A Valentines Ode to My Parents

Happy Valentines Day!

I’m not one to go crazy for this holiday. It was a lot of fun for me as a child: exchanging little cards and candies, getting sick from sweets at school. But these days its just another holiday that, for many, requires spending lots of money on silly heart-shaped pillows. But it isn’t a “serious” holiday. No one gets time off work, or flys home for the weekend to have a special meal with their relatives. At most, some people may fly to see their honey on this day…if they are madly in love and have lots of money to burn, or really in trouble and need some impressive way to win them back.

But it is a nice holiday nonetheless. I don’t mind it because I know no one really expects me to buy them a teddy bear or a rolex. For me Valentines Day is a day to bake…if I feel like it. And I usually do. I whipped up some improvised Red Velvet Cupcakes last night, thinking I’ll take them to Hec’s parents house this Sunday. Trying to be cute, I put forth my best effort in calligraphy. I messed up a few swirls here and there, but you can at least read the names.

As I piped out the names of each person who would be in attendance I got a little homesick for my mom and dad. It’s not like missing Thanksgiving or Christmas, but I want to be able to share these little moments with them also. I have really gotten to experiment with lots of cooking and baking this year and, to be honest, I’m quite proud of my growth. I think my parents would enjoy many (probably not all) of the things I’ve been making. I wish I could deliver a batch of these cupcakes to their house on Sunday to eat after a family dinner.
So here’s to you, Mom and Dad. I love you both very very much. Thank you for all the support and understanding you have given me in life, and especially since I moved far away. It’s not the ideal situation, but please know that I love you just as strongly while down here as up there! Although you can’t enjoy the taste of these cupcakes, they were made with a lot of love for the both of you!

What I Do When I Can’t Sleep: Bake (Honey Wheat Scones)

Wedding planning has kept me tossing and turning a few nights this week. I promised myself I wouldn’t make a big deal out of it. What is important to us is that our family and friends come together, have a good time, and that my family can experience what has become my second home. But I have broken my promise, and it has become a big deal. There are too many details to think about. Things that I had always considered trivial suddenly take importance. Invitations were originally to be evite only. Who needs flowers? Dress, take it or leave it. The food, however, has remained always important. Suddenly they gain importance.

So at 1am I awoke with the brilliant idea to do it all myself, and in the garden of our apartment. I jumped out of bed and did a quick google search of service providers (tables and cutlery, even decorations). I whipped out a few emailes to get prices and delivery options, and was annoyed at the lack of immediate responses. I hand drew a plan of white gauzy drapes lining our car port, candles, pastoral flower arrangements, a vine-covered terrace arching over the path next to our fountain. It was beautiful! Then the details got to me: will our neighbors allow it? What about waiters? What if it rains? And is our little bathroom big enough? What if we break cups? What if I don’t know how to hang a drape beautifully?? At this point it was 3am, and I was tossing this plan out the window, along with the potluck idea I had a few weeks before. I was irritated, nervous, and not the least bit tired. I was out of energy to plan more, yet I was irritated and wide awake. I couldn’t call anyone to ask specific questions or advice. So I decided to bake scones to take my mind off the whole thing. Baking always relaxes me.

Why scones? I don’t know. I’d never made them before and I have a problem with repeating recipes. Its not that my recipes don’t turn out well the first time — generally when I look back at what I have made, I think “I need to do that again!” But I feel compelled to explore. Try new and challenging things. Now scones aren’t that challenging. But what do you expect from a girl on 2 and a half hours of sleep?

I never got to sleep that night, but my coworkers had scones the next day. Amazingly enough I was never tired, either.

Honey Wheat Scones
adapted from: dishing up delights

Ingredients:
1 3/4 c whole wheat flour
1 t baking powder
1/4 t salt
1 t cinnamon
1/2 stick cold butter, cubed
1 c milk
1/4 c honey
1/2 c rolled oats

Directions:
Preheat oven to 400ºF. Mix together the flour, salt, baking powder, cinnamon. Using a fork, work the butter into the flour until crumbly and well combined. Whisk together the milk and honey. Pour into flour mixture and stir til combined. Mix in the oats. Cut into shape you prefer. I just made a wheel, pictured. It took about 30 minutes to bake, but I didn’t pay close attention. It was about 4am anyway.

Optional Glaze: whisk together 2 T maple syrup, 2 T butter, and a dash of cinnamon if youd like. Spread over scones while they’re hot out of the oven. Sprinkle with sugar.

How I Stay Healthy While Traveling: Homemade Cereal Bars

I travel a lot with my work. It’s a wonderful privilege to be able to see different parts of Guatemala, and to help guide foreigners through new encounters in which they can experience the beauty and tragedy of Guatemala. I feel honored to share with fellow gringos this country that I love so much.

Nevertheless, traveling is exhausting. I miss my bed, my shower, my kitchen. I just cannot rest the same as in my own home. And while I enjoy eating out every once in a while, the healthy options are far and few between when I travel with groups in Guatemala. Traditional Guatemalan cooking uses lots of lard, including in their tamales and beans. Vegetables are uncommon or unsafe to eat. Breakfast is usually eggs and beans with tortillas and coffee. Very little fresh fruit. Lunch (on the worksite) is pb&j sandwiches, a hardboiled egg, and an apple or squished banana if we’re lucky. Dinner can vary, but its generally grilled chicken or meat, rice or potatoes, and sometimes an iceberg salad smothered in thousand island dressing (not my preferred vegetable). It’s not my idea of a balanced died, which is something I consider important in my daily life. There is too much protein, too much animal fat, and too few fruits and vegetables. If I’m with groups for longer than a few days I begin to feel sluggish, cranky, and to be honest my digestive system is not too happy with how its been treated.

To help counter this, I began taking my own granola bars so I could take back a sense of control over my diet while I travel. I normally forego the eggs and beans in the morning, or the sandwich at lunch, and stick with something I know is balanced and healthy. At least I can start my day in a way that I feel good about…even if I have little control over the rest of it.

Maybe some of you are in a similar situation. But even if not, this is a healthy, balanced bar that is easy to take anywhere: work, school, road trips, or to just have as a snack on hand. You can use whatever type of cereal you want as a base. I use All-bran because its what I would normally eat at home, and that is essentially my goal: maintain the level of nutrition I am able to enjoy at home.

Cereal Bars

Ingredients:
4 cups cereal of choice (if oats, toast first in the oven until golden)*
1/2 cup wheat bran, toasted
3/4 cup mixed nuts and seeds of choice (pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, walnuts, peanuts, flax), toasted
3/4 cup dried, unsweeted fruit (cranberries, raisins, minced dates or figs, coconut, ginger)
1 t ginger
1 t cinnamon
1 t anise extract (or almond, or vanilla)
pinch of salt
1 egg (or 2 whites)
1/4 cup honey** (or brown sugar)
2 T brown sugar
1/4 cup natural peanut butter

Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 325ºF
2. Beat egg white until light and fluffy. Add sugar, honey, peanut butter, spices, salt, and extract. Beat until smooth. Stir in nuts and dried fruits until covered. Stir in cereal, and finally wheat bran.
3. Spread mixture evenly in parchment-lined baking sheet, about 1/2 – 3/4″ deep. Bake for about 25-30 minutes, until firm and set. Allow to cool completely. Using serrated knife, cut into bars. Store in fridge.

*if you wish, substitute some of the cereal for additional seeds, fruits, and nuts. this is just the balance I prefer for my traveling days. The types of dry ingredients can be played around with quite a bit to achieve the bar you need.
**sugar will make a crunchier bar while honey will made a chewier bar

Anise Scented Garbanzo Cookies

I’m glad you looked to the text despite the title of these cookies. I promise you (to those with a health-food palate), these are yummy. If you refer to anything containing whole wheat as “cardboard” , if you don’t enjoy super dark chocolate, crystallized ginger, or nuts and raisins hidden in you food, maybe this cookie isn’t for you. They are a dense chewy texture; just sweet enough for adults, while children might not enjoy them; and a deep intense flavor of anise. On top of that they are a healthy snack filled with protein, fiber, and good kinds of sugars and fats. Give them a try!

Anise Scented Garbanzo Cookies,
inspired by 101 Cookbooks

Ingredients:
1 can of garbanzo beans, well smashed
1 egg
3 T olive oil
2/3 cup honey (or brown sugar)
1/2 cup dates, finely chopped
1/2 cup crystallized ginger, chopped
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup wheat bran
1 t baking soda
1 t baking powder
pinch of salt
4 star of anise, toasted and ground
1 t ground ginger
1/3 c sesame seeds

Directions:
Smash well the garbanzos. Beat in the egg, then honey and olive oil. Combine well. Mix in the dates and crystallized ginger. Add all dry ingredients, mixing well.

Let mixture set up in the fridge for a half an hour. Roll about 2 tablespoons of the mixture into a ball, and roll the ball in the sesame seeds. Bake for about 12 minutes at 350ºF.

Quesadilla de Zacapa

We American’s know quesadilla to be tortillas filled with melted cheese among number of other ingredients. In Guatemala, while you do find this Mexican dish in many locations, the quesadilla is a sweet cake found primarily in the eastern part of the country, specifically the state of Zacapa. It uses a very salty crumbly cheese, queso seco (literally, dry cheese) that turns into a powder when you rub a chunk of it between your fingers. I suppose something like parmesean could be used as a substitute in recipes calling for queso seco, although it’s flavor is sharp like a cheddar or even blue cheese.

Recipes vary. Some use rice flour, others all purpose. Most of them contain a lot of butter, lard, cream, ect. My version is much healthier, if not too close to tradition. I was very pleased with the outcome, although it wasn’t a replica of the original treat.

Ingredients:
1 egg
1/2 cup fat free milk
1/2 cup plain greek style yogurt
3 T butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup queso seco or parmesean cheese
1 cup whole wheat flour, or rice flour
1 t baking powder

Directions:
1)Preheat oven to 350F
2)Beat egg. Mix together milk, yogurt, butter, and sugar.
3) Add the cheese. Combine thoroughly.
4) Mix in flour and baking powder until just combined.
5) Bake until toothpick comes clean, about 45 minutes.

Chocolate Pepitoria Cake

Choc Pumpkin Cake - Slice

I dedicate this post to Ellen, my celiac-stricken friend.

I saw this recipe on Whole Life Nutrition and had to make it right away. It contains an ingredient that has quickly become a favorite since moving to Guatemala, and I find any excuse to add to my meals, salads, and now desserts! This ingredient I speak of is pepita, or pumpkin seeds. It was used in a way I had never seen it before…as a replacement for wheat flour. First of all, I have rarely seen the seeds used in the U.S., especially not in their powdered form (known as pepitoria in Guatemala, and used to season fruits, to make stews, and even prepared as a juice); and I certainly had never heard of it being used for baking in place of flour. Can you imagine my excitement?!

Choc Pumpkin Cake - PepitasChoc Pumpkin Cake - Flour

I love the nutty flavor of pepita, but besides that, they are very nutritious — packed with omega-3 fatty acids and protein. And although it is good for you it has a substantial amount of fat and calories, much more than your average flour. So as a flour replacement it is quite heavy. However, I decided to give this recipe a try because it contains pretty much all good stuff: pumpkin seeds, coconut milk in place of much of the oil, and honey in place of much of the sugar.

Because the recipe doesn’t have flour, arrowroot is added to allow the same binding process to occur. At least that is how I understood it. I could not find arrowroot anywhere in Guatemala, even after asking my agricultural engineer suegro who knows everything there is to know about things that come from the earth. I researched some replacements and found that cornstarch, which is much less nutritious, might work as an alternative. So I used that. I also skimped a little on the oil, but I’m not sure that was a good idea.

So how did it turn out? To be honest, something went wrong with this batch. IMG_3158I’m not sure if it was because I did not use arrowroot, or because I skimped on the oil, both, or perhaps I’m just not a knowledgeable baker. It could be any of those things. The first cake I baked overflowed…oops (When making a full batch of something I have to make two small cakes because I use a toaster oven). I just filled the pan a little too full. And it was also deflated looking. I attributed the deflation in the first batch to the spilling over, but I’m not sure that was correct, because the second batch deflated as well. Sad…

But, despite its appearance, it tastes great! I love the nutty-chocolate flavor, and the cake was very moist. After tasting a piece from the first over-flowed batch, I decided to add a bit more sugar. It was delicious, but not all that sweet for what I was anticipating.  The recipe below contains that adjustment, however keep total sugar/honey to 2/3 a cup if you want to try the original recipe. Finally, the coconut milk was a genius addition. You can feel it in flavor and in the moist texture.

If this combination of ingredients intrigues you, I suggest give it a try. I really would recommend using arrowroot if you can find it. Try natural food stores, or whole foods, or even traditional grocers are getting fancy these days to compete.

Chocolate Pepitoria Cake

Ingredients:
2 cups ground toasted pumpkin seeds
3/4 cup coco powder
1/4 cup arrowroot powder (I used cornstarch)
1.5 teaspoons baking soda
.25 teaspoons salt
1 cup coconut milk
3 eggs
2/3 cup honey
3 tablespoon natural cane sugar or brown sugar
1/4 cup butter or coconut oil

Directions:
1. If you don’t have pumpkin seed flour, you can make your own. For two cups flour, toast 8 oz pumpkin seeds until they pop, about 3-4 minutes. Let them cool, and grind them in a coffee grinder.
2. Mix dry ingredients in a bowl, set aside.
3. Whisk together the wet ingredients, and then pour them into the dry ingredients whisking vigorously or use a hand mixer/blender.
4. Bake in deep dish cake pan, at least 9×9, at 350ºF for about 35-40 minutes, checking occationally. You don’t want it to spill over, now do you?

Cinnamon Babka

Cinnamon Babka - Baked

We don’t have a T.V. But trust me, it’s better that way. Can you imagine coming home at 4pm after 9 hours of working with screaming 7-year-olds who barely speak English? What do you think you would most likely do? Go for a run? Start on dinner? Sweep and mop? No. You go to the couch and either fall asleep or turn on the T.V. Lucky for me I can’t take naps, so I had no other option but be productive in some way. But I promise you all that if I had a T.V. I would turn to the most mindless show there was and zone out until dinner time…and because I hadn’t been preparing anything it would have been Pollo Campero and I would be wearing sweat pants within a month. I mean…can you imagine a Latino version of General Hospital and the men dressed in mariachi costumes? Its got to be addicting. Or better yet, Jerry Spring in Spanish. Just kidding…

Cinnamon Babka - Dough and SugarCinnamon Babka - Rolled up and oozing

But we do get our fill of T.V. shows. First it was Scrubs. We own all the seasons (all the seasons worth watching anyway…we don’t believe in Scrubs without J.D). We went through those in about 3 months. Then it was the Office Sporadically. I brought it from the U.S. last Christmas. We just had one season, and when it ended we searched in every Blockbuster in the city, and even checked with the street vendors who sell pirate copies. It was not to be found. I guess the average Guatemalan faces enough pain in their daily working lives that they don’t need to relive it at home. Then there were random episodes of Sledge Hammer (shout out to anyone who has actually heard of it!) and Coupling for a while. Then, after our last visit home, we became the proud owners of all 9 seasons os Seinfeld. It has been holding us over quite nicely, but, as we approach the end of season 6, I’m starting to get a little nervous about what we’ll do at the end. We can’t afford any more shows.

Cinnamon Babka - Twisted in panCinnamon Babka - Baked Close Up

We were watching Season 6, Eppisode 77 of Seinfeld, when “The Dinner Party” topic came up. Everyone is familiar with the commonly accepted social convention of bringing a bottle of wine or dessert if you have been invited for dinner to someones home. Elaine is explaining this to a begrudgingly stingy, and unemployed George, however he looses out and goes for the wine while Elaine and Jerry go for the dessert. As they walk to the local bakery, they decide on the Chocolate Babka – the ultimate of ultimate desserts. Upon entering the bakery they dart for the case to admire the pastry which will make them heroes of the party, but caught up in their fantasy they forget to take a number. As they kindly explain to a couple the clearly saw come in after them that it should be their number (logically…right? Because in New York people are that nice). Among negotiations they discover they are attending the very same dinner party. Unfortunately the couple doesn’t concede, proceed to order the last Chocolate Babka, and Elaine and Jerry arrive an hour late to the dinner party with the inferior Cinnamon Babka- with a hair on it nonetheless.

Cinnamon Babka - Sliced

This made me curious about the Babka. I’d never in my life heard of Babka, let alone had I tasted it, so the next day I Googled it. What I encountered was a decadent dessert with amounts of butter, chocolate, and sugar that I would never have the courage to bring into my home. However I really admired the technique of preparing the swirly loaf, and decided I could apply it to my favorite cinnamon rolls using my icebox roll dough recipe. So, in all reality this isn’t a Babka, chocolate or cinnamon. Perhpas it is inferior, as Elaine and her dinner party might judge. But the dough does not differ all that much. I doubled the butter and put 50% more sugar in the dough than my original recipe, to add slightly more richness. However this will remain a lighter dessert than any authentic Babka you will ever try. But thats how we like them here. A little sweet bread with our coffee after a filling meal. Feel free to search a traditional Babka recipe, be it chocolate or cinnamon. But if you want something slightly lighter, I encourage you to try this!

Cinnamon Babka (Makes 1 loaf)

Ingredients:
1/2 a recipe icebox dough, prepared (or another prepared dough you like)
1 stick of unsalted butter, softened
1.5 cups brown sugar
2 tablespoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions:
1. Grease a bread pan generously with butter and line with parchment if you have it. I never have it so I never use it. Just makes it easier to get out at the end. Preheat the oven to 350ºF.

2. Mix together the sugar, cinnamon, and salt. Set aside.

3. Cut the dough in half. Set one half aside, and roll the other out into a large rectangle, as thin as you can without tearing the dough. Try to get it 1/8th an inch thick. Spread half of the butter on top the rolled out dough, leaving a 1/4 of an inch board on all sides. Sprinkle the 1 cup of the cinnamon sugar mixture on top, keeping the boarder.

4. Tightly roll up the dough, squeezing gently. Pinch the end of the roll together, and use some water if need be to keep it sealed.

5. This is the fun part! Twist the roll like you are wringing it out (but gently!) about 8 times around if you can. Press it gently to the workspace to secure it.

6. Now, at this point, notice the last picture I posted of the slice of babka. Notice that the center is rather bare? You don’t want it to have that empty-bready space in there, do you? You want it full of sugar and spice. I didn’t understand this step, so I skipped it, but if you want a really pretty and tasty slice, I recommend you do the following: on top of the left half of the twisted roll, spread some more butter, and sprinkle some more sugar. Fold the right half over it, press gently, then twist a few times around (you’ll probably just get two or three). Place in greased bread pan.

7. Bake at 350ºF for 50 or 60 minutes. If the top browns too quickly, cover with foil for the last 20 minutes or so.