sweetness in the dough.

From this base, Chaves has created a menu of malasadas with various sweet toppings.

My favourite two are the ones topped with cinnamon sugar  to accentuate the sweetness, and Chaves’s ode to another iconic Portuguese sweet: the pasteis de nata, or custard tart.

After the malasada is fried, he liberally spreads custard onto the pastry and brûlées it with a torch to give it a dark brown sugar shell. It’s like eating a Boston cream or other stuffed doughnut, but far superior.

The custard is light and eggy with crisp bites of sugar to accent the pastry.

One more suggestion: it may sound silly to recommend a savoury item at a sweet shop, but you shouldn’t leave without trying the bifana. Chaves does an incredible version of the classic Portuguese sandwich that shouldn’t be missed.

“We added the bifana as a special and now we can’t take it off,” he said.

In its classic form, the bifana is made with thin slices of pork or beef. At Malasada World, Chaves marinates pork loin for more than three days (yes, three days) in a bath of pimento paste, mustard, garlic, white wine and herbs.

The thin cuts of meat are then pan-seared and served in papo secos — soft Portuguese bread rolls — with hot peppers, bell peppers and onions. The bread is soft and the meat is tender, so as you bite, you get a perfect mélange of sweet, salty and spicy flavours.

I used to visit Malasada World for pastries, but now it’s become essential to enjoy a bifana before tearing into the malasada.

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