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The ensaimada, the Mallorcan soft bun, has become a typical element, as has happened with other gastronomic products particular to Mallorca. It is used as one of the icons to identify the island, just like the sobrasada sausage or the cheese made in Mahón. Like a cliché it has been used to sell a more or less rural, genuine or curious image of the island, although it has never really been considered to be that on Mallorca, but rather just another gastronomic element. Whatever it may be, it is true that the product has always convinced anyone that has tried it. Many have remarked on the phrase written by Josep Pla, who visited Mallorca several times, and described the ensaimada as "the lightest, airiest and most delicate pastry in this country."
The etymology of the word ensaimada comes from the Arab word saim, which was later incorporated into the Catalan language. Saïm is pork lard. The ensaimada is therefore a bun with lard, a lardy cake. The same as a "cortado" (cut) is in fact a cup of coffee but cut by milk. But that is another story.
It is obvious that an ensaimada is a desert that works, that is liked. The Mallorca airport is full of businesses that are supported by never ending pillars of octagonal boxes, (full of ensaimadas) that are sold quite a bit dearer than in the bakeries. For some time now, the airlines have forbidden taking this island sweet as hand baggage, insisting on their transport with the suitcases. There is no clear reason for this. They say, with a smile, that it is not possible, and that is all.
The fame of the ensaimada comes from way back. In the past century many Mallorcans emigrated to South America in search of fortune. The majority of them returned as poor as they had left, but some stayed there. One of those was a certain Joan Puig. He landed in Argentina and opened a bakery in the city of San Pedro. Today there are still a few who make ensaimadas and every year they celebrate the National Ensaimada Festival.
It is said that the first written documents with reference to the ensaimada date from the XVII century. Archduke Luis Salvador of Austria spoke about them in his volumes "Die Balearen" (and he probably ate them too). Throughout all those years there has been no change in the recipe and procedure. So to explain how ensaimadas were made 200 years ago and nowadays is one and the same thing. The process is completely artisan and can take up to 24 hours to complete. To make the dough old measures are still used: almudes and ounces. To get some idea, in Mallorca an almud of dough contains a kilo of sugar, a dozen eggs, a liter of water and all the 'strong' flour it can take (thereby is the secret, no measurement for the flour!). To these ingredients yeast is added which can be either natural yeast or in powder form, and the kneading starts. In former times this was done by hand. Although nowadays machines are used, to do so by hand the dough is placed in a bowl and kneaded until it is soft. After more or less half an hour, it is smooth.
From this mass of dough (the almud) many ensaimadas can be formed. Small pieces that fit in a fist are taken by hand and are rolled out until they are extremely thin. Lard is spread on one side and the dough is rolled into a tube shape with which the coil shape of the ensaimada is formed in clockwork direction.
When all the ensaimadas are prepared and placed on trays they are left to rise. This can last 24 hours resulting in the raised ensaimada with the characteristic consistency and volume.
A bakery's schedule is more or less as follows. They start the task at about 4 in the morning. First they make the bread, the rolls and what ever they need but at the end of the day they bake the ensaimadas prepared the day before, and prepare those for the next day, to leave them to rise for 24 hours. They are baked at the end of the day for another reason: the ensaimadas need a very hot oven, but one that is not fierce, almost gone out (referring to wood ovens).
Today ensaimadas can be found of various types: plain (unfilled) or filled with angel's hair (squash jam); with custard cream, with almond puré, with ice-cream, chocolate, sobrasada, apricots. They are all delicious, but those who know, say that what is important is what they are served with.