Why would someone ever call dainty sweets “nuns’ farts?” How unappetizing and disrespectful …

But call them that someone did, possibly a few disgruntled novices in a Catalan convent during the Siglo de Oro (Golden Century or Golden Age). Just imagine the young women giggling as they fried the dough, the popping sound of air escaping from the wet dough causing even more laughter. And then sudden silence when a black-habited kitchen sister frowned at the girls for breaking silence.

Even in a convent, it’s possible to find wit and scatological humor.

Although men published the cookbooks associated with the epoch — the Siglo de Oro — of Spain’s greatest power, women, particularly nuns, kept kitchen notebooks , “manuscript cookbooks,” with guidelines for sumptuous food and medicinal remedies.

In this particular case, I wanted to find Spanish-language manuscripts dealing with the cooking found in convents. Perhaps in doing so I might be able to explore more in depth the probable ties between convents and traditional sweets found in Spain,  Latin America, and Morocco.

Late-night Web trawling often offers up stunning finds for the cookbook-obsessed, especially for those of us rich in curiosity but poor in worldly goods.

Typing in phrases like sospiros de monja (“nuns’ sighs”), pets (pits) de monja (“nuns’ farts”), etc.*,  I stumbled onto a Web site with several downloadable antiquarian Spanish cookbooks. I felt like a 49er (Gold Rush type, not football) weeping over a battered gold-panning tin filled with shining nuggets.  As I read the list of available books, I decided to download Arte de reposteria, by Juan de la Mata (1791), hoping to find sospiros de monja, or at least something related to the cooking found in the numerous convents. Like wildflowers, these dotted Spanish cities and the surrounding countryside during the Siglo de Oro.

A mere blog post can never fully describe the history of Spanish convents — the  religious, political, and societal reasons for young women entering the convents demands work like that done, for example, by Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt:   Religious Women In Golden Age Spain: The Permeable Cloister (Women and Gender in the Early Modern World) (2005), Asunción Lavrín: Brides of Christ: Conventual Life in Colonial Mexico (2008), and Mary Taylor Simetti and Maria Grammatico: Bitter Almonds: Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian Girlhood (1994).

Making desserts and sweets provided convents with income in the past and still do. It may be that nuns invented many of the egg-yolk-rich sweets  because the sherry processors used whites to clarify their product. Or perhaps many of the recipes came from converso (Muslim and Jewish converts to Catholicism) families who preferred not marry their daughters to Christians.

So what’s a sweet nuns’ fart?

Actually, as the following photo gallery shows, several different sweets answer to this name. And that means that the final word is not yet in on this example of people’s wit and humor when it comes to food. [Caveat: the last picture is a bit, shall we say, strong in its message, but don’t blame the messenger. A recipe for one version of this sweet follows, along with a link to a chocolate variety.]

Convent-supplied Sweet Shop in Toledo, Spain. Pets de Monja in lower center.

French Pets de Nonne

French Canadian Pets de Nonne

Pets de Monja, Spain

Chocolate Pets de Nonne

Pets de Monja

½ cup butter
1 cup water
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 eggs
Oil for deep frying
3 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter in the water. Add salt and flour: stir constantly until a sticky batter forms. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, until the batter is smooth and shiny.

Heat oil to 375F. Fry mounded teaspoons of dough (or squeeze batter through pastry tube with a large opening), several at a time, for about 6 minutes. They are done when they are light, golden brown on all sides. Drain for a few minutes on papers towels laid on a cooling rack and serve warm, dusted with the confectioners’ sugar.

This pets de nonne recipe makes 28 to 32 fritters.

Here’s a Chocolate Pets de Nonne recipe for the truly adventurous.

*Also known as “nuns’ breasts.” The French phrase for the same concept is pets de nonne.

Tourist knick-knack sold in Catalonia.

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

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I am a cook who loves to write. And I am a writer who loves to cook.

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