Follow me on a brief regression if you will: The year is 1971 and my mother and I were visiting the town of Sóller, on the island of Mallorca, soaking up the magical mix of sun, scenery, and, of course, food. As we strolled through the town square, imagine my hungry young eyes locking on the hypnotic spiral pastries being prominently displayed in the local bakery window. I was undeniably transfixed. A few pesetas and big bites later, I was hooked on this slightly sweet, puffy cloud of goodness—no doubt I was thoroughly covered with a dusting of white confectioners’ sugar as well.
But though it presents an innocent snow-kissed, snail-shell exterior, when I began to tear into the Ensaimada’s anecdotal history, I was truly surprised by what I found when I dug into the research. There is convincing evidence that the pastry’s origins are from a dark chapter in Mallorcan cuisine, which itself had influences from Judeo-Christian and Arabic populations. Often attributed as the inspiration for the Mallorcan Ensaimada, Arab pastries called bulemes dolces are spiral shaped, and use all the same ingredients, save for the fat, which is sheep's milk butter instead of lard. However, the name “Ensaimada” contains the Catalan word for pork lard—saïm. This seemed counterintuitive to my understanding of all things kosher. Upon further reading, I found reports that during the Spanish Inquisition, lard was intentionally added to historically lardless recipes. Thus the change to a pork-fat-infused pastry became a sort of edible auto-da-fé for those who were forcibly converted from Judaism and Islam to Catholicism. Eating Ensaïmadas in the late 1400s was proof that one had literally stomached Christianity!
Despite their controversial history, Ensaïmadas remain a stalwart of Balearic baking traditions. One can find these spirals everywhere from airport bakeries to mom-and-pop shop; their name, “Ensaïmadas de Mallorca,” is even protected by a European geographical indication status. So why haven’t they caught on outside of Europe? Enter Thea Habjanic, New York’s very own goddess of Ensaïmadas. She has developed a sensational stateside version, born of necessity, and a passion to elevate the lingering bad taste of her own “meh” experience. “When I was working in Barcelona at Albert Adria’s restaurant Enigma, I actually lived next door to a bakery that’s pretty well known,” says Habjanic, “I first tried Ensaïmadas there and I didn’t love them.”
After moving back to New York to helm Mercado Little Spain’s ambitious pastry program as their executive pastry chef, she was given a menu to execute that included a very basic Ensaïmada recipe. This launched her on a many months-long journey of testing and refinement. She even traveled back to Spain, eating her way through dozens of Mallorcan pastisserias, all in service of acing the recipe she shares with us below.
Finally, having applied her many experiences to the creation of an Ensaïmada she felt worthy of serving the public, none other than the renowned Mallorcan baker, Tomeu Arbona, surprised her with a kitchen visit one day. He was in New York on a junket, and after sampling Thea’s wares, he was so blown away he imparted a blessing of sorts: “It’s amazing—I can’t believe you’re making Ensaïmadas so well outside Mallorca.”
Arbona even shared with her a special technique of his own: He showed Thea how to cut the Ensaïmada dough so that when she took a piece from the side and placed it in the middle, it made the central spiral a bit fatter—and flakier. It was this revelatory morsel of technical wisdom that elevated Thea’s Ensaïmada game to perfection. But above all, patience and gentle practice are required. —Mark Shaw Studio
- Prep time 16 hours 45 minutes
- Cook time 10 minutes
- makes about 10 pastries
instant yeast (Thea uses SAF gold instant)
(about 3) whole eggs
(2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons) extra-virgin olive oil
Lard or vegetable shortening at room temperature, as needed for shaping
Powdered sugar, for dusting
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine yeast and water and let sit for five minutes. After five minutes, whisk until yeast is dissolved.
- To this mixture, add the flour, sugar, salt, and eggs. Stir together with a big wooden spoon (or your hands) until just combined, then fit the stand mixer with the dough hook attachment and mix. Let it go for a few minutes until all ingredients come together; add oil and mix on low about 10 minutes, then increase the speed to medium for a final 10 minutes. The dough will pull away from the sides of the bowl when ready—a little stickiness is fine.
- Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover, and let sit in a warm place for about an hour, or until doubled in size.
- Punch the dough down, and turn out onto a floured surface.
- Portion dough into approximately 95 gram measurements, and roll into about 10 even balls.
- Place the dough balls on a greased sheet pan, spray tops with cooking spray, and cover lightly with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel. Let proof in a warm place until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
- To stretch the dough out, you can use either a wooden table, a plastic cutting board, or the back of a sheet pan. Grease the surface with room-temperature pork lard or vegetable shortening.
- Place a dough ball in the middle of your board and flatten, removing any air bubbles. Use a rolling pin to stretch the dough into an oblong oval. Smear with a liberal amount of lard, and start stretching to form a large, paper-thin rectangle about 18x26" in size.
- Position the rectangle so one of the narrower ends is facing you in a "portrait" orientation. Using a pastry cutter or knife, cut a large triangle off the bottom left corner of the dough and place this triangle so it overlaps with the top right corner. We're doing this to create a second layer of dough (and thus a more flaky ensaimada) on the top right.
- Starting on the longer side of the rectangle (very much like a jelly roll or cinnamon roll), roll the dough into a rope approximately 26 inches in length. Because of the way we cut and layered the dough, one of the sides of the rope will be considerably thicker than the other. This is intentional, and will allow the center of the ensaimada to be puffier and thicker than the outside. Let the ropes rest for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Once the dough is formed into ropes and rested, begin coiling each rope into a spiral, snail-like shape, starting with the thicker end as the center of the pastry. Place the ensaimadas on two well-greased sheet pans several inches apart, and cover with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel. Proof at room temperature for 14 to 16 hours, until the pastries puff up and hold an indentation when poked slightly.
- When you're ready to bake, heat the oven to 350°F.
- Remove the towel or plastic wrap from the proofed ensaimadas and bake in the heated oven for 7 to 10 minutes, or until golden brown on the top. Remove from the oven and dust lightly with powdered sugar if you like).