More than any other holiday, Christmas brings families together in a celebration of deep-seated traditions. For Latin Americans it is a religious holiday, a time of rejoicing at the triumph of light over darkness, a promise of hope and of peace on earth, good will among men. It is a time of giving and of sharing in the special foods and customs of the season.
The Latin American yuletide traditions reflect our heritage as well as the mingling of Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, and other cultures that immigrated to the Latin American countries. Each country has its own celebrations, especially in rural areas that embody the folklore of that country. Famous are the posadas in Mexico and Guatemala; the pageants, tableaus and dances in Brazil; and the processions and villancicos (Christmas songs) of the Andean countries. The nacimientos or pesebres (nativity scenes) are displayed in special rooms where family and neighbors congregate every night to say the novena, sing villancicos and admire the beautiful figures that commemorate the birth of Jesus.
No celebration would be complete without traditional holiday season foods: tamales, buñuelos (fritters), pristiños (crullers), pan dulce (coffee cakes) and the wide variety drinks that go with them – hot chocolate, atoles (corn beverages) and fruit punches.
Christmas holidays were very special times for my family and me. Memories of the commotion and excitement of preparing for the holidays are still vivid in my mind. My parents and relatives thrived on fussing over the preparation of traditional foods. My mother and aunt Michita were accomplished cooks, and each mastered the preparation of breads, tamales, and cookies and chocolates to fill the paper bags that were put on the Christmas tree.
Following are two specialties that were offered to friends who came to visit and look at the nativity creation, which changed little from year to year: Pristiños and hot chocolate or Canelazo Caliente.
ECUADORIAN PRISTIÑOS DE NOCHE BUENA
Christmas Eve Crullers
On Christmas time we look forward to big platters of pristiños (crullers) and buñuelos (buns.) These fritters are the classic Christmas desserts in Ecuador and many other South American countries. Similar fritters, called picarones in Peru and sopapillas in Chile, are made with yeast instead of baking soda and the dough is mixed with pureed squash. In Ecuador the dough is sometimes made with pureed squash like in Peru. This type of fritter can also be found throughout South America under different names and styles. It is a European import that went through some transformations depending on the region.
2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 ounces (4 tablespoons) butter or shortening, room temperature, cut up in 4 pieces
3 eggs lightly beaten
1 tablespoon anise liqueur
Canola oil for frying
1 recipe Miel de Panela, below
Place flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in the bowl of the food processor, pulse to mix. Add butter, pulse until it looks like coarse meal. Add eggs and liqueur, process until it forms a ball. If doing by hand mix the flour with baking powder, sugar and salt. Mix with butter, eggs and liqueur, kneading until dough forms bubbles. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest for 30 minutes at room temperature.
Roll dough into a cylinder cut in two, then cut each roll into eight pieces. Roll each piece into a strip about 2 x 6 inches. With scissors make diagonal cuts half-way on one side, about four cuts. Press ends together to form a wreath.
In a frying pan heat oil, 1-inch deep, to 360°F. Drop 2 or 3 wreaths at a time on both sides, swishing the oil with a large spoon over the wreaths. Fry on both sides until golden. Drain on paper towels. They are best served right away with Miel de Panela. Otherwise serve them at room temperature.
MIEL DE PANELA (Brown Sugar Syrup)
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar or ground panela
1/2 cup water
2 whole cloves
1 small cinnamon stick
2 strips lemon peel
Place all ingredients in a heavy 4-quart saucepan and simmer over low heat stirring occasionally until it forms a heavy syrup. Strain through a medium sieve, cool and refrigerate. It lasts for several months refrigerated.
Makes 16 pastries
Canelazo is one of the oldest and most comforting drinks from the Andes, it is part of the Andean folklore, served at home and in the streets during many holidays, especially Christmas. There is nothing better in a cold night up in the mountains than a steaming cup of canelazo, spiked with rum. This drink has survived throughout the ages and the fashionable tea. One year, when I was spending Christmas in Quito, I was invited for tea and a viewing of an old-fashioned Nacimiento (Bethlehem). It was a very special treat to go back to the time of my childhood when we all fussed fixing the Bethlehem and waiting every night for friends and neighbors to drop by to sing villancicos (Christmas songs) and partake in the refreshments afterwards. Canelazo was always ready for the guests to warm up before heading back home. The sweetener can be sugar or panela (brown sugar). When made with naranjilla juice, it is called naranjillazo. The original spike was aguardiente (sugar cane brandy), which the masses still use.
4 cups water
1/2 cup sugar
8 cinnamon sticks
1 cup naranjilla juice (optional)
Juice of 1 lemon
Bring water, sugar and cinnamon to the boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low, simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes or until water has developed the cinnamon flavor. Add optional naranjilla juice and simmer 5 more minutes. Sweeten to taste, strain and add rum to taste. Serve immediately.
Adapted from The South American Table published by Harvard Common Press, 2003.