Friday, October 23, 2009

Families baking and breaking bread

I am super late posting for last week, but I can explain! Besides having epic uploading issues, I've also been pretty busy. In between going out for drinks or dancing with neighbors, climbing small mountains with new friends, yoga, running and dance classes, I fit in a lot of cooking, at home and with Sra. Zanella. But even more exciting, I did a lot of baking! I started working at Panadería La Blanca, a bakery somewhere around a hundred years old, opened back when there were only three bakeries in all of Cholula and when Cholula itself was nothing but an ancient Mesoamerican religious site, a gravel-road pueblita with one tucked-away restaurant. Now, someone sells pan dulce around almost every corner; internet cafés, restaurants, bars and clubs abound. But La Blanca and its brick ovens have been producing tortas and pan dulce using the same family recipes for as long as anyone can remember, not excepting my ninety-two year old co-worker Yobardo who has worked at La Blanca since 1939. 

 I also work alongside Netito, the grandson and great-nephew of the two brothers and co-owners. Netito is being apprenticed, learning the ins-and-outs of baking the countless types of pan dulce under more experienced workers. (He is the third Ernesto in the family, hence “Netito.” Funny thing is, he is a former college football player, weighing in at approximately 230 pounds and 6’3”. I love how ironic Mexican diminutives can be.) This fourth-generation family bakery is the real deal. I’m in baked-good heaven!

Within ten minutes of arriving, the workers had me kneading and shaping, topping, spreading and dipping. I came home six hours later, worn out but wearing a goofy grin to go along with my flour and dough covered clothes.

 I’ve been back almost every day since, practicing various techniques and becoming fairly decent at a few. Today I tried my hand at shaping cuernos, croissants. My co-workers only had to correct a few, not bad for a first try.

One night Israel, Netito’s uncle —I need a family tree diagram to accompany this post— let me watch while he prepared the dough for los hojaldras or pan de muerto, the bread of the dead sold in huge amounts in the days preceding Día de los Muertos. 

Hojaldras are light, airy and slightly sweet, topped with sesame seeds and shaped to resemble bones. High season begins in a few days, when we’ll be producing thousands of these festive breads day and night in preparation for the first and second of November. Israel divulged that business has been slow this year—no surprise there—and that sales are down, especially to local restaurants and businesses that are now opting to replace part of their daily orders for cheaper, commercial bread. The bakery is counting on the high hojaldra season, when out of tradition and respect for the dead, people buy bread for their ofrendas when otherwise they might forgo that morning pan dulce to make up some of the lost profits.

A long day in the panadería requires a hearty breakfast to make it through until la comida, especially with all the butter, flour and sugar around. One morning I prepared nopales, cactus paddles that are very popular here. 

The nopales con huevo were delicious, a great variation on the endless Mexican egg breakfast theme. Nopales are mild and clean tasting, giving a fleshy and refreshing contrast to the savory egg, as well as a little more texture and bite. 

I also come home with an appetite. One afternoon I used up the rest of the cactus paddles sitting in my refrigerator to make nopales al vapor, inviting my neighbor Nico over as my guinea pig. We ate them as a taco filling with fresh corn tortillas and queso fresco. 

The recipe called for a lot of epazote, the herb also known as Mexican tea, with a pungent flavor that is hard to stomach at first whiff, but cooks down quickly to add nice flavor to black beans, quesadillas, soup, you name it. Quintessentially Mexican, also supposedly relieves the gaseous quality of black beans. Thumbs up all around once you give it a shot.  I was a little nervous as Nico took his first bite, but he complimented me on the lack of slime (a major factor in preparation, and why small, tender nopales are preferred) and the flavor.

I took a break from the bakery on Saturday to prepare chiles en nogada with Sra. Zanella to bring with us to Pachuca on Sunday where the two sides of the family would reunite after thirty years. A big day requiring a special dish. I wrote about this rich and complex festive dish when I first arrived, but now I know why many families only prepare them once a year: they take a ton of work! First, roasting, peeling and de-seeding the (twenty-five!) chile poblanos, peeling and dicing pounds of fruit, slowly cooking ground beef into an aromatic concoction with tomato and onion, nuts and raisins and all the diced fresh fruit. Then filling the chile poblanos with the picadillo, closing them with toothpicks, covering them with flour, bathing them in foamy, beaten egg, and frying them in hot oil.

But that’s not the end! We brought the chiles with us the next day to Pachuca, reheating them in the oven, and waited to make the nogada, the blended sauce of milk, queso fresco, almonds, pecans, brandy, sugar and cinnamon, fresh the day of the big meal. Finally, we peeled the fresh pomegranates for the colorful topping. After finishing up in the kitchen, we joined Sr. Canal’s aunt, cousins, and extended family in the living room. I felt privileged to be able to witness this reunion: Sr. Canal fondly wrapping his arm around his aunt’s shoulder on the couch, Sra. Zanella getting to know this side of Sr. Canal’s family for the first time in years, meeting their cousin Enrique’s children. I felt all warm and fuzzy, although it could have been the 3 o’clock tequila aperitif. Sra. Zanella and I breathed a big sigh of relief when Sr. Canal’s aunt, the woman responsible for making this family recipe for years, took her first bite and nodded her approval. 


 With a starter of sopa de pasta with a chipotle sauce, a glass of wine, and coffee and date and nut cake for dessert, the chiles en nogada were divine and deeply satisfying. We all sopped up the nogada left on our plates with bolillos, rolls from a local panadería. Before we left, Enrique’s son Jorge invited us to his wedding in November. I’d like to think our chiles en nogada had something to do with the invitation.

Nopales con huevo
Taken from Diana Kennedy’s The Essential Cuisines of Mexico
Serves 4

2 tbs. vegetable oil
1 pound nopales (about 3 ½ cups) cleaned and diced
8 ounces tomatoes, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/3 cup finely chopped white onion
4 serran chiles, finely chopped
salt to taste
3 large eggs

Heat the vegetable oil in a skillet and add all of the ingredients except the eggs. Cover the pan and cook over medium heat, shaking the pan from time to time. (I uncovered the pan and gave the bottom a good scrape every once in awhile.) Cook for about 25 minutes (weighing both the slime factor as the nopales give off juice and your level of hunger in the morning) until the mixture is slightly moist and well seasoned. Break the eggs into the nopales (I like to lightly beat them before, even though it results in an extra dish to wash) and stir until set.

Nopales al vapor estilo Otumba
Taken from Diana Kennedy’s The Essential Cuisines of Mexico
Makes 2 ½ cups, enough to fill 12 tacos

2 tbs. vegetable oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 lb. nopales, cleaned and diced
1 large scallion., finely chopped
2 jalapeño or Serrano chiles, thinly sliced
salt to taste
2 large sprigs epazote, roughly chopped

Heat the oil in a skillet or large, heavy saucepan. Fry the garlic, without browning, for a few seconds. Add the rest of the ingredients except the epazote. Cover the pan and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the nopales are almost tender.

Remove lid and continue cooking over slightly higher heat until all sticky liquid from the nopales has dried up—about twenty minutes (The nopales will turn from bright to a duller green). Stir in the epazote about three minutes before the end of cooking time.

Serve with hot tortillas and top with crumbled queso fresco.

Chiles en nogada
Sánchez family recipe, passed down from Abuelita Sara to Sr. Canal's aunt Cristina Castellano Sánchez
Makes 25 medium to large chiles en nogada

Before we began, Sra. Zanella found Sr. Canal’s family recipe handwritten in her recipe notebook. Amounts were approximate at best, directions only partly recorded. The rest was done from memory. I took notes and photographs throughout the process to produce this recipe. We were missing the pine nuts for the filling and the parsley garnish. No one noticed. 

Most traditional recetas pueblanas for chiles en nogada call for pork, but Sr. Canal’s family prefers ground beef.

25 poblano chiles (about 1 ¾ lbs.)

2 lbs. of ground beef
6 Roma tomatoes, broiled, de-skinned, and diced
½ large white onion, finely chopped
¾ lb. small, paler peach (not large, brighter orange variety), peeled and cubed
¾ lb. apple (Fuji or similar apple would be appropriate), peeled and cubed
¾ lb. perón (small, slightly green apple resembling a pear), peeled and cubed
¾ lb. pears (if possible, a small, sweet variety), peeled and cubed
2 large plantains, peeled and cubed
2 heaping handfuls each:
roughly chopped pecan
roughly chopped blanched almonds
pine nuts
approx. 4 tbs. vegetable oil

For the batter:

All-purpose flour

11-12 eggs, whites and yolks separated
½ tsp. salt
vegetable oil for frying

Once again, Sr. Canal’s family recipe differs in that the traditional walnut sauce is replaced by a sauce of pecans and blanched almonds. The flavor was just as rich with the same subtle nutty flavor.

2 heaping handfuls of blanched almonds
2 heaping handfuls of pecans
3/4 lb. of queso fresco
2 cups whole milk (or to desired consistency, the nogada should be liquid but not runny)
2 tsp. cinnamon
4 tbs. sugar (added one at a time, to taste. Should be fairly sweet but not overwhelmingly so)
2 tbs. brandy or sherry

Seeds from 3-4 pomegranates
¾ cup flat-leaf parsley leaves

Begin by preparing the chile poblanos, charring them over gas burners. Allow them to sweat for 20-25 minutes, then peel and rinse. Open each chile along one side, removing seeds and veins. Set aside to drain.

While chiles sweat, begin peeling fruit. Rinse and cube into bite-sized cubes (This results in a chunkier, more interesting filling where the individual ingredients are apparent rather than a homogenous mush.) Set aside. (Try to find a friend to help and give company, at least for this part!) Be sure not to let the chiles sweat for longer than half and hour during this laborious process; the chiles will become very soft and delicate, making the rest of the preparation more difficult.

In the largest, heaviest casserole you have on hand (if you don’t happen to have a huge Mexican earthenware cazuela somewhere in your pantry), heat oil—enough to cover the bottom of your pot. 

Cook the onion over medium heat until translucent; do not brown. Add roasted tomatoes, simmer for a few minutes. Mash tomato and onion mixture until fairly smooth. (The tomato and onion merely season the meat and do not figure prominently in the filling). Add the ground beef, raisins, pecans, blanched almonds and pine nuts, mixing well. Cook until aromatic, approximately twenty minutes, stirring occasionally and scraping bottom. If the meat begins to stick, lower the heat. 

Add the fruit, mixing well. Cook, covered (we merely set the largest cover we had into the cazuela), mixing occasionally until the fruit becomes tender, gives off some juice. Be sure not to overcook and end up with mushy fruit.  Set aside to cool for a few minutes.

Fill a plate with flour. Fill each chile with a generous amount of picadillo, making sure to fill the length of the chile. If you are unable to close the chile with either side of the opening slightly overlapping, remove some picadillo. Secure with a toothpick the length of the opening. Roll the filled chile in the flour, set aside on a large platter.

Heat generous amount of vegetable oil in a large frying pan. Separate 5-6 egg whites from the yolks. Beat the egg whites with ¼ tsp. of the salt until they reach the soft peak stage. Add approximately 1 tbs. of flour, beating to incorporate. Add the yolks and incorporate, beating to a foamy mixture. Grab each chile, one at a time, by the stem and dip through the foamy egg mixture.  (If the chiles were allowed to sweat for too long, they will be too soft and will have to be dipped by hand or using two forks. Also, the floured chiles might become doughy and stick to the platter. If this is the case, dust with additional flour before dipping in the egg.) Fry the battered chiles, one or two at a time, turning each chile three times. Splash the hot oil onto any part of the chile with egg-batter left uncooked, especially near the stem. Drain for a few seconds along the edge of the pan, set onto platter with paper toweling. If you have a steamer, place the steam rack on top of the platter and use for draining instead. If the egg mixture becomes too liquid, take a moment to beat again. The foam gives the fried batter a light texture that soaks up the nogada. When the egg mixture runs out, clean the bowl and start fresh with the remaining eggs, separating the whites and beating them first with ¼ tsp. salt and flour, then adding the yolks. Finish frying remaining chiles.

For the nogada, blend blanched almonds, pecans, crumbled queso fresco, sugar to taste, cinnamon, and whole milk. The nogada should be slightly textured, liquid but not runny (stick-to-your-ribs consistency). This will require at least two batches. Set aside in a large bowl and add the brandy or sherry.

Peel pomegranates, extracting the seeds.

Serve one
chile to a plate, allowing everyone to ladle as much nogada as they like, passing the pomegranate seeds and parsley to garnish as well. Serve with fresh rolls to soak up remaining nogada.

Note: Can be made ahead and reheated in oven for about 10 minutes at 350° F on cookie sheet lined with paper towels. The nogada should be made fresh. Consulting Diana Kennedy’s notes, she claims the chiles do not freeze successfully, but Sra. Zanella has been freezing and reheating her chiles for years. With all the work required, it’s nice to set aside 5 or so to reheat and eat at a later time, when the party and hassle are over.