The ensaimada (spelled ensaïmada in Catalan) is a Balearic culinary tradition that dates back to at least the seventeenth century. Anyone who has ever fallen in love with this delicious pastry during a trip to Majorca knows that it’s devilishly hard to find a good one anywhere else in the world.
Although bakeries in most major cities throughout Spain sell ensaimadas, mainland residents tote them back to the mainland in stacks when they return from their Majorcan vacations, a habit that has not gone unnoticed by low-cost airline Ryan Air, which recently announced that the company planned to slap an eight-euro excess hand baggage charge on passengers who carry them aboard their planes. What is it that makes an ensaimada made in Majorca so special and difficult to replicate elsewhere?
To begin with, expertise handed down from one generation to another seems to be a big factor. According to the Illes Baleares Qualitat website, about half of the bakeries in Majorca have been in business for a century and a half and many of these venerable institutions have been owned and operated by the same families for five generations. It is estimated that 5% of the bakeries on the island have been around for three hundred years and a good 10% hung out their shingles at least two centuries ago. Competing with that much experience would be daunting for even the most talented newcomer.
The time needed to make an ensaimada correctly —at least twenty-four hours—is certainly an issue as well. Once the dough is prepared, divided, allowed to rest, rolled and stretched until it is paper-thin, slathered with softened lard, perhaps dotted with a sweet or savory filling, rolled up again to form long strands, and finally laid out on baker’s parchment in loose coils, it must be left to rise between twelve and eighteen hours before it can be popped into a (preferably) wood-fired oven.
The flaky, savory charm of an authentic Majorcan ensaimada also depends on the ingredients used. Although some bakeries have started using butter, the saïm in the name ensaïmada means lard. An ensaimada made with butter is a horse of a slightly different color and one made with vegetable shortening in another animal altogether. Then there is the question of preparing the starter dough. Most recipes floating around the Internet fail to clue beginners in as to how this should be done, but Majorca native Sara González Orts has graciously shared her recipe for ensaimadas, which includes instructions on how to make the necessary starter dough, in her blog Las Recettas de Sara. Sara is a culinary purist. In her opinion, substituting butter for lard is out of the question—a travesty akin to tossing onion into a paella. Traditional Majorcan bakers use high-gluten, hard wheat flour, which gives the dough sufficient strength and elasticity to stand up to the intensive rolling, stretching, overlapping, and coiling involved in producing this pastry. Determining how much flour to use is an art unto itself: it varies according to the temperature and humidity on any given day as well as the moisture level of the other ingredients. The characteristics of the eggs, sugar, and water that make up the rest of the ingredients also affect the flavor and texture of the final product. This short demonstration video posted by pastry chef Elisa Llobet in her food blog Semevalaolla shows bakers whipping out a batch of ensaimadas at the Horno Cala d’Or in Mallorca.
I prefer my ensaimadas straight up with only a sprinkle of confectioner’s sugar on top, but they are also prepared with fillings that range from custard cream, almond purée, chocolate, apricots, and cabello de ángel (a very sweet jam made from the thread-like pulp of the squash cucurbita ficifolia, which is widely used as a pastry filling throughout the Iberian Peninsula) to sobrasada (a raw, cured pork sausage often used uncased as a cocktail spread).
Einsaimadas purchased at Palma de Mallorca airport are more expensive than those purchased directly from the island’s bakeries. One of my favorite places to enjoy an ensaimada in Palma is C’an Juan de S’aigo. This charming café hidden away on a very small street a few meters from the church of Sant Eulalia was founded in 1700. In addition to its fabulous ensaimadas, it also serves a variety of other Majorcan pastries, hot chocolate, horchatas, and homemade ice cream.
As for the etymology of the name ensaïmada, some claim the Catalan word saïm was borrowed from Arabic. In fact-checking this unlikely assertion, I could only find references that identified saim (also transliterated from the Arab as sa’im, saaem, saem, saaim, sayim, and saayim) with fasting. The ensaimada does bear a hazy resemblance to a spiral-shaped Middle Eastern pastry called a bulema, which might possibly been introduced to Majorca by either Arab or Jewish bakers and is still popular in those communities, but quite understandably is never made with lard. It is much more likely that the word saïm was derived from the Latin word sagimen.
Majorca or Mallorca? How should English writers, editors, and translator write the name of the island?
When the Romans conquered the Balearic Islands in 123 BC, Emperor Quintus Caecilius Metellus decided to call them Insula Maior and Insula Minor. When Issam al-Hawlaní conquered Majorca in 902 AD, he renamed the island’s largest city, Madîna Mayûrqa. The name of the island eventually evolved into Maiorica before consolidating in Catalan as Mallorca. The j in the English word Majorca comes directly from a translation of the Roman maior. Although both the Oxford and Merriam-Webster Dictionaries still support that spelling, British writer and Majorca resident Ana Nicholas suggests that English speakers might consider adopting the double “in the interests of European integration.” So far, the European Parliament has stuck with the standard English spelling in its English language documents.
References and sources:
Epigrafía latina republicana de Hispania by Borja Díaz Ariño