Christmas is a time when Christians around the world gather to celebrate God’s greatest gift to the world – the birth of his only son, Christ. For Latin Americans it is, above all, a religious holiday, a time to be with family and friends, to give and share from the heart. It is a celebration of deep-seated traditions, of the triumph of light over darkness, of the promise of hope, peace on earth and of good will among people.
More than any other holiday, Christmas evokes childhood memories, locked in our heart, of family and friends sharing the special foods and customs of the holiday season. I still remember fondly the hustle and bustle prior to Christmas. The men helping set up the manger and the Christmas tree, the women fussing in the kitchen preparing the delicious sweets that would be shared, not only with the family and friends but also with the needy. I can never forget the aromas drifting from the kitchen.
The Latin American Yuletide traditions reflect our heritage. Most of our customs were brought by the Spaniards, German and Italians and adapted to the local conditions. The celebrations in many countries, especially in the rural areas, embody the folklore of each country, such as the famous “posadas” in Mexico and Guatemala, or the pageants, tableaux and dances in Brazil. And no celebration would be complete without the traditional foods served during the holiday season – tamales, all sorts of fritters (buñuelos, pristiños), sweet breads (pan dulces) and the tremendous variety of drinks that go with them, such as hot chocolate, atoles and fruit punches.
Let us share with our friends some of the Latin American traditions by inviting them for the classic hot chocolate and our favorite fritters, and of course music; the villancicos (Christmas songs) will get you in the spirit of the season. FELIZ NAVIDAD to all.
PRISTIÑOS DE NOCHE BUENA (Crullers)
These fritters are the classic Christmas dessert in Ecuador. Similar fritters are found in other Latin American countries under different names such as sopapillas, picarones, depending on the country. Some are made with yeast instead of baking powder and are mixed with pureed squash.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 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
Place flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in the bowl of the food processor, and pulse to mix. Add butter, pulse until it looks like coarse meal. Add eggs and liqueur, and process until it forms a ball. (If preparing by hand mix the flour with baking powder, sugar and salt. Mix with butter, eggs and liqueur, kneading until dough forms bubbles.) Cover dough with plastic wrap and let it rest for 30 minutes at room temperature.
Roll dough into a cylinder, cut in two, then cut each half cylinder into eight pieces. Roll each piece into a strip about 2 x 6 inches. With scissors, make diagonal cuts on one side about halfway across the strip—about four cuts. Press ends together to form a wreath.
Heat about 1-inch of oil in a frying pan to 360°F. Drop 2 or 3 wreaths at a time and fry swishing the oil with a large slotted spoon over the wreaths. Fry on both sides until golden, then drain on paper towels. They are best served right away with Miel de Panela (recipe follows). 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, and serve, or cool and refrigerate. It lasts for several months refrigerated. Makes 16 pastries
Adapted from “The South American Table” published in 2003 by Harvard Common Press.
CHOCOLATE CALIENTE (Hot Chocolate)
Chocolate is one of the most delicious foods the Latin American Indians gave the world. There is hardly any country around the world that doesn’t enjoy chocolate, whether it is made into drinks or fabulous confections. At this time of the year in Latin America, hot chocolate is the indispensable accompaniment to tamales during the holidays. When people drop by to visit friends or relatives, you can be sure the hostess will be ready to offer them a cup of hot chocolate and a tamale.
There are different types of chocolate that varies with the country. The common denominator is that it should be thick and foamy. According to a saying “For a cup of chocolate to be perfect, it must be hot, sweet, thick and made by the hands of a woman.” Unfortunately, in the last few years hot chocolate has lost some of its glamour and coffee and tea are replacing this very special drink. I prefer to use whole milk but you can use any type of milk you like, the texture will be different depending on what type of milk you use.
4 cups milk ( 2% or whole milk, almond or soy milk)
3-4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, cut up in small pieces
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
Whipped cream, optional
In a heavy 2-quart saucepan, mix milk, chocolate pieces. Bring to a boil over very low heat, whisking often so it doesn’t stick to the bottom. When the chocolate has completely melted, increase the heat to medium and bring to a quick boil, whisking all the time. After a couple of minutes the foam will start rising. Remove pan from the heat before it reaches the top of the saucepan and continue beating. If you are lucky, you will be able to get the foam to stay. Mexican cooks are famous for serving their hot chocolate with a lot of foam. Stir in vanilla extract.
Serve immediately in small coffee cups or mugs; if you are serving 8-ounce portions, top with a dollop of whipped cream if desired. As the chocolate cools it will thicken. Serves 4 to 6
(More information about the history of chocolate can be found in the South American Table.)