Saturday, September 13, 2008

Basque Country Mystery

This summer I traveled to the Basque region of Spain with my family. We traveled from Bilbao down to La Rioja Alta wine region then back to Bilbao and up to San Sebastian while visiting all the small coastal towns in-between. The people, the architecture, the food -- it was a memorable trip.

This area is home to many of the best restaurants in the world. We were fortunate enough to dine at our share of great restaurants including Arzak Restaurant in San Sebastián (three Michelin stars), The Gastronomic Restaurant at the Guggenheim -- a Martín Berasategui restaurant and we also dined at what has been called Frank Gehry's favorite restaurant in
Bilbao, El Perro Chico.

While our meal at Arzak was truly amazing (and only included one dessert where foam was to be found), it was the traditional Basque breakfast pastries and desserts that caught my attention.

Morning after morning we would have what appeared to be a soft yeast roll either shaped like a round bun or in a torpedo shape. The filling appeared to be a whipped cream of some sort. The filling had a glazed look and was not overly sweet.

In the afternoon, we would bypass the Basque attempt at cookies for a small tart filled with custard and sometimes topped with apples.

We discovered that these two items were found in almost every cafe or bar in Bilbao and the surrounding area, but we did not find them in our adventures outside of Bilbao.

So what were these Bilbao specific goodies? I finally asked a friendly cafe owner in my limited Spanish the name of the two items. I tried to repeat it back but he kindly wrote it down for me in his very neat handwriting:

Bollo de mantequilla and tarta de arroz.

So, butter bun and rice tart? I didn't notice any rice in the tarts. But now I knew what the filling was in the buns. The filling sure didn't taste like any butter I had ever had before though.

Once home, I tried to find recipes for these two treats and I was successful in finding a recipe for tarta de arroz in Teresa Barrenechea's excellent book on traditional Basque foods, "The Basque Table."

According Barrenechea, "Basque desserts are simple, homey fare. Most are made with ingredients commonly found in every kichen -- eggs, milk, and sugar and consequently tend to be smooth, rich and custardy".

We found this to be true as well as the fact that cakes, in the traditional American way, were not to be found and chocolate desserts were also scarce.

In her book, the author includes a recipe for Tarta De Arrese: custard tart bilbao-style.

According to Barrenechea, "This crustless tart is typical of my hometown of Bilbao. Its traditional name, tarta de arroz, is misleading, since the tart doesn't contain rice. So I have renamed it in honor of a bakery in Bilbao, Pasteleria Arrese, a favorite haunt of mine..."

I made the tart and was transported back to Bilbao.

But it is probably easier to get the keys to the Bilbao Guggenheim than it is to find a recipe for bollo de mantequilla!

I emailed Teresa Barrenechea but to date, haven't had a response.

My search on the Internet yielded several blogs dedicated to singing the praises of bollo de mantequilla but included no recipes. I guess I wasn't the only one who fondly remembered bollo de mantequilla.

I finally landed on a web site of from what I can tell, Spain's answer to that larger than life chef, Emeril Lagasse. The site is and features the cooking universe of Karlos Arguiñano. His site did have a recipe but it was a gluten-free, "alternative" recipe. Not what I was looking for.

I had what I thought was a clever idea to email the Sheraton Bilbao, the hotel we stayed in while exploring Bilbao and the wine country. I received a very polite email advising I check the site of Karlos Arguiñano!

Not such a clever idea I guess
. I called the Center for Basque Studies located at the University of Nevada, Reno. The librarian there kindly pointed me to, yes, Karlos Arguiñano.

I decided that I simply must try his recipe and I did so. Let's call the outcome buns of steel and not buns of butter.

My search was starting to make me bleary eyed, much like the jumble of letters of x, z and k in the Basque language that we futility tried to translate and understand.

So, my attempts to replicate the seemingly simple bollo de mantequilla failed, and the recipe remains a mystery, much like attempts to discover how the Basque people got to this area of Europe and how their language developed is still a mystery.

Custard Tart Bilbao-Style: Tarta De Arrese

from The Basque Table by Teresa Barrenechea

2 cups whole milk

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

3 large eggs, separated

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
1 to 2 cups Sweet Basque Cream (recipe follows)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly butter a 9-inch pie plate.
2. In a blender or in a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine the milk, flour, egg yolks, and sugar. Blend just until the contents are mixed. Transfer them to a bowl.

3. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites with a wire whisk to the "snow point"-just until they start to thicken to soft peaks.

4. Gently fold the egg whites and the melted butter into the milk mixture until the whites are almost completely incorporated. Scrape the mixture into the prepared pie plate, and bake it for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the custard is golden brown and a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool the custard on a wire rack until it is just lukewarm. Cut the custard into wedges, and serve them warm or cool. Spoon the Sweet Basque Cream onto the dessert plates, spreading it to cover the plate. Set a wedge of custard on top of the sauce.

Serves 8

Sweet Basque Cream: Natillas

from The Basque Table by Teresa Barrenechea

Natillas is often served as a dessert in itself, served in small custard cups but it is also used in many Basque recipes as a sauce. It is similar to crème anglaise.

1 quart heavy cream
2 cinnamon sticks

6 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Ground cinnamon

1. In a saucepan, combine the cream and cinnamon sticks, and bring them to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low, and cook gently for about 10 minutes, until the cream is well infused with the cinnamon. Set the pan aside so the cream can cool.

2. In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, and vanilla until they are well mixed. Add the cream and cinnamon sticks, and whisk well.

3. Heat 1 to 2 inches of water in the bottom pan of a double boiler, and transfer the custard mixture to the top pan, or set the bowl over a saucepan containing 1 to 2 inches of hot water. Bring the water to a boil, and cook the sauce, stirring constantly, for about 30 minutes or until it thickens, adding more hot water to the bottom pan if necessary. Remove the top pan or the bowl from over the hot water, and let the custard cool.

4. Strain the cooled custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a glass or ceramic container, and refrigerate the natillas for at least 4 hours, until it is cool. Stir before serving, adding a little more heavy cream if necessary to smooth the natillas. Divide it among six custard cups or transfer it to a pitcher to use as a sauce. Serve the natillas sprinkled with cinnamon.

Makes 5 to 6 cups. Serves 6


  1. Hi, as a bilbaíno I'm really happy that you:
    a) visited and enjoyed Bilbao
    b) discovered and enjoyed the Bollo de mantequilla and the Pastel de arroz
    c) discovered my post in praise of the Bollo de mantequilla.

    I posted a while ago about the pastel de arroz and other Bilbao pastries as well

    It wasn't until I lived far away from Bilbao that I discovered that Bollo de mantequilla was a unique (if understated and daily) wonder. As for the recipe, it's quite simply and enriched dough made with milk and probably a tiny bit of egg. As it happens, the most simple things are the most difficult to perfect.
    When abroad, I always try to explain friends the attractive of the humble Bollo de mantequilla, so I'm really happy to read your praise words.

  2. Are you Basque? My family is on my mother's side ... I love the food. Need to go there so I can fall in love with the culture

  3. I am really sad to hear that bollo de mantequilla doesn't really exist other than in the Basque region. When I moved here earlier this year, I tried it and fell absolutely in love! I'm also from the SF area, and when I move back to SF next year, I'm going to be super sad that I won't be able to have access to bollo de mantequilla in every cafe...

    All the more reason to find myself a good bollo recipe, eh? :D