Tag: Murcia

One a Penny, Two a Penny… Monas de Pascua!

[Murcia’s] unique Holy Week…is made up of little gestures and familiar movements, of the comings and goings of the nazarenos (penitents) dressed in red or purple (the nazareno colorao or the nazareno morado), who step out from under the floats they carry, momentarily passing the weight to their friends, to place a beautiful mona de pascua in the trembling hands of a child.

These words penned by Murcian author Juan García Abellan in his ode to the city and its food, Murcia, entre bocado y trago (1965), resonate for anyone who has been to a Holy Week procession in Murcia. Here, the pace and drumbeat of the daily marches leading up to Easter are as solemn as in other parts of Spain, yet a festive ambiance reigns at several of the city’s most celebrated processions. This is particularly true for children, who, like the child in the quote, gaze up in awe and expectation at the hooded nazarenos. Local children know – and have known for generations – that the striking robed figures, many with their faces covered, are not to be feared, for they come bearing gifts – candies, eggs, and for the lucky few, monas de pascua.

This penitent (a nazareno morado) is not as fat as he looks – most of that bulge hanging over his belt is in fact space for treats like candy and goody bags, often containing mini monas, to be handed out along the procession route.

The mona de pascua is an Easter pastry found in several regions of Spain, most notably in Cataluña, Valencia and Murcia. (In these areas, the mona is as typical as hot cross buns, hence the title of this post.) In its most traditional version, the kind typically found in Murcia, the mona de pascua is a sweet bread roll (not dissimilar from hot cross buns, in fact) topped with a hard-boiled egg, itself topped with a cross shaped from dough.

Traditionally, the mona de pascua was eaten on Easter Sunday or the following Monday, marking the end of Lent. In the past, eggs, considered akin to meat, were among the forbidden foods of this period of abstinence. Eggs – representative of fertility, birth and resurrection – are also, of course, a powerful symbol for this time of year. It’s no wonder that eggs (especially hard-boiled – a means to preserve the inevitable yields in the henhouse) play such an important role in many Easter customs around the world.

Certain communities in and around Murcia still refer to the Monday after Easter “el día de la mona,” Mona Day, and many families ritually take to the countryside on this day for a picnic starring monas de pascua. Yet the mona has become a common treat to be enjoyed throughout the entire week leading up to Easter. Monas – either full-size with a chicken egg or mini with a quail egg – are a favorite snack for the lengthy Holy Week processions, welcome fuel for spectators and marchers alike.

As is the case with many long-standing food traditions, the mona de pascua in and of itself has become an essential symbol of the season, and not just for religious reasons. It also represents the generosity of spring, reflected in Murcia’s giving Holy Week processions.

Monas de Pascua

This is my fourth Easter in Murcia, and I have begun to feel twinges of nostalgia for this seasonal pastry, meaning Semana Santa is just not complete without a mona de pascua. This is the first year I decided to make them myself, wanting to share with friends and family near and far the spirit of the season in Murcia.

Monas really do remind me of hot cross buns in flavor and texture, and the dough is actually quite similar, although monas in Murcia are typically made with a mild-flavored olive oil instead of butter and contain a hint of orange blossom water, like a southern breeze.

The resulting pastry is characteristically dry, perfect for dunking. The recipe writers on the Region of Murcia’s website offer the following solution: “As the dough is a little dry, some kind of liquid accompaniment is appropriate. This could be mistela (a sweet wine like muscat) for adults and milk for children. Adding a bit of chocolate makes the monas irresistible.”

I found many slightly different variations on this recipe, which invites tinkering in the search for a favorite texture and flavor. So far, I have tried two different versions, one with a blend of bread and all-purpose flours and one with bread flour only. Both were good, but I preferred the denser texture of the all-bread-flour mona.

Whether you make larger, oblong-shaped monas with hard-boiled chicken eggs, mini monas with quail eggs, or skip the egg altogether, the procedure is basically the same, although the baking time will of course vary slightly.

For the dough:

80 ml. (1/3 cup) warm milk

25 g (≈ 0.9 oz.) compressed (fresh) yeast

500 g (≈ 3 1/2 cups *SEE NOTE) bread flour

¼ teaspoon salt

140 g (1 cup plus 2 tablespoons) sugar

3 Eggs, plus one more, beaten, for glazing

80 ml. (1/3 cup) mild-flavored olive oil

Zest of one lemon

½ teaspoon orange blossom water

For the topping:

Quail eggs, hard-boiled, as many as you want (Optional)

Granulated sugar for sprinkling

Stir yeast into warm milk. Let stand for 5-10 minutes.

Sift together the flour and salt together in one bowl. In another bowl, mix the eggs with the sugar. Stir in the yeasted milk. Then add the olive oil, orange blossom water if using and the lemon zest, stirring just until well blended. Gradually stir in the flour until a dough is formed. Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead until dough is smooth and elastic, adding more flour by the tablespoonful as needed (the dough should be moist and slightly tacky, but not sticky). Transfer dough to a large oiled bowl and turn it to coat. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 ½ – 2 hours (it may take longer, depending on factors like ambient temperature).

Divide the dough into 12-14 equal pieces on a floured surface. Roll each piece into a ball, then flatten slightly with the palm of your hand. Arrange 1 ½ inches apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover loosely with plastic wrap for a second rise of about 45 minutes.

Towards the end of the second rise, preheat oven to 350ºF (180ºC).

Brush monas with egg glaze. If you are using hard-boiled eggs, make indents in the center of the monas with your fingers, creating a nest for the eggs. Sprinkle monas generously with sugar. Bake until golden, about 15-20 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool.

*NOTE: I measured out the cups, but have not tested this recipe with the standard American measurements, so have put an approximate amount here. If using cups, I suggest starting with this amount of flour and adding more by the tablespoon as needed to get the consistency indicated in the recipe.

  One a penny, two a penny… 

HAPPY EASTER!

Guiso de trigo de Murcia – Murcia’s Wheat Berry Stew with Squash Aïoli

El guiso de trigo es humilde y sencillo, una muestra más de lo mucho que puede lograse disponiendo de poco. (Murcia’s wheat berry stew is humble and simple, yet another example of how much can be achieved with little at hand.)  From Gastronomía Regional Murcia, a newspaper supplement published in the mid-1980s.

Guiso de trigo de Murcia

Like many expats and emigrants, I often rely on foods from my past to nourish connections with people and places far away. This is why, for example, I always have  homemade granola in the cupboard and enough butter and brown sugar to whip up a batch of cookies when a longing for home swoops in. Yet over time, I have also come to crave local foods in Murcia, which I see as a sign of rootedness and contentment in my relatively new home. As the days turn colder and my third winter here begins, I find I am hungry for traditional Murcian stews like the guiso de trigo.

This hearty (and meatless) stew with wheat berries, vegetables and beans is one of Murcia’s staple dishes, whose ingredients reflect the city’s agricultural heritage. For centuries, Murcia has been a center of fruit and vegetable production in Spain, which has resulted in a vegetable-rich cuisine out of necessity.

For me, the guiso de trigo is a perfect example of local culinary thrift, of coaxing maximum nutrition and flavor out of available raw materials. One trick is the sofrito, a building block in many dishes in Murcia as well as in the rest of Spain. By sautéing the onions and tomatoes in olive oil in a separate pan with salt and sweet pimentón – instead of just throwing everything uncooked into the pot with the beans and wheat – you significantly multiply the flavor potential.

A sprinkling of mint, dried or fresh, contributes a cooling contrast to the warming pimentón, which stimulates the senses. Saffron threads, if you have them, are like red lipstick, adding a touch of color and intrigue.

The squash aïoli is a stroke of genius. With four thrifty ingredients – squash (of course), garlic, salt and a ribbon of olive oil – you get a luxurious condiment. Swirling in a spoonful not only adds zing to the stew, but also lends a touch of sophistication, proving that frugal does not have to mean austere.

Even though far more ingredients are available today in Murcia than in the leaner times when the guiso de trigo became a local tradition, the stew remains popular. It can be found on weekday lunch menus in long-established bars and restaurants throughout the city, and commonly appears on grandmothers’ tables. In both settings, it is typically served in wide soup plates with country bread on the side for dipping and soaking up the last traces of broth.

On a cool day like today, when the sun probably won’t quite make its way through the clouds, it is easy to imagine adults and children throughout Murcia hovering over steaming bowls of guiso de trigo. This satisfying stew is not only nourishing and economical, but also familiar and comforting.

I, too, will be having bowl of guiso de trigo today, enjoying the warmth and flavors which root me in Murcia.

Guiso de Trigo de Murcia – Murcia’s Wheat Berry Stew with Squash Aïoli

Adapted from two principal sources: A recipe in the cookbook Memorias de la cocina murciana, written by Carmen Peréz, and a recipe from the Hotel Rosa Victoria in Murcia as seen on the national TV program España Directo in 2009 (you can watch the video here) .

I’ve doubled the quantity of pumpkin in order to make the aïoli and because I love pumpkin. (In other words, the exact vegetable quantities are a matter of taste.)

As the guiso de trigo is a classic peasant dish, real saffron, an expensive ingredient, is not always included, and that is why I say it is optional. Many locals use a natural yellow food coloring, commonly used in paella, because the result is warming and visually appealing. Yet I find that the pimentón and golden olive oil lend sufficient color if you do not use the saffron. The saffron threads of course add complexity to the dish, and I have included them, toasted and mashed with garlic, according to the recipe in Memorias de la cocina murciana.

The key factor in drawing full flavor from the ingredients is time, and all the little steps do make a difference.

For the stew:

1 ¼ cups (250 g) wheat berries, soaked for 24 hours

3/4 cup (150 g) garbanzos, soaked overnight

3/4 cup (150 g) white beans, soaked overnight

10 cups water

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 medium onions, diced

2 medium tomatoes, peeled and diced or grated (*See note)

Salt to taste

1 heaping teaspoon sweet pimentón

A pinch of saffron threads (optional)

1 clove garlic (optional)

1/3 pound (150 g) Italian flat beans, cut into 1-inch pieces measure for cups

1/2 pound pumpkin or other orange-fleshed winter squash like butternut, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks

1 medium potato (a waxy or “in-between” variety would work best – see Cook’s Illustrated Potato Primer)

Salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint, plus more for serving

For the squash aïoli (ajo calabaza): (Make about 10 minutes before the stew is ready.)

1 clove garlic, roughly chopped

A pinch of fine sea salt

Several chunks of cooked pumpkin from the stew

A swirl of olive oil

For the stew:

Place the soaked and drained wheat berries, garbanzos and white beans together in a large soup pot (I used a 6-quart pot) and add water. Bring to the boil and skim off any foam, reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for about 1 hour. The beans and wheat berries should be partially tender at this point.

While the beans and wheat berries are simmering, prepare the sofrito and the saffron, if using. For the sofrito, heat the 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat and add the onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and just beginning to turn golden. Add tomatoes, bring to the boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thickened, about 25-30 minutes. Add salt to taste toward the end, since the flavor becomes more concentrated as the sauce cooks down. Add pimentón and sauté for another minute. Remove the sofrito from the heat and set aside.

To toast the saffron threads, warm a small, dry skillet over low heat. Add threads and stir frequently so they do not burn. Once the color has deepened and the threads are aromatic, remove from heat. Then pound the toasted threads in a mortar with a clove of garlic. (See here for more information about toasting saffron.)

Add the sofrito and saffron to the pot with the partially cooked wheat berries and beans (after the first hour of cooking), then add the green beans, pumpkin and potato to the broth, which is now a vibrant red color. Season with salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste. (If you are using dried mint, add now as well.) Bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until the wheat berries, beans and vegetables are fully tender and the broth has slightly thickened, about 45 minutes. If you are using fresh mint, add it now, and adjust seasonings as necessary. Allow to sit off the heat for 5-10 minutes before serving.

For the squash aioli (ajo calabaza):

Ajo calabaza

About ten minutes before the stew has finished, mash a clove of garlic in a mortar with a pinch of salt to make a smooth paste. Remove half of the cooked pumpkin or squash from the pot and pound to a purée with the garlic in the mortar. Stir in a swirl of extra virgin olive oil.

Serve the stew in soup plates garnished with a sprinkling of fresh mint. Add squash aïoli until your bowl has as much garlic flavor as you like.

  • Yield: Six to eight servings.

* NOTE: Grating is a quick and easy way to peel tomatoes, and is a favorite method of many cooks I know in Murcia. Cut the tomato in half, and gently grate over a bowl, flesh side down, using the large holes of the grater. The tougher skin will not pass through the holes, and you will be left with a tomato purée perfect for sautéing in this recipe.

Soaked Wheat Berries  Soaked Beans  Local Pumpkin Pumpkin Chunks Flat Green Beans Organic Sweet Pimentón from Murcia

Murcia’s Ensaladilla Rusa: Not your typical Russian Salad

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Behold the marinera, Murcia’s favorite tapa, which always goes oh so well with that first cold lager. For those non-Murcianos out there reading this, the marinera is a mound of ensaladilla rusa, a creamy potato and tuna salad studded with bits of pickled cucumbers, carrots and olives, served on a looped breadstick and topped with an anchovy. You can also order a marinero, the same base but topped with a tangy vinegar-cured anchovy, a boqueron, instead. If anchovies aren’t your thing, than the anchovy-free bicicleta (yes, bicycle, go figure) is for you.

I’m a definite marinera fan. I love the salty anchovies, and the contrast they give to the sweet and tangy notes of the salad. I also love the challenge of eating a marinera, which takes some practice, and still often results in breadstick fractures that undermine the structural integrity. This is nothing that a few exciting rescue bites can’t solve, however, like swooping in for ice cream that’s about to fall off the cone.

The ensaladilla rusa, Russian Salad, can be found in bars and homes throughout Spain in various forms, the best of which is often, of course, the one made by mamá. Yet I have found that Murcianos are particularly proud of their Russian Salad, and turn up their noses at the cooked peas and carrots, often canned or frozen, typically found in other cities’ versions. I have never tried the ensaladilla elsewhere, but must admit that the other variations sound rather dreary to me, more Siberian, say, than Mediterranean.

Ensaladilla rusa is ubiquitous in Murcia throughout the year, a reliable presence at bars, family meals and gatherings like soccer parties and picnics. It is a comfort food for many, an old standby that never lets down, which, after three years here, it has become for me. After time away, one of the first things I crave is a marinera and a beer (they go hand in hand, after all). I feel almost like a local as I bite in, savoring the now familiar flavors anew.

Ensaladilla Rusa

Murcia’s Ensaladilla Rusa

Jazz up your next potluck with this flavorful twist on the potato salad.

As with many salads, the exact quantity you use of all the ingredients is a matter of personal preference (for example, I like lots of pickles and olives, and often add an extra can of tuna). Some people like to add diced hard-boiled eggs directly to the salad.

In terms of mayonnaise, use your favorite, homemade or store-bought, because you definitely notice the flavor. Hellman’s is the store-bought brand of choice in Murcia, although Manolo says the Hellman’s he’s tried in the US tastes different (not bad, he says, just different).

In Murcia (and in the rest of Spain, too, I think), you can buy the variantes (the pickled bits) pre-chopped in jars or in bulk at farmers’ markets next to the olives. In the US, I have been able to make my own variantes using minced carrots and cornichons (tangy French-style pickles, rather than dill) and their juice (see Cooking Note). *Take note: this step should be done two days ahead, so you can make the salad one day ahead.

Locally made looped breadsticks called rosquillas are used to make the marineras, although I’ve yet to come across any in the States. The circular Italian breadsticks (taralli), which I have seen in Italian markets, would work well, or even crackers. The challenge of the hole in the middle is fun, but the most important element of the breadstick, I would say, is the crunch.

For the salad

4 medium potatoes, peeled, quartered and rinsed in cold water until the water runs clear  – a waxy potato works best, like Yellow Finn or Yukon Gold

1 6-ounce can of solid tuna packed in olive oil, drained and flaked with a fork

1/2 cup variantes (a mix of minced pickled cucumbers and carrots – see Cooking Note)

1/4 cup anchovy stuffed olives, minced, plus more for decorating

3/4 cup mayonnaise, or more to taste, plus more for decorating

3 hard-boiled eggs, for decorating

For the marineras (or marineros or bicicletas)

Circular breadsticks (like taralli), or crackers

Anchovies packed in oil (or vinegar-cured boquerones) (Optional)

For the salad

Place potatoes in a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and then add salt. Cook at a gentle boil until the potatoes are just cooked through, but not falling apart, about 10-15 minutes (just at the point when the potatoes are easily pierced with a fork). Drain and allow to cool.

Blend the tuna with the potatoes in a large bowl using a fork. The potatoes should break down to a chunky purée in the mixing process. Add the variantes and minced olives and stir until evenly distributed. Slowly add mayonnaise by the large spoonful, tasting once the salad holds together to decide if you wish to add more or not (the salad should not get to the point that it’s runny, however). Smooth out the surface for decorating.

Drop mayonnaise by the spoonful over the salad and spread with a rubber spatula until a thin layer covers the surface. Then grate two hard-boiled eggs evenly over the mayonnaise, resulting in a soft yellow cushion for the final decorative flourishes, several whole olives and one sliced hard-boiled egg. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least two hours before serving. This salad is even more flavorful if prepared a day ahead.

For the marineras (or marineros or bicicletas)

Place a scoop of chilled ensaladilla rusa on a circular breadstick or cracker; lay an anchovy on top.

  •  Cooking Note: To make 1/2 cup of  variantes (pictured below – I know, the lighting is terrible), you’ll need to place roughly 4 tablespoons of minced carrots and 4 tablespoons of minced cornichons in a small bowl and add enough cornichon juice to cover. Store covered in the refrigerator until ready to use. Make your variantes at least a day before you make the salad so that the carrots are nice and pickled by the time you add them.

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Morcilla de Verano – Murcia’s Eggplant Caviar

Think Spanish food, and the word vegetarian likely does not come to mind. Yet in Murcia, fabled as the “market garden” of Europe, meatless dishes starring local vegetables abound.

Take morcilla de verano, for example, or summer morcilla, a local tapa of eggplant, onion and garlic slow-cooked in olive oil until sweet and tender, seasoned with oregano and studded with toasted pine nuts.

Morcilla de verano even qualifies as vegan, yet you won’t find it labeled as such on a menu. Traditionally, vegetable-based dishes here were not so much a matter of dietary choice as they were of necessity, forming the cornerstone of local cuisine. The variety of rich, flavorful vegetable dishes in Murcia today reflects generations of ingenuity with the ingredients at hand.

In fact, many grandparents in Murcia refer to this meatless eggplant dish as morcilla de guerra, wartime morcilla. As the name suggests, this was considered a substitute for the other morcilla — a  pork blood sausage — during lean times. Or during the summer – in the past, morcilla was made in the fall, just after the slaughter. (Murcia’s meat morcilla, like the eggplant version, is flavored with onions, oregano and pine nuts.)

Today, morcilla is available year-round, yet morcilla de verano remains a popular dish, one of many traditional vegetable-based tapas served up in bars throughout Murcia, whose cuisine has been shaped by the market garden harvest.

Morcilla de Verano – Murcia’s Eggplant Caviar

This olive oil-rich recipe is nothing short of unctuous, perfect for slathering on a thick slice of country bread. Serve as an appetizer or as a light meal accompanied with a salad and a plate of sliced manchego cheese.

3 medium eggplants, peeled and diced into ½-inch cubes

2 tablespoons pine nuts

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

3 medium onions, thinly sliced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Salt and fresh-ground pepper

Soak diced eggplant in a bowl of salted water for ½ hour to temper any bitterness. Drain and pat dry.

Meanwhile, lightly toast pine nuts in a dry sauté pan over medium-high heat.

Heat oil in a deep sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring frequently, until they begin to turn golden. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes more. Toss in eggplant, sprinkle with a pinch of salt and reduce heat to low. Cook partially covered, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is thoroughly tender, about 45 minutes. Drain any excess oil, then stir in oregano and toasted pine nuts. Season with salt and pepper. Serve warm.

YIELD: 4-6 servings

Michirones – Fava Bean Stew with Bacon, Serrano Ham, Chorizo and Garlic

When I first heard the word michirones, Manolo and I were strolling through Murcia’s historic center trying to decide where to stop for tapas. He casually suggested we try michirones at El Pepico del Tío Gínes, and I, having been in Murcia for less than one month, literally had no idea what he was talking about. Nothing sounded familiar, which is not surprising in retrospect, for you can’t get much more local than this.

Michirones, I would find out, are fava beans stewed with cured ham, bacon, chorizo, garlic, a good dose of sweet pimentón and bay leaves. This classic Murcian tapa is rustic and hearty, packed with sustenance and a deep cured ham flavor. The pimentón and chorizo turn the broth a vibrant red color that is both warming to look at and to eat.

Michirones are typically served in an earthenware dish strategically placed within reaching distance of everyone at the table. As is the case with many tapas, eating michirones is a communal experience. You help yourself to the beans and meat in the central dish with your fork, and try to get them to your mouth without leaving too much of a trail. (This distance seemed precariously long to me at first.)

This is not to say that the delicious broth goes unconsumed. For soaking up the pimentón spiked liquid, fresh bread is the favored tool, dipped with gusto directly into the common dish.

The bar where I had my first michirones, El Pepico del Tío Gines, was founded in 1935 and is a tradition in itself, with an ambiance you’d expect in an old Spanish bodega –chrome bar, hams hanging from the ceiling, the requisite wooden barrel. I loved my first taste of michirones, unlike anything I had ever eaten, although I struggled to remember how to say what I had eaten. The word just wouldn’t stick.

I can’t remember exactly when the word michirones began flowing off my tongue naturally. I think it was a gradual process, aided by weekly dinners with friends at the cantina of a neighborhood association dedicated to preserving local traditions. We’d invariably order the flavorful michirones, some of the best I’ve had (the restaurant has since closed, sniff, sniff).

After watching Valentina, Manolo’s mom, prepare a batch, I decided it was time to try for myself.

So how about some michirones for dinner?

Michirones

This recipe is based on Valentina’s version in addition to recipes I consulted in the following books on local cuisine: Las 50 Mejores Recetas de la Cocina Muricana and Memorias de la Cocina Murciana.

The dish is traditionally prepared with unshelled dried fava beans. Peeled and split beans fall apart more easily in the cooking process, which isn’t appropriate for this dish. Keep in mind that the cooking time can vary depending on the size and age of the beans. If the skins are too tough for your liking, simply remove them as you are eating by squeezing on the shell with your fingers to release the soft interior into your mouth. In fact, you often see heaps of fava bean skins on plates when michirones have been served.

I suggest not adding any extra salt until the end, if it is needed. I have found that the cured meats provide enough.

A strong red wine from Jumilla, a wine-producing zone in Murcia, pairs well with the dish.

1 pound dried fava beans, soaked at least overnight*

3 quarts water

⅓ pound dried Spanish chorizo, cut into ¼-inch rounds

¼ pound unsmoked bacon (thick slices are best), cut into 1-inch lengths

1 serrano ham bone, if available

¼ pound thick-sliced serrano ham or proscuitto, cut into 1-inch lengths

1 head of garlic, rinsed

6 bay leaves

1 heaping teaspoon sweet pimentón

1-3 whole dried cayenne peppers (optional, if you like a little kick)

Salt and pepper to taste

Put all ingredients (except salt and pepper) together in a 5-quart soup pot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Boil, uncovered, for 10 minutes and skim off any foam. Lower heat and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender but not falling apart, about 2-2 ½ hours. Add more water if necessary. (The cooking time can vary depending on the size and age of the beans.) The broth should be intensely red from the pimentón and chorizo, but relatively thin and clear in consistency. Once the beans are cooked, season with salt and pepper to taste.

*NOTE: Some recipes say to soak the beans for 48 hours, changing the water once or twice. I haven’t tried this yet, but am curious to see how much the longer soak decreases the cooking time.

More Holiday Cookies: Tortas de Recao

In addition to last week’s almond cordial, the anise-flavored torta de recao is another typical Christmas cookie in Murcia. Even though December 25, 2010 has come and gone, the Christmas cookie season won’t be over in Spain until at least January 6, Epiphany. In fact, my friends and I have just made one more batch to make it through the holidays.

Tortas de recao

Far from my original home in this season of traditions, I have found that holiday nostalgia can be shared through cookies. Baking with friends who have grown up with a recipe transforms the mixing and shaping into an act of memory, sparking stories and recollections. As we work together, I feel the encouraging (and sometimes exacting) presence of generations of Murcian mothers, grandmothers and aunts, honored to pass their recipes on.

When three local friends and I set out to make tortas de recao on a recent Saturday, we needed this encouragement – we were all novices in a sense. In fact, many of my friends here are just trying out their wings in terms of holiday cooking. They have seen and participated in the processes year after year, and are now stepping out on their own. They want to be able to carry on the traditions they grew up with, filling their own kitchens and tables with familiar holiday aromas and flavors, such as the anise, almond and honey bite of the tortas de recao.

My friend Santi took on the role of leader, for she had the most experience  – she recently learned to make tortas de recao with her sister-in-law, acknowledged as a pro. Ironically, the least experienced of the crew (guess who) wore an “Old Master” apron.

Santi mixed the dough, plunging her hands in once it was just cool enough to touch, making sure it was smooth. She shaped the dough into balls and showed us how to flatten the cookies and form the edges. She offered tips (and words of warning): quickly shape all the dough while it is warm, for it’s impossible to work otherwise; all cookies should be about the same size for even baking; and be sure the border is high enough to hold in the almonds.

Shaping the dough

The threat of potential pitfalls kept us moving at a clip, and a frenetic energy filled the kitchen. I got frustrated. I just couldn’t get the edge right. I watched Santi and Cari’s nimble fingers forming beautifully crimped rims and tried to imitate the motion, but couldn’t get the same result. I imagined all the mothers and grandmothers in the room cringing over my shoulder. Yet I had to keep moving, and my hands and mind began to loosen up as I worked.

The Assembly line

Can you tell which cookies are mine? I sure can.

Ready for the oven

Nearly six hours and over twelve pounds of flour later, we had twenty dozen golden tortas de recao, which we topped with honey as a final sweet touch. A taste test confirmed we could be proud of our results. I took home five dozen, some of which I gave out to Manolo’s family and friends (they were  tickled by the gesture – tortas de recao from the Americana); some went to the States by plane with my dad (a delicious way to share Christmas in Murcia from afar); and the rest I kept on hand at home to enjoy throughout the holidays. Like many Christmas treats here, these cookies get even better with time, as the honey soaks more deeply into the base.

A kiss of honey

In the end, the oven had been kind to my cookies, and the novice borders didn’t really matter. Since this day, I have seen many tortas de recao in different homes and bakeries throughout Murcia, and can say with authority that no two are the same. To each his own perfection, which may just be in each crunchy, anise-infused bite.

And in the process, through which the bakers’ hands give shape to memories, and traditions are shared and passed along.

Tortas de Recao

These cookies are challenging to make, particularly given the quantities, but are rewarding for all the senses. You could of course reduce the amounts, which would make the recipe easier. Much of the difficulty lies in the fact you have to move quickly to shape the dough while it is warm.

We used a large plastic bin for the dough (one that holds at least 12 quarts) – there is simply too much dough for most domestic standing mixers. An industrial mixer would sure come in handy here!

The recipe calls for mild or light olive oil (suave in Spanish), which is refined and has a milder flavor and higher heating point than extra virgin olive oil. You could use another vegetable oil instead, such as canola or sunflower.

Be sure to bake these cookies in a well-ventilated kitchen. Once the anise liqueur begins to evaporate, the air gets quite boozy, and can even sting the eyes.

Since you add the honey after you have baked these cookies, the flavor is forward and therefore the quality of the honey is particularly important. Many recipes for tortas de recao say to add the honey while the cookies are still warm from the oven for optimal absorption. But you can also add warm honey once all the cookies have baked and cooled, which is a bit less hectic since you are only focusing on one step at a time.

3 kilograms (6 lbs 9 oz) flour

1 liter dry anise liqueur, such as Anís del Mono Seco or Chinchón Seco

1 kilogram (2 lb 3 oz) sugar, plus more for sprinkling

1 liter mild or light olive oil

1 slice lemon zest (about 1 1/2-inches long and 1/2-inch wide)

1/2 to 1 kilogram (1 to 2 lbs) chopped almonds

1 kilogram (2 lb 3 oz)  artisanal honey

Line baking sheets with parchment paper. (We ran out in the end, and placed the cookies directly on the baking sheets as you can see in some of the photos. The cookies didn’t stick much due to the oil content, but the paper certainly made re-use for subsequent batches easier.)

Line a tray with parchment paper for the honey drizzling step.

Cut several five-by-five inch squares of parchment paper (one for each baker). You shape the cookies on these squares, which prevents the dough from sticking to the work surface.

Preheat oven to 375ºF.

Place flour in a large plastic bin. Make a well in the center.

Heat anise liqueur in a large sauce pan over medium-high heat, about 10-15 minutes. Once it begins to steam, add sugar and stir to dissolve. Don’t worry if some crystals remain. (This is a non-conventional step that my friends have added to burn off some of the alcohol in the anise so it doesn’t all burn off in the oven.)

Meanwhile, heat oil and slice of lemon zest in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, about 10-15 minutes. You know the oil is hot enough once it begins to smoke and the lemon zest has turned golden brown. Remove from heat and discard lemon zest.

Gradually, and very carefully, pour hot oil into the well in the flour. The oil will sizzle and steam. Stir with a wooden spoon, being careful not to scald the plastic bin. At this point, the dough will still be clumpy and dry. It’s good to have two people for this step – one to pour and one to stir. Gradually add anise liqueur and stir to blend. The dough should be smooth. Cover bin with a kitchen towel to hold in heat.

Once dough is just cool enough to touch, break off enough to make a golf-size ball with your hands. The dough will be slightly tacky, but shouldn’t stick too much to your hands. Place ball on pre-cut square of parchment paper and flatten into a round disc, about three- to four-inches in diameter (depending on the size cookie you want), with your fingers. Now comes the tricky part – the borders. Basically, you are crimping the rim of the dough as you would a pie crust. Lift a little dough from the edge, fold it over and gently press down into the base. There is a good picture of the process here. Work your way around the cookie, and don’t be too worried about getting it just right. The important thing is to have a slightly raised rim, creating a shallow nest for the almond topping. Transfer to baking sheets, reshaping into circles if dough has stretched.

Prepping the dough

Pierce the base of the dough in several places with a fork. Sprinkle each cookie with a pinch of sugar, then add about a teaspoon of chopped almonds, filling the base. Gently press almonds with your fingers to set them into dough.

Bake until golden, about 25-30 minutes (based on one baking sheet at a time). If you bake two sheets at once, be sure to rotate them once the cookies on top have begun to brown. Lower heat to 350ºF if the tops are browning too quickly.

Meanwhile, warm honey so that it is more of a liquid than a syrup. Place cookies (either still warm or cooled) on prepared tray and drizzle each with about 1/2 teaspoon of honey. The honey will initially pool in the base, but will seep into the cookie over time. Stack cookies one on top of the other and repeat honey drizzling process. Store fully cooled cookies in an airtight container for up to several weeks.

YIELD: 8-10 dozen cookies, depending on the size.

¡Felices fiestas!

Holiday Cookie Series: Fuensanta’s Almond Cordiales

If you visit a home in Murcia this time of year, you will inevitably be presented with a tray of traditional Christmas sweets to choose from. In addition to the creamy turrón and crumbly polvorones found throughout Spain, the Murcian Christmas tray also includes local treats, such as the almond-packed cordial.

These aromatic cookies are a balancing act between several Mediterranean flavors and textures. The crunchiness of the almonds is offset by moist candied squash, and the first impression of these principal ingredients fades into lingering hints of cinnamon and lemon.

After two years here in Murcia, cordiales have become an essential part of Christmas for me. They have been offered as a welcoming gesture and shared with great pleasure around many a holiday table. It seems no coincidence that cordial, in both English and Spanish, also means from the heart.

In each place I call home, I pick up recipes as comforting souvenirs. I imagine that no matter where I spend my Christmases in the future, these Murcian cookies will be part of my seasonal baking routine, joining the ranks of spiced pumpkin bread and ginger cookies.

This year, I decided it was time to learn how to make my own cordiales, and immediately thought of Fuensanta, my friend Inma’s mother, whose cordiales were not only the first I ever tasted, but also the most flavorful.

We met in Inma’s kitchen on a Saturday in early December, and Fuensanta quickly got to work mixing the ingredients by hand. Instead of measuring, she discussed the quantities with her husband, Paco, who had also come to help. After each step, Paco confirmed the dough looked as it should.

Both fretted that the cookies would run in the oven, thus losing their characteristic dome shape. (While a few did spread a bit, I would argue it doesn’t really matter, for the taste is the same.)

Inma and I joined in when it came time to shape the dough into little balls, which we carefully set on wafer paper (the kind used in communion) for baking.

The golden result was pronounced Christmas cookie tray-worthy. The highest praise of all came from Manolo’s grandfather, who described our cordiales as “como los antiguos” – like they used to make.

Fuensanta’s Almond Cordiales

This recipe is made for sharing. Fuensanta bakes a big batch of her cordiales at the beginning of the holidays and stores them in airtight containers, where they keep for up to several weeks. This means she always has some on hand for holiday visitors. In fact, locals say these cookies get even better with age.

Making the dough is a relatively quick and easy process in Spain, where candied squash (called cabello de angel,angel hair) is available in cans. I haven’t been able to locate this product in the US (let me know if you find it somewhere), so have included a link to an Emeril Lagasse recipe for spaghetti squash jam. This extra step will obviously make the cookies more labor-intensive, but can be done days in advance.

Wafer paper, or oblea, another common ingredient in Spain, is available by the sheet at most local bakeries in Murcia this time of year. In the US, you can find wafer paper on many specialty baking sites on the Internet, such as here, where it comes in packs of 100, and here, where it can be bought in individual sheets. To make one batch, ten sheets would be a safe bet. But the wafers can be omitted without any loss in flavor – simply use parchment paper instead.

With the quantities involved, the entire baking process took us about three hours, since we only baked one sheet at a time. (The ovens here tend to be smaller than in the US.) If you bake two sheets at once (which may take longer than the time given), be sure to rotate them at least once to ensure even browning.

2 1/4 pounds finely chopped almonds

zest of 2 lemons

2 1/4 cups sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

6 eggs

1 1/2 cups candied spaghetti squash

Wafer paper (8 x 11 inch sheets) (optional)

Make candied spaghetti squash, if you are not using canned. Store in a clean jar in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Line baking sheets with wafer or parchment paper.

Mix almonds, lemon zest, sugar and cinnamon in a large bowl. Fuensanta uses her hands, but a wooden spoon would work, too. Add eggs and mix to blend. At this point, the dough should be goopy, but not runny. Work in candied spaghetti squash with your fingers, breaking up any clumps, until more or less evenly distributed. Be careful not to overmix—you don’t want to release too much water from the squash.

Shape dough into ping-pong-size balls using your hands and set them on prepared baking sheets, spaced about 1-inch apart.

Bake until golden, 20-25 minutes. Allow to cool before serving. If you have used wafer paper, break into individual cookies, making the edges as neat or as rough as you like. The wafer is at its crispest on this first day, and many children (and adults) here like to nibble at the leftover crumbs.

YIELD: 40-50 cookies

Olla Gitana con Peras – Murcia’s Gypsy Stew with Pears

olla gitana 010

With the onset of chilly days, I find myself daydreaming about the soup pot, which had collected dust during Murcia’s long, hot summer. Now, simply imagining the steam rising off a simmering, one-dish meal warms and soothes me. My chilly fingertips typing away at the keyboard long to be wrapped around the promised bowl.

Soup is comfort food in many cultures – a condensed version of the smells, flavors and rituals of one’s childhood. Perhaps this is why a single bowl of fresh, piping hot soup in any language offers reassurance beyond words.

Here in Spain, stews are often called comidas de cuchara, meals which require no more than a soup spoon to eat. Most versions involve an aromatic broth packed with vegetables, beans and meats that easily yield to said spoon. There is comfort in this simplicity – one pot, one dish and one utensil. And the repeated act of lifting each bite to the lips and softly blowing, like I learned as a child, has a calming, meditative effect.

For me, Murcia’s olla gitana, or gypsy stew, is particularly inviting. As is the case with most stews around the world, it is a dish of ingenuity, a hearty and satisfying blend of ingredients at hand. This vegetarian stew showcases the diverse fruit and vegetable offerings of Murcia’s long-cultivated lands.

Yet the olla gitana is more than delicious nourishment – it is also evocative. The seasoning blend, for instance (extra virgin olive oil, sweet paprika, saffron and mint), recalls the region’s diverse roots, from Romans to Moors to the Roma people who lend the stew its name. And the warm-hued spices give the dish itself  a sunny appearance, reflective of Murcia’s Southern Mediterranean climate.

This is a traveler’s stew, or, more precisely, a dish whose ingredients from far and wide, and the people who carried them, have found their home, right here in my soup pot.

Olla Gitana con Peras – Murcia’s Gypsy Stew with Pears

I first learned to make olla gitana in the kitchen of Valentina, a gifted home cook in Murcia (who also happens to be my boyfriend’s mother). The recipe that follows is based on Valentina’s version with some additions, such as pears, inspired by several recipes I found in local cookbooks, including a tome on regional gastronomy entitled, “Region de Murcia – El libro de la gastronomía.”

Most traditional recipes call for saffron, which imparts the dish with a golden hue and smoky essence. However, due to the cost of this luxury spice, many home cooks I have met here use a natural yellow food color instead, as brightness is considered an essential quality. An olla gitana without saffron is delicious in its own right, but a pinch of saffron certainly deepens the regional flavor of the stew.

1 cup dried chickpeas, soaked overnight

1 cup dried white beans (such as Great Northern, navy or cannellini beans), soaked overnight

2 quarts plus 3 cups water

2 teaspoons salt

½ pound Italian flat beans or green beans, trimmed and cut into 1 ½ -2-inch lengths

1 pound pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes

3 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered

3 medium or 4 small, slightly underripe pears, peeled, halved and cored

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 large yellow onion, diced

2 medium ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or grated (see note below)

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

A pinch of saffron threads

½ teaspoon dried mint

Salt and pepper to taste

Drain chickpeas and white beans and rinse well. Transfer to a large pot and add the water; bring to a boil. Allow to gently boil over medium heat for 10 minutes, then skim off and discard any foam that has collected on the surface. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until chickpeas and beans are partially tender, after about 45 minutes. Add the salt and green beans, pumpkin, potatoes and pears. Return to a simmer and cook uncovered until vegetables have softened, another 20 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent and just beginning to turn golden. Then add tomatoes and cook, stirring frequently, until reduced, about 7 minutes. Remove sauce from heat and stir in paprika (Valentina says that adding paprika over heat can make it turn bitter). The sauce will have a paste-like consistency. Add to the pot with the cooked beans and vegetables, stirring to distribute the color and flavor.

Crush saffron threads between your fingers and add to the pot; stir in mint. Simmer for another 10-15 minutes, until flavors are blended. Vegetables will be falling-apart tender.

If you find the broth is too thin, remove ½ cup of the cooked chickpeas and white beans from the pot and mash to a purée in a mortar and pestle (or using a food processor). Return purée to the stew.

Remove stew from heat, and allow it to rest for 10 minutes before serving, giving flavors time to settle. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste.

I particularly enjoy this stew with a warming glass of hearty red wine, such as  Monastrell from Jumilla, a wine-producing zone in Murcia.

Yield: 6-8 servings

NOTE: Grating is a quick and easy way to peel tomatoes, and is a favorite method of many Spanish cooks. Cut the tomato in half (from top to bottom), and gently grate over a bowl, flesh side-down, using the large holes of the grater. The tougher skin will not pass through the holes, and you will be left with a tomato purée perfect for sautéing in this recipe.