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!

Dia de Todos los Sants, Part 2: The Giant Kites of Sumpango, and Fiambre.

I cant seem to make my mind up about the weather these days. The rainy season this year was quite pathetic. I can’t remember even a handful of days with the torrential downpours which are characteristic Guate between June and October. This dry spout made things quite hot and steamy in the country, not to mention what it did to the poor agro workers. But it has been wanting to rain. You can feel it hanging in the air. Your clothes become damp and uncomfortably stick to you back. Anyway, I have been whining about the weather, that its too hot, that I want the winter to come so I can use my sweaters again.

Last week I sorta got my wish. It started raining, and there were rumors of global warming pushing back the raining season until November and that this was just the start. (Lies… I looked on the map and saw it was spin off from Hurricane Ida.) Now she’s died down a bit and its hot again. But for a few sweet days it was actually cold. One night I was miserably cold and wondered what I had been thinking. The cold brought on a new predicament for me: I can’t sleep without my industrial-strength fan. We live in a big city, so I need the fan to put me to sleep, and to drown out the noises of the cars passing at night, and the 3am deliveries at the gas station next door. So…the first night of cold — which required long pants, three layers of shirts, and an extra blanket to take the chill off — I unsuccessfully attempted to sleep without my fan. After two hours of tossing and turning and unable to ignore the speeding trucks, or the clanks over at the gas station, I ventured out of my covers into the crisp apartment to turn the fan on. I had to put the space heater on for an hour or so just to bring my body temperature back to 98.6ºF.

The next night was chilly but not as cold, and those following have started climbing back into the uncomfortably warm temperatures, where I barely can use a sheet.

So…I’ve bored you with discussions on the weather…but it’s all going to tie together now. November 1st, All Saints Day in Guatemala, was a perfect fall day by my standards. In the morning it was quite brisk, sweater worthy, but the sun was out and the sky was so blue it hurt your eyes. It was a very pleasant temperature. I was pleased to finally break out my sweaters for the first time of the year. I wore one that Hec refers to as my Grandma Sweater, which doesn’t deter me from wearing it because it is warm, fuzzy, and in my opinion cute. And on this fall-like day (which are rather few in Guate, so a rare treasure) we drove an hour and some west of the city, just far enough to reach the rolling hills, but not too far of a drive to make it tiring. The destination? The town of Sumpango.

On November 1st this tiny pueblo holds a famous a giant kite festival. People in this community spend months and thousands of dollars in materials and man labor building beautifully decorated kites more than 10 meters wide. The frame is constructed of giant bamboo branches thicker than my arm, and the face is made of colorful tissue paper. Each kite has its own theme, sometimes religious, somethings social criticizms, sometimes just really pretty.

We departed from our apartment around 7am and arrived a little after 8. The traffic was light on the highways, but even at this early time the parking space in the town was filling up rapidly. We parked in a basketball court, watching the attendants instructing cars to double park…we knew leaving might be a little difficult come the afternoon. But oh well…

We wandered around looking for giant kites soaring in the sky to guide us to the activities, but it was too early. We followed the crowds of people until we arrived at the cemetery. Indigenous families, ladino families, and tourists packed into the small cemetery. Families were painting the graves, sculpting mounds of dirt where there lacked a stone, carefully arranged flowers, and burned incense as they prayed. It was a spectacular sight.

Further into the village the streets were lined with vendors selling handicrafts, kites, and food.

Finally we arrived to the soccer field where teams were assembling their kites. While they had spent months working on the face, they would carry the materials to the camp and put it together on the morning. Watching the teams tie together the gargantuan branches, and then at the end hoisting the giant disk up for display, was quite an attraction. In a nearby field families were camped out, having bbqs, and flying their kites.

We only stayed to watch the first round of flying due to the intense heat of the unexpected afternoon sun. While they were the children’s kites, they were still larger than anything I’d seen in the US: on average they were 2 meters wide! It was quite a spectacle watching the kites soar, and sometimes dive into the crowds below.

Before we left, you better believe it, we had some yummy food. Abodado asado (grilled marinated steak) with beans, rice, and blue corn toritllas. These tortillas can’t be beat. I’m not crazy about meat, but this was spectacular…even if it made me a little sick the next day.

Dia de Todos Los Santos, Part 1: Pan de Muerto and Hec’s first Jack-O-Lantern

Dia Santo 1 - Jacko Lit

Well…Halloween has come and gone, but I still have quite a few thoughts floating around in my head regarding the Guatemalan version of the holiday. Perhaps many of you have already thrown your beautifully carved Jack-O-Lanterns in with the compost. Or they have been nabbed by the neighborhood kids and smashed in another’s yard. And maybe you have painstakingly removed all the cotton cobwebs and spooky scare crows from the porches and windows and replaced them with wreathes, strings of lights, and candle sticks. Even here in Guatemala the Halloween decorations were stripped down by November 2nd, and yesterday afternoon the city crews strung garland letters of “JOY” and “NAVIDAD” across the main roadways, and positioned sleighs with reindeer in the grassy boulevards. Even my local grocery store rapidly strung lights from the rafters and placed artificial trees in the produce section complete with empty ribbon-trimmed boxes beneath. It’s always surprising how quickly the holiday season comes.

I think its quite a shame that immediately following Dia de Todo los Santos (All Saint’s Day), which is a fairly significant holiday in Guatemala, that every remembrance is swept away and immediately replaced with glitter, pine, and advertisements for holiday deals on the new trendy toy. All that is left from the holiday before are the shredded remains of tissue paper and balsa wood kites stranded up in trees and telephone wires; or if you frequently pass a cemetery on your daily commute it may appear particularly bright and colorful compared to the week before. Other than that, Guatemala, along with the rest of western civilization, is flooded with the sounds of rum pum pum pum, silver bells, and for some strange reason the awful. awful. awful. version of Last Christmas by Wham that seems to repeat every 50 minutes on all radio stations through out the world from November 1st until January 2nd. Its not clear to me why, however, because I know not one person who admits to liking it. But it sure is catchy. Just writing about it I’ve got it stuck in my head. Now look what I’ve done…

Dia Santos 1- Jacko Drawing

Anyway. I’ve got some lovely things to say about Dia de Todos los Santos here in Guatemala. First, this year Hec made his first ever Jack-o-Lantern. Isn’t it cute? He is named Ayotillo (little squash, in Spanish). Hec carved him a few weeks ago and we’ve enjoyed it’s warm glow in our apartment for quite some time. And of course we roasted the pumpkin seeds, seasoned with paprika salt and pepper.

Dia Santo 1 - Jacko y Beto

This time of year also offers so delicacies that are not available any other time. One of these is a special pan dulce (sweet bread) that I really really enjoy. It is only offered in the months of October and part of November here in Guate. It’s called Pan de Muerto, literally “Bread of the Dead”. I haven’t researched it’s history, and perhaps that would have been rather interesting to talk about here, but honestly I’m more interested in how it looks, feels, and tastes. The loaves are large round mounds, criss-crossed with rope-like shapes, and topped with a knob-like ball of dough, and dusted off with powdered sugar. The texture is light and fluffy with sometimes very large air bubbles in the center, but when you dive in it is unexpectedly smooth and chewy. It is only slightly sweet with a strong eggy taste. I love it, and I buy it from San Martin, my favorite bakery in Guatemala. We bought one to share with my Suegros this year, and after that tease of a taste I needed more. But seeing that they are 30Q a pop, and being compelled by my fascination with discovering the secrets behind my favorite foods, I decided I would research the recipe and try to make it myself!

I’ll be honest right out. It did not turn out a thing like the Pan de Muerto from San Martin. It was a dense loaf (which is not necessarily bad, but not what I was aiming for here either), and it was rather flat-tasting. I will go ahead and post the recipe I used, which I’m guessing reflects more accuratly the Mexican Pan de Muerto than the Guatemalan, and I have made some adjustments in salt and sugar which I hope will correct for the bland taste I encountered. No promises here, though.

Even though I found the recipe to be quite a failure, I wanted to show my pictures of how the pan dulce of the “autumn” season looks because I think, if anything at all, this recipe was a visual success. Additionally I feel obligated to bring it to your attention in case you would find yourself in these parts around the season, or if you come across a Guatemalan bakery which by chance might serve this bread in October and November (I know there is one in Chicago).

This recipe made for loves the size of half a volley ball. And I was not crazy about it, so I used the loaves to make bread pudding with almonds and crystallized ginger (which turned out to be a huge success). However, for those of you looking for a new holiday tradition, who are adventurous in the kitchen and aren’t easily upset by less than perfect results, I hope my adjustments of sugar and salt serve you well and make it more palatable overall. But for the real thing, I would just recommend visiting me here in Guate some time in the fall and I’ll treat you to a loaf from San Martin!

Pan de Muerto - Up Close

Pan de Muerto, adapted from here.

Makes 2 loaves

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons aniseed or 5 star anise
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons yeast
  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 6 eggs
  • 1.5 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 stick butter, melted
  • 4 1/2 cups flour, plus flour for dusting work surface
  • Vegetable oil for coating bowl
  • 1/3 cup sugar for sprinkling

Directions:

  • Steep the aniseed in 1/4 cup water for 10 minutes.
  • In a large mixing bowl, stir together the yeast, warm water, and 1 tablespoon of the 3/4 cup sugar. Let sit until foamy, 10 minutes.
  • Beat together 3 eggs and 3 egg yolks, reserving the 3 whites on the side for later.
  • Add the beaten eggs and yolks, salt, the remaining sugar, aniseed with water, nutmeg, and melted butter. Stir well until evenly combined. By hand or with the beater of an electric mixer, mix in flour. Transfer to a lightly floured board or counter and knead the dough for 10 minutes, until the dough is smooth and slightly sticky. Place the dough in a large oil-coated bowl. Cover with a lightly moistened tea towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 1/2 hours.
  • Punch the dough down and turn out onto a floured counter. Pinch off about 2 cups of dough and set aside for decoration.
  • Divide the remaining dough into 2 pieces and shape into round loaves and place both loaves on a greased baking sheet.
  • Make and egg wash by beating together remaining egg whites with 1 tablespoon water. Divide remaining 2 cups dough into 6 pieces. With four of these pieces roll a snake-like shape. Gently pretty two of these pieces on each loaf making a large X which crossing at the top of the loaf and use the egg wash as a glue. With the remaining two pieces of dough, roll them into balls and place them on the top of each loaf where the snake-like pieces cross. Apparently this is supposed to appear as a skull and cross bones.
  • Cover the assembled dough with a damp towel and set aside to rise until the loaves hold a fingerprint when pressed, about 50 minutes. Don’t throw away the egg wash yet!
  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Brush the risen loaves with the egg wash and sprinkle with remaining 1/3 cup sugar. Bake until golden about 30 minutes. Cool on a rack