Monday, December 1, 2003

¡Qué maravillosa!

A tasty trip through Hispanic holiday foods By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach In Madison Magazine, December 2006
Recipes and shopping tips follow this article

Photo: Martha Busse

When Melania Alvarez tells me how to make cochinita pibil, a Christmas dish from her native Mexico, she gets excited just talking about it. “Oh, my mouth is watering!” she exclaims. She talks me through each step, and calls back a couple of times with some tips she forgot.

I must sound puzzled at her description of some of the more exotic ingredients, because the next day, I find them in a shopping bag hanging on my doorknob. There’s also an authentic comal – a steel griddle for warming tortillas. It’s a gift, for my efforts to share a dish that’s dear to her. The recipe comes out fabulous. The comal works great.

Holiday food customs matter to people. Here are some favorites of Madisonians from around the Latin American diaspora. ¡Que maravillosa!

Rosca de Reyes (wreath of kings) and Cochinita Pibil (barbecue pork soft tacos)

Alvarez, an anthropology Ph.D. candidate at UW-Madison, remembers fondly the holiday celebrations she grew up with. Dec. 16 kicks off Las Posadas, a nightly neighborhood-wide reenactment in song of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging, culminating in a party each night at a different neighbor’s house. Festive dishes include ponche con piquete (punch with sting), a fruity, alcoholic concoction. For the children, there’s a piñata filled with peanuts, oranges, tangerines, sugar canes and candy.

Presents arrive on Epiphany (Jan. 6) courtesy of the three Wise Men – not Santa – in remembrance of the gifts they brought Jesus. On that day is served the rosca de reyes (wreath of kings), “a big oval wreath of egg bread with dry fruit decorations and sprinkled sugar on top,” explains Alvarez. “Hidden inside, there is a little ceramic doll which represents the Baby Jesus.”

But the main feast of Christmastime in Mexico, as throughout most of Latin America, is held the night of Christmas Eve. The Alvarez spread was lavish: “We had tamales, romeritos [a green vegetable] with shrimp, pork with plum sauce, bacalao [salt cod with chili peppers], and lots more. Our family loves to eat. In Mexico, food is just an incredible thing. There’s so much variety.” Christmas Day itself is “low-key,” she says – lots of lounging and leftovers.

One of Alvarez’s favorite holiday dishes is cochinita pibil, a kind of tangy pork barbecue served taco style with pickled red onions. Although her family hails from Monterrey in Mexico’s north, this Christmas specialty from south Mexico – an area with a vastly different culinary style – was always on her family’s holiday table. Here’s how it came to be there.

Born in Yucatán in the 1860s, Doña Aurora Canto chronicled the marvelous foods she grew up with, and developed recipes for preparing them in a modern, urban kitchen. Her granddaughter, Melba Sanchez, and her husband, Alonso, opened a restaurant in central Mexico, serving these recipes.

In the 1960s, the Sanchezes befriended a family that had newly moved south to Mexico City. The clan’s matriarch bonded with their little girl – Melania – who loved to hear stories about life in old Yucatán. And Doña Aurora shared with Melania’s family her method for cochinita pibil.

The classic form of the dish involves marinating a whole suckling pig in spices and orange juice, wrapping it in banana leaves, and roasting it in a pit dug into the earth.
This stovetop version from Doña Aurora, however, is easy. “It’s a foolproof recipe,” Alvarez says. “No matter what you do, it’s very hard that you ruin this thing. Put some on your tortilla, add some onion. You close your taco and – heaven! It’s good.”

Cochinitas pibil make a perfect buffet food. Just keep the pork hot in a chafing dish, and put the red onions nearby in a pretty bowl. Warm a stack of tortillas and keep them hot in foil or in a tortilla warmer.

Torejas (sweet corn puffs)

Christmas Eve dinner in Honduras, just north of Nicaragua, features nacatamales – pork or chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves, rather than the corn husks-wrapped tamales of Mexico that Americans are more familiar with. And for dessert, there’s always torejas – delicate little spongey disks dripping with rich, sweet cane syrup.

“Everybody has torejas and coffee,” says DeStephen, who was a dentist in Honduras. She came to the States two years ago with her husband, a clinical engineer with Rayovac. “They’re served right after dinner at room temperature. They’re very popular, and very easy. Very nice.”

In other Hispanic countries, “torejas” is a word meaning French toast, or sometimes just toast. But in Honduras, it specifically means these tiny fried corn flour cakes. (Fans of Indian food can consider these gulab jamun for the Western hemisphere.)
The most exotic ingredient here is piloncillo, a cone of evaporated cane syrup, a staple at Latin markets. The label IDs it as “brown sugar,” but it’s not quite the same as American brown sugar, which is just white sugar with a little molasses stirred in. This is the real thing – the pure, unrefined juice of the crushed cane. Compared to our brown sugar, the flavor is rich, hefty, whole.

Pan de Pascua (holy season bread) and Cola de Mono (monkey’s tail)

Fruitcake and monkey’s tail: it’s the instant Chilean Christmas celebration kit. “If you say this combination to any Chilean, they will say, ‘Oh, my, how did you know?’” says Paulette Berthelon. “Everywhere you go, everyone offers it to you. You just keep eating and drinking that through New Year’s Eve.”

Pan de Pascua, or Chilean fruitcake, translates as “bread of the holy season.” Dense, rich and bready, it’s sort of a cross between our fruitcake (less sweet, and not phony) and German stollen.

Cola de mono, meaning monkey’s tail, is the Chilean cultural equivalent of eggnog. This sweet drink is made with spiced milk and coffee and spiked with aguardiente, a Chilean liquor distilled from sugar cane.

Eaten in tandem, you’d think the two sweet treats would just cloy and cancel each other out, but in fact they combine in transcendent spicy harmony. “You eat and drink these two together, and – I don’t know, it’s just right,” says Berthelon.”It’s so good.”

Pan de Pascua is thought to originate from regions in the south of Chile settled by Germans in the early twentieth century, and Berthelon’s favorite recipe is the family treasure of a friend whose great-grandfather arrived in Chile around that time.


Rosca de Reyes In Madison, the Panaderia Marimar (270-0711; 1325 Greenway Cross) bakes delicious roscas de reyes in time for Epiphany. You can call ahead to reserve one, and arrange to pick it up at any of Marimar’s three mercado (market) locations around town.

Here’s a group of party-friendly recipes: every one of these can be prepared days in advance, and most get better with time. Enjoy!

Mexican Cochinitas Pibil
Alvarez recommends making cochinita pibil a day or even a week ahead of time. “It gets better and better,” she says. The pickled onions mellow and improve with time in the fridge, also.
Achiote is a garlicky condiment made chiefly from crushed annatto seeds. Annatto’s flavor is mild, but its color is a spectacular orange. (Used in tiny amounts, annatto gives cheddar and other orange cheeses their familiar ruddy hue.) Achiote is easy to find at any Latino food store. It comes in a little box about the size of a bar of soap, usually sporting a jaunty drawing of – a roast suckling pig.

Banana leaves are also uncommon to the American kitchen, but readily available at a mercado.

In Yucatán, a special orange, the naranja agria (bitter orange), is juiced for the marinade, but, says Alvarez, “You can only get it in Yucatán.” This recipe uses vinegar plus orange juice to duplicate the super-sour quality of naranja agria.

Tortilla warmers, cases to keep your heated tortillas hot, are available inexpensively at most Latino specialty mercados and tiendas (stores). Yue Wah (2328 S. Park St., 257-9338), a multiethnic supermarket, is also an excellent source for Latino groceries and accoutrements.

Cohinita Pibil Recipe

3 pounds pork shoulder butt roast
3/4 bar achiote (annatto) paste
2–3 feet banana leaves
5 oranges, juiced (or 1 1/2 cups OJ)
3/4 cup white vinegar, plus more cups vinegar
1–2 red onions
1 lime
1–4 serrano or habanero peppers
plenty of corn tortillas

Combine juice and 3/4 cup vinegar. Dissolve the achiote into the liquid. Cut the pork into six or more pieces. Marinate the pork in the achiote mixture overnight. A zippered freezer bag – inside another bag or a bowl just in case – works well.

Transfer the meat and marinade into a heavy pot. (Iron or enameled iron are perfect; uncoated aluminum is not a good choice, because the acid will pit it.) Loosely wrap the meat into foot-long lengths of banana leaf. Add water to cover. Simmer, covered, 3–5 hours, until very tender – enough that you can easily tear it into little strips with a fork. (Some people like to use an electric crockpot for this slow cooking; others say it just isn’t the same.) Discard the banana leaves. Shred the pork. Keep the lid off and cook liquid down until it’s juicy, but not soupy. Keep in mind that when it cools, much of the liquid will be absorbed. Mash another teaspoon or tablespoon of achiote with a little vinegar and stir it in, to freshen up the taste. Excellent right away or reheated. Be careful not to let this get scorched: “Burnt annatto tastes terrible,” says Alvarez.

Onion condiment
Slice the onion into thin rings. Place in a glass bowl or other container suitable for fairly long-term refrigeration. Add the juice of a lime. Add vinegar to cover. Slice the pepper(s) lengthwise and add them – as many as you think you will want the heat of! Refrigerate at least a day before serving. The sharpness of the onions mellows over time.

To serve Over low heat, warm tortillas on a griddle or an authentic flat steel comal (available at mercados). Make a soft taco by putting some pork on a tortilla, adding red onion (lift it out of the vinegar), and folding the tortilla in half.

Honduran Torejas

3 eggs, separated
3 tablespoons corn flour (finer than corn meal)
3 piloncillos
3 cups water
Oil for frying (about 1 quart)

Woodman’s carries big, cheap jugs of peanut oil. With its high smoking point and unobtrusive flavor, is a good choice for frying. It can easily be strained and reused after frying torejas.

Beat yolks till thick and creamy, like mayonnaise. Beat egg whites till stiff peaks form. Stir whites and yolks together. Stir in corn flour.

Fry in 1" of hot (375º) oil, dropping batter from a teaspoon. Fry torejas until golden brown, flipping once. It doesn’t take long. By the time you fill the pan, it’s time to flip the first ones you dropped in. By the time you’ve turned them all, it’s time to start removing them to a rack. Cool on rack, then remove to paper towels for better drainage. At this point, they’re feather-light, mostly air – the better to soak up the delicious piloncillo syrup.

Place in the syrup. Refrigerate overnight. Serve about three torejas at room temperature in lots of syrup in a little dish.

Piloncillo syrup In a saucepan over low heat, place piloncillos in water and cover. The dried cane syrup will dissolve into a thin syrup after several minutes.

Pan De Pasuca
Holy Season Bread, or Chilean Fruitcake
Most Panes de Pascua are yeasted breads, time-consuming constructions involving various kneadings and risings. This one, however, is leavened with baking powder, so it’s much simpler to make. It’s legacy, however, is authentic, dating back generations in a German family of southern Chile.

1 cup of butter, room temperature
1/2 cup milk
4 eggs, separated
2 1/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
3 tablespoons honey
1/4 teaspoon anise extract
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoon grated lemon peel
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups chopped walnuts (not too small, break every piece in half)
3/4 cup almonds (optional, broken in pieces as you do with the walnuts)
1 1/2 cups golden raisins
1 cup mixed candied fruit
1/2 cup brandy or rum
1 teaspoon white vinegar

Preheat oven to 325º. Grease two deep 9" round cake pans or one 9" springform pan. Spray pan(s) with cooking spray. For extra nonstick-ness, line the bottom and sides of the pan with foil, then spray.

Combine the fruits and nuts in a medium bowl. Toss in a handful of flour and mix to coat. The flour keeps the fruits and nuts from sinking to the bottom of the cake.

Beat butter in a large bowl until creamy. Add all the sugar and beat until
light and fluffy. Add honey. Beat in egg yolks one at a time, beating well at each addition. Add vanilla. Stir in lemon peel and egg whites. Add some of the milk.
Sift flour, baking powder and spices and add to butter mixture alternately
with brandy or rum, beating just until blended. (Get someone to do the adding while you do the beating, and it will be much easier!) Add the vinegar. Now add enough of the milk to make a batter no thinner than an average cake batter. This might mean adding all the milk. Thick is OK, but you don’t want it too thin. Fold in reserved fruit and nuts mixture.

Spoon into pan(s) and smooth top. Bake for one hour or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the cake is firm. (It might take up to fifteen minutes longer.)

Cool completely on wire rack. Cover with foil and refrigerate or store in a cool dry place. Pan de pascua keeps for several days.

Chilean Cola de Mono
Monkey’s Tail

1 quart milk
8 tablespoons sugar (or more to taste)
4 tablespoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon grated cloves
sections of peel from 1/4 orange, white pith scraped away
1 1/2 cups freshly brewed coffee.
3/4 to 1 cup aquardiente

Aquardiente, a cane-based spirit that predates rum, is difficult to find stateside, but rum or tequila are serviceable substitutes. Paulette cautions against using vodka: “It gives a bitter taste. Don’t even try it.”

Place the milk, sugar, vanilla extract, grated nutmeg, grated cloves, and
orange peel in a two- or three-quart saucepan. Over medium heat, heat the mixture to just before to the boiling point, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat just as it’s about to boil. Stir the coffee into the hot milk. Let it cool at room temperature. (If you prefer to use instant coffee, dissolve 4 teaspoons in a cup using a little bit of the hot milk mixture, and then add it to the rest of the mixture.)

Add the liquor after the liquid has cooled. If it’s still warm, the alcohol will evaporate! You can add the liquor by stages, to adjust the strength to your taste. You might even want to add the liquor later, to suit individual tastes and so that children and other non-drinkers can enjoy it.

Remove the orange peels, strain the cola de mono and decant into bottles, using a ladle and funnel. Cover tightly and chill before serving. Keeps several days refrigerated.