Sunday, April 11, 2010

An Easter cookie

Given that Easter was last Sunday, I thought I would share the recipe for a cookie traditionally made only during Semana Santa here in Puebla. These mueganos are a shortbread-type cookie made with lard (vegetarians beware!), brushed with anise-flavored syrup made from piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar) and topped with crumbs from the same dough.

Several of us have been itching to learn the recipe from Luicita, and she obliged us with a batch this past week. The woman is incredible; she has a seemingly infinite number of recipes filed away in her memory. She might forget to buy onions while we're at the market, but she can perfectly dictate a recipe for mole, any number of cookies and dulces, salsas, you name it. As the oldest child of ten who practically raised her youngest siblings, she's had a lot of practice. Not to mention that she is a seamstress by trade, knits and embroiders, teaches a catechism class to eighty kids, has held nine out of the ten mayordomo positions in her church, and tells slightly off color-jokes. (Case in point, referring to her status as a señorita, or virgin, at sixty-five: "He pasado muchas Navidades, pero nunca una Noche buena." Noche buena being Christmas Eve. I'll leave you to discern the double entendre.) A woman of many talents, the result this week was a crumbly, delicious cookie to celebrate the Easter holiday.

María Luisa Bueno Vargas

This dough can also be formed into round cookies called “rodeos” topped with powdered sugar, either white or pastel-colored.

1 K all-purpose flour
500 g lard, setting aside 50 g to grease two medium-sized cookie sheets
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 cups water
1 piloncillo cone (Mexican cone-shaped brown sugar)
1 tablespoon anise

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  In half a cup of water, dissolve the baking powder. On a clean surface, make a fountain with the flour. Add the lard, sugar, and water with the baking soda to the center of the fountain and mix well until fully incorporated. Gradually begin to pull in flour from the sides, incorporating as you go. 

Mix until the flour is fully incorporated. The dough should be crumbly and not too greasy, barely held together by the lard. 

Make 8 balls from the dough. Grease the two cookie sheets with the remaining lard. Extend each ball into a long roll, the width of the cookie sheet.

Place one roll at a time on the cookie sheet, flattening it with your hand to a rectangular shape the width of the cookie sheet and cutting into 5 equal squares, trimming the two ends. Don’t worry about leaving space between the dough and the edge of the sheet. Repeat with each of the rolls, placing 4 rolls on each cookie sheet. Bake the mueganos for 18-24 minutes, or until slightly golden. 

While the mueganos bake, dissolve the piloncillo in the remaining cup of water over medium-high heat. Once the piloncillo dissolves, add the anise and let the syrup boil for about three minutes. Strain the syrup.

Remove the mueganos from the oven and cool slightly. Using a pastry brush, brush the cookies twice with the syrup, leaving 4-5 cookies without syrup. Crumble these cookies through a strainer to adorn the mueganos.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

What I've been up to

I know I’ve been away for awhile, but think of this as a quarterly report. I promise a good update over the next few weeks and a fantastic tamale recipe to come. 

I think one of the reasons I’ve been reluctant to write in these past two to three months is that I’ve been reflecting a lot on this experience and sort of internalizing the fellowship year. It just felt strange to be writing and posting online when I was trying to make sense of everything myself. I spent a lot of this new year thinking about how I want to spend the rest of my fellowship experience and also about the uncertain future that awaits beyond. For New Year’s, I went to a small beach in Oaxaca with Nico, our friend Marco, Nico’s dad and his girlfriend, and Jen, a random girl Nico picked up in a bar in Queretaro, as he is wont to do, who turned out to be an incredibly down-to-earth person and a great beach companion, and now, a good friend. 

La boquilla is a secluded beach, kept pristine by the shoddy roads that prevent hoards of visitors. We spent five luxurious days waking up, sleepy-eyed, to watch muted but gorgeous sunrises, lounging and reading on the beach, snorkeling, and cooking delicious beach-side dinners. 

On New Year’s Eve, several families from Puebla, the first to build homes on the leafy hills surrounding the beach, gathered around a bonfire, grilling sausages and shrimp and feasting on ceviche, cheeses, wine and beer. 

Throw in a guitar, impromptu sing-a-longs and makeshift instruments, a full moon and a midnight dip in the ocean and I can’t think of a better way to ring in the New Year. Even if a monstrous wave soaked my carefully stashed clothes during the swim. 

For all of us, this trip meant a time for reflection. But for Marco and I, January 2nd at the beach really brought that fact home (01/02/2010....odd coincidence I think). Nico, Marco, Jen and I walked to our friend Tiago’s house, with a stunning view of the beaches below. We trudged down the path to the teensy Playa del Muerto (rumor has it a dead body was found here in the 1940s). We were planning to swim back around the point separating the two beaches to La boquilla as a late afternoon capstone to a beautiful day, but with the size of the waves and the setting sun, we decided to postpone the longish swim for another day. Marco and I decided to console ourselves by splashing around, diving under the crashing waves and coming up, laughing, for air. I claimed I wanted to “sentir la fuerza del mar.” After about five minutes and not more than twenty feet from shore, we heard Nico and Tiago yelling, signaling for us to head back. We found out later that they had seen a large series of waves heading for the beach. We both tried to head back right away, only to find the ocean floor was no longer beneath us and the current pulling us parallel to the beach. Only the night before we had all been talking about the strength of the currents at a neighboring beach, Zipolite, and the fact that you have to swim with, not against, the current to get out of it. I yelled to Marco that we would tire ourselves out and pointed to a rock the current was carrying us towards. We grabbed hold like the sea urchins I was afraid would tear our feet to shreds and braced ourselves against the waves. Recovering our breath and our nerves, we talked strategy, with Nico signaling and yelling to us from a rocky outcrop. It was bizarre--here we were, not ten feet away from him but with no way for him to help us. We decided that we would swim with the current during a lull in the waves. Right then, a wave knocked Marco off the rock and I decided that we would make a go for it together, me being the stronger swimmer. Face down in the ocean, trying not to panic or swallow water, I swam furiously, looking up to check for signals from those onshore who could see the current pattern and to see how Marco was doing, who I had passed almost immediately. I reached a point where I could touch a rock underwater and swim the last bit to shore, reassuring Marco he was almost there. I’ve never seen a face so white. I crawled to shore, laughing with nervous relief. When Marco followed me two minutes later, we collapsed in a hug.

 In reality, we were on the edge of a dangerous situation, but it could have been much worse. We weren’t far from shore, the current could have been stronger, and we didn’t tire ourselves trying to fight it. It was more of a scare than anything, but enough to get both of us thinking. As a sailor, I should have known better to test the fuerza del mar, especially at the Beach of Death. Furthermore, I’m in Mexico as a Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Fellow exploring death. The irony didn’t escape me; Michael C. Rockefeller was lost at sea. 

Eating breakfast at the counter of a market restaurant in Oaxaca

Traditional Oaxacan pan de yema (egg bread) and chocolate

Coming home from the beach and a day stopover in Oaxaca City, I started to think about how to make the most of my time here in Mexico. I’ve been busy doing just that since, hence the lack of blog posts. I’m still interested in the relationship between women, food and death in Mexican culture, but in my December travels I had the chance to see some of the conditions under which a huge portion of the Mexican population lives. To me, the question of how these women live has become more interesting. I can’t ignore the incredible paradoxes and hypocrisy of this country, home to Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world, as well as a huge population living under the poverty line. I’ve been looking into microfinance organizations that operate here in Puebla, mainly in the Sierra Norte where the small pueblos are connected to larger communities by single dirt roads that get washed out during the rainy season and the population is mainly indigenous. The women create incredible artisan crafts, including embroidered blouses and shawls, but there is a definite need to connect these women and these communities to a larger market. 
However, knowing that the timeline can be a little slow around here, I also began looking for opportunities in Cholula to work with women, really why I came here. In late January, I found the Estancia de Día, a day center for the elderly providing a reasonably priced daily meal, dance and exercise classes, an instructor teaching knitting and other handicrafts that the “abuelitas” can then sell, medical and psychological services, and generally an upbeat and supportive atmosphere. 

While a few men come, the Estancia is normally full of senior citizen women, knitting, dancing, telling off-color jokes and laughing. It’s a joy to go to work everyday. I’m currently helping Luicita, a 65-year old “señorita” who is in charge of the kitchen and preparing the daily meal, as well as working on a cookbook with the abuelitas’ recipes. The goal is a cookbook that the abuelitas can sell themselves for a profit, as well as being able to share these traditional recipes with one another and with their families. The women at the Estancia are loving, fiery and hilarious. For my birthday, they sang Las Mañanitas and gave me a beautiful flower arrangement and a huge box of Ferrocher chocolates. I felt very loved. Besides working at the Estancia, I've witnessed the Carnival traditions here in Cholula, the parade floats in Veracruz, spent a week in Chilapancingo, Guerrero, witnessed hoards of people dressed in white recharge in the sun at the pyramid on the Spring Equinox, and attended a Cambio de mayordomía (change of caretaker of the church) and the festivities afterwards in the mayordomos' homes. In a nutshell, that's what I've been up to in the last weeks, but a more complete update, and the tamale recipe of course, to come soon. So, without further ado, here is a recipe from Luicita, who I have come to know and love. 
Adobo con pollo desmenuzado
María Luisa Bueno Vargas

1 whole chicken breast
1 K tomato
50 g chile mulatto
1/2 cinnamon stick (preferably Mexican cinnamon, which is larger, looser and less strongly flavored)
1 tsp. whole cumin
1 garlic clove
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
3 avocado leaves
2-3 tbs. vegetable oil
salt to taste
Boil the chicken breast in water with salt. Once cooked, remove the breast from the broth to cool. Reserve the broth. Separately, boil the cubed potato. Boil the tomato and the chile together until the chile softens and the tomato cooks through, about 10 minutes. Letting them cool slightly, blend the tomato and chile together with the cumin and garlic. Heat the oil and add the blended mixture. The color should develop to a bright red as the adobo seasons. Let the adobo simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Add about 1 liter of the reserved chicken broth. Shred the chicken breast. Add the shredded chicken breast and cooked potato. Let the adobo cook over low/medium heat for another 10 minutes or so before adding the avocado leaves and salt to taste. Cook over low heat for another 5 minutes. Add more chicken broth if necessary. The adobo paste can also be used with steak or chicken for carne enchilada. 
I also love Luicita’s salsas. This one is great for pork tacos. 
Salsa de Coca Cola

100 g dried chile chipotle
3-4 tomatos
1 can Coca Cola
1/2 medium onion
2 garlic cloves
vegetable oil

Fry the chiles with a fair amount of vegetable oil until they almost burn. Remove them from the oil and set aside. 

In the same oil, place the tomatos, cut in halves, the onion and the garlic and cover for 8-10 minutes. When the tomatos are thoroughly roasted, blend the tomato, onion and garlic together with the chiles and half a can of Coca Cola. While blending, add the other half. If necessary, add water until it obtains the consistency of salsa.