I fell in love with the gordita inflada in Veracruz. Remember this beauty? She came to me in Coatzacoalcos, warm and crunchy with anise seeds, dribbling bits of mole. And then there were these little cuties in Xico, lined with a layer of black beans. The gorditas in Mexico City are not what one would call cute. They're flat and dense and thick with pork flavor. They are the hoss of the gordita genre. With the Veracruz versions, I kept wondering, what makes these things inflate? Is it baking powder? The only cookbook I found that really addressed the gordita inflada was Zarela's Veracruz: Mexico's Simplest Cuisine and she didn't specifically mention what made them puffy. (Perhaps because it's common knowledge to everyone except me.) I assumed I'd spend hours trying to figure out how to inflate the darn things, but it turns out all you need is two items: a thin-pressed gordita and a lot of hot oil. When I placed the first gordita in the pan -- with the oil heated to over 300F -- it puffed up into a round bubble and started sputtering oil, zipping around the skillet like a little motorboat. "Se infló!" I yelled to Crayton. "Se infló, se infló!" He was on the computer and didn't hear me. After some futzing with a candy thermometer, I figured out that the ideal oil temperature was 260 to 280F for a golden-brown, plump gordita. Today after the football game, I figured out the best way to serve them: layered on a platter and drizzled with ribbons of cajeta, with lots of napkins so everyone could wipe their sticky fingers afterward. The anise seeds are a nod to Coatzacoalcos, and the cajeta.... well, everything tastes good with cajeta. Puffy anise-seed gorditas (gorditas infladas) with cajeta Makes 14 to 15 Note: These contain a mixture of masa and flour. You don't absolutely need the flour for the gorditas to inflate, but the flour does help the gorditas hold their puffy shape longer. (My plain corn ones deflated a little as they cooled.) I also like the extra sweetness that the plantain adds. If you can't find one, leave it out. It may seem like a lot of anise seeds you're adding, but it works in the end. The anise comes through loud and clear, which is what I wanted. Lastly, you'll need a tortilla press and ideally a candy thermometer to measure how hot your oil is. You can eyeball it if not. Do ahead: Masa is highly perishable and, if fresh, does not last longer than one day. The masa I bought from a local tortillería went bad stored in my fridge from one day to the next. However, I did freeze a small amount overnight and it was fine the next day. I would not recommend freezing masa for long periods of time. You can prepare the dough the morning of and refrigerate it until using. Just make sure to knead it well before forming the gorditas. Ingredients 1/2 lb. or 240g fresh masa or the equivalent prepared from masa harina (e.g. Maseca) A 2 1/2 to 3-inch piece of ripe plantain, peeled 1 tablespoon milk 1 tablespoon flour 2 tablespoons grated piloncillo or packed brown sugar 1/4 teaspoon salt 2 1/2 teaspoons anise seeds (toasted if you want), slightly crushed 2 cups oil for frying (I used vegetable) Cajeta for drizzling Other items: Tortilla press Plastic for lining press (e.g., from a grocery bag) Slotted spatula or spoon Baking sheet or platter and paper towels Directions 1. Making the dough Place your masa in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Zap your piece of plantain in the microwave for 20 to 40 seconds until it softens. (Alternately, slice the plantain into thick pieces and simmer in a little milk. Alternately #2, if the plantain is already super ripe -- the peel will be black all over -- you don't need to cook it.) Place the soft plantain in a small bowl with 1 tablespoon milk and mash into a thick puree. Add flour, sugar and salt and mix well. Stir the plantain mixture into your ball of masa, kneading with one hand (or both) until well combined. Then add anise seeds, kneading again until the anise seeds seem well-distributed and the dough comes together and forms a cohesive mass. 2. Shaping the gorditas Grab about a tablespoon of dough -- Zarela calls these "pingpong ball size" -- and roll into a small ball with the palms of your hands. Continue forming the dough into small balls until all the dough has been used. Cover them with a damp dish towel while you heat the 2 cups of cooking oil in a deep skillet. Line the plates of a tortilla press with two pieces of thin plastic. (I cut up a grocery bag.) Once the oil has reached about 260-280F (a little bit of masa should sizzle in the pan) take one of the balls and press it flat. Peel off the top sheet of plastic. Then turn gordita onto your open hand -- the upper edge of your hand works best -- and peel off the other piece of plastic. Place the flattened gordita gently into the hot oil. It should immediately sputter and sizzle, and become enveloped in a lagoon of bubbles. If it doesn't, your oil is not hot enough. Using a slotted spatula or spoon, flick hot oil over the top of the gordita in a quick motion. It should puff up. When the gordita turns dark-brown around the edges -- about 10 to 15 seconds -- turn over and cook the other side. Remove the gordita from the pan using a slotted spoon or spatula and set on a platter or tray lined with layers of paper towels. (Or, if you are in Mexico, papel estraza.) Continue until all gorditas are done. I fried two at a time, once I got enough confidence, in my 10-inch Lodge skillet. Drizzle cajeta on top and serve immediately. Don't forget the napkins! Or knives and forks if you want to be a little more civilized.
The oblong, nubby cactus pear is probably the most abundant fruit in the city right now. Markets have got them at four pounds for less than a dollar. They're skinned and sheathed in plastic for people who want to eat them right there, with chili powder and lime. I prefer them plain. The flesh is juicy and so perfumed, you really don't need anything else. A few weeks ago, I picked up a big batch with plans to make a nieve, or sorbet. I am not a stranger to this activity -- two years ago I made sorbet with tuna roja. But this time I didn't have an ice cream maker. I'd lost the little plastic part that fit onto my Kitchen Aid mixer, which enabled the churning. After some fruitless Internet searching, and lots of fretting to Crayton, I emailed Fany. She offered a bunch of helpful tips, including adding an egg white to make the sorbet creamier, and using salt and simple syrup instead of regular sugar. Most importantly, she said there was no reason I couldn't use my ice-cream maker freezer bowl anyway, and just pop it in the freezer and stir by hand every few hours. So, one afternoon, I chopped my tunas and blended and tasted, surprised and delighted at how kick-ass this mixture turned out to be. I was so excited, actually, that I broke out a little mezcal -- for the sorbet, not for me. It ended up giving the nieve a touch of smoke, which fit with the trailblazing theme of the day. This sorbet -- or perhaps it's a sherbet because of the egg white -- did not turn out as dense as I'd hoped. It wasn't as scoopable as my nieve de tuna roja. But it was all mine, and it was still really, really good. I took it to a 4th of July party and Carlos, who is a big fan of tuna fruit, pronounced it a winner. Nieve de tuna with mezcal Makes about 1 1/2 quarts Note: When I was researching the proper texture for a sorbet, I couldn't really find a good answer. I wasn't sure whether to add water. In the end, Fany said that the more water you add, the more crystallized and icy the texture becomes. I wanted something smooth, so I left the water out. Also, I never realized how important salt could be in a dessert. It really pulled everything together, so don't leave it out. Ingredients 21 pieces of cactus fruit (almost 2 kilos or 4 lbs. worth), spines removed Simple syrup, to taste Juice of one large lime 3 teaspoons mezcal salt 1 egg white Directions Peel tuna fruit by cutting off the ends and making an incision length-wise. Open one side like a book and peel off; the thick skin should pull away easily. Cut into quarters and blend until smooth. (I did this in two batches.) Strain out seeds. At this point you should have a pretty pistachio liquid. Add a little simple syrup and lime juice and blend. Add mezcal and adjust the sweetness or acidity if necessary. Then add the salt -- I went with two or three grinds of the salt-shaker -- and taste. Add more simple syrup if needed. Lastly, add the raw egg white and blend until mixture is smooth and thickened. Pour into ice cream maker and blend according to manufacturer's instructions. OR, if you've only got a frozen ice cream bowl and nothing else, pour into the already frozen bowl, freeze and stir every few hours.
Juanita is a Mexican woman in her 90's who lives in the Colonia Cuauhtémoc. She still cooks every day, and her food is superb. Last year I was lucky enough to make chiles rellenos with her in her kitchen. With my friend Lizzie, who was living with Juanita, we charred and seeded the chiles, made the fluffy egg batter and nestled strips of cheese inside the chiles' green flesh. Juanita had advised us to do it delicately, "as if it were a child you were swaddling." A few weeks ago, Lizzie was leaving town, so she invited me over again for lunch. Juanita made chicken-salad sandwiches and we had tomatoey noodle soup and beer. Dessert was rice pudding -- something Juanita often makes under the name "dulce de arroz." The dish tasted like something she would've slaved over. How could something so simple taste so complex? However, when Lizzie finally passed me the recipe (which she got by watching Juanita one day), it was easy. The recipe called for one can of condensed milk, a liter of milk, cinnamon and lime zest. That's it. I did not have a great history with rice pudding. The one time I tried to make it last year, I screwed it up. But Juanita's recipe seemed easy enough. Anything with condensed milk can't ever taste bad. So I made the dish for Alice's baby shower. To my surprise, it turned out just like I'd had it at Juanita's house: creamy, sweet, with just the right amount of cinnamon. I licked the spoon and really wanted to lick my dessert glass, too, but decided against it. Juanita's Rice Pudding Serves at least 8 as a dessert Note: The cooking time really varies on this dish, depending on how thick or thin you like your rice pudding. I made two batches and one came out a little thinner, but both still tasted great. If you've never made rice pudding before, I'd suggest cooking the mixture until it has noticeably thickened, about 15 minutes or so on a high simmer. (High simmer means the mixture should be bubbling, shouldn't it be so hot that it's boiling over.) The rice pudding thickens considerably once it's cooled. I fretted over the batch that turned out a little thin, but an overnight sit in the fridge helped firm it up. You can add a sprinkle of cinnamon while it cools, or wait to add the cinnamon at serving time. Ingredients 1 cup white rice 3 cinnamon sticks, 3"-4" long Zest of 1 lime (around 1/2 teaspoon) 1 liter whole milk 1 can condensed milk Ground cinnamon Cook 1 cup white rice (washed) and 2 cups water with 3 cinnamon sticks and the lime zest. Cook 15 to 20 minutes, until the liquid has evaporated and the rice is cooked. Add 1 liter whole milk and boil for a few minutes. Add the condensed milk. Cook on a high simmer for 10 minutes or so* (see headnote; cooking times can vary), stirring often so it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan. When done, the rice should be soft, and the mixture will have thickened. Top with a sprinkle of ground cinnamon and cool.
Pan de elote literally means “corn bread,” and it’s one of those iconic Mexican desserts I can’t get enough of. This is not like American cornbread at all. When it's done right, it's like the freshest homemade creamed corn crossed with a flan or bread pudding. It's not so much a bread as a dense, buttery cake-pudding. That you just want to bury your face in. (As an aside, Azul y Oro was the first place that showed me how amazing pan de elote could be. If you go there, please order the pan de elote.) I’ve been craving both sugar and corn lately, so last week, I picked up a few bags of fresh corn at the tianguis and decided to make pan de elote for the first time. This being an iconic dish, I assumed there were several ways to make it. So I consulted my Mexican cookbooks to find a recipe I liked. Flipped through Diana Kennedy, Rick Bayless, Zarela Martinez, Josefina Velazquez de Leon and Fany Gerson before settling on Mexico en la Cocina de Marichu, a cookbook of traditional Mexican recipes published in 1969. (I bought it at the La Lagunilla market last year.) In the "Reposteria" section, next to recipes for a Torta de Zanahoria and a Torta de Melón, was a simple recipe for a Torta de Elote. It contained only five ingredients: corn, butter, sugar, eggs and flour. Unassuming yet satisfying. Bingo. The recipe called for grinding the corn up front, which would no doubt add that fresh corn flavor I craved. And it called for beating egg whites and folding them into the batter at the end -- a step that kind of scared me a bit. I'm always afraid of under- or over-beating egg whites. In the end, everything went fine, except for my crazy oven cooked the thing too fast. After two separate trips into the oven, the result was exactly what I'd hoped for: a rich, soft cake that tasted somewhere between creamed corn and the fresh, steamed ears they sell on the streets. Only sweet and slathered with butter. I baked the corn cake in my springform pan because I didn't want to fuss with removing anything from a greased dish, and I wanted to cut it into triangle-shaped wedges like they do in the restaurants. Crayton took half of it to work. Later that afternoon I got a text from his coworker, Carlos. It read: "El pastel está GENIAL!" The recipe's below. For a similar pan de elote recipe with step-by-step photos, check out Mexico in My Kitchen. ...
When I first moved to Mexico, I was amazed by the multitude of sweets available here. I'd eaten a few Mexican desserts in my life, but this was much more than flan, capirotada and tres leches cake. A quick trip through my local market revealed syrupy, honeyed figs; waxy-looking crystallized fruit, and candied lime peels bursting with shredded coconut. Traditional candy stores sold delicate, powdery marzipans made from pumpkin seeds and peanuts, and milky fudge-like bars of jamoncillo de leche (they're pictured above). There were slices of tropical fruit dusted in chile powder, and gummy nuggets of sweet-and-spicy tamarind. At Dulcería de Celaya -- one of my favorite candy stores, because it looks like a time-warp from 1899 -- there were rows and rows of treats I'd never seen or heard of before. One candy, a crunchy puff of meringue, became a favorite based almost solely on its name alone: "suspiro," or sigh. I wanted to know all about these sweets. Where did they come from? Why are they made with certain ingredients and not others? But it was difficult to find sources, either in English or Spanish. This is why I'm so excited about My Sweet Mexico, a new cookbook of authentic Mexican desserts, beverages and breads, written by Fany Gerson. The book features recipes for nearly every sweet I've seen and gawked at in the markets: the lime wedges stuffed with coconut, the bright jamoncillos, gaznates, muéganos, marzipans. Plus there are gorgeous full-page photographs, and short histories of each group of sweets to start off each chapter. Among the chapters are Dulces de Convento (sweets of the convent), Dulces de Antaño (heirloom sweets), Pan Dulce, Maiz, Postres. "These recipes are being lost," says Gerson, whom I was lucky enough to meet in New York recently. "It's part of a very strong oral tradition. Many people don't even have written recipes, they're passed down from grandmother to grandmother. Like many crafts in Mexico, it's threatened. It's not just the recipe -- it's the act of eating an artisan sweet." Gerson, a Mexico City native, studied at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. She's worked in the kitchens of Eleven Madison Park and Rosa Mexicano, among others. Right now she makes paletas, aguas frescas and other Mexican treats for her company (and soon-to-be shop in Manhattan), La Newyorkina. You can also find her paletas at La Esquina and Marlow & Daughters in NYC. Gerson was nice enough to field more questions from me last Sunday, while she sold her homemade aguas frescas at the New Amsterdam Market near South Street Seaport. Here's more from our conversation. Also, I plan to make her pan de muerto recipe in the next few days, so look for it soon! ...
Nicuatole stole my heart when I first tried it at a Mexico City restaurant a few months ago. The waiter had described it as a corn-based dessert, and it arrived as two off-white, triangular wedges sitting in a puddle of vanilla sauce. As soon as I tasted, my mind turned to ooze. The nicuatole (pronounced "nee-kwah-TOLE-ay") was milky. Earthy. Grainy. Sweet. The corn had this sharp, almost granite-like flavor that reminded me of a homemade corn tortilla. And god, for two wedges, this stuff had maximum comfort power. It was the equivalent of eating cubes of bread soaked in warm milk. Or Cream of Wheat on a cold day. Came home that day and googled furiously, trying to learn more about it. (Or, in a perfect world, find a recipe.) I had no luck for about a month, until my friend Jesica casually mentioned that she may have seen a recipe in a cooking magazine she'd bought at the grocery store. Trying not to squawk, "WHAA?" I asked her kindly if I could borrow the magazine. She said yes. It turns out Ricardo Muñoz Zurita himself had written the recipe. He's the chef at Azul y Oro, where I first tried the nicuatole. I ended up following his instructions exactly -- to mix milk, sugar and corn flour until it's "uniform and thick" -- but I failed at my first attempt. I didn't cook it long enough; it came out soupy. Ever determined to conquer, and finally having the time now that I've returned from my five million trips, I tried again yesterday, using some leftover half-and-half I'd picked up at an organic grocery store. I told Crayton to watch the clock while I mixed my milk and sugar and Maseca flour and stirred, and stirred, and stirred. "How many minutes has it been?" That was me, standing at the stove with my wooden spoon. "Nine." Then, later: "How many minutes has it been?" "Fourteen." I cooked the thing for 21 minutes, until it had the texture of a thick pancake batter. It cooled to room temperature, and the result was a dense, sweet pudding that was plain, but pretty bewitching in its simplicity. A tart fruit sauce -- strawberries or raspberries -- might jazz things up even more, which I may try to do next time. Also, even though I used half-and-half, I think it added a little too much density. I'd use whole milk next time. The recipe's below, if you want to try it yourself. It's the simplest, most comforting treat you can whip up for a sweet treat at home. Nicuatole Adapted from Ricardo Muñoz Zurita's recipe in Sabor a Mexico Serves 4 1/2 cup servings Ingredients 500ml whole milk (about two cups) 50g Maseca corn flour (this is widely available in Latino supermarkets, if you don't live in Mexico) 75g organic sugar In a saucepan over low heat, whisk together milk, corn flour and sugar. Continue stirring almost constantly for the next 20 minutes, using a wooden spoon if you've got one. [Note: This time reflects our high altitude; if you're in a normal altitude, I'd guess it might take about 10 minutes.] Occasionally scrape the bottom of the pan or remove it from the heat to ensure that the mixture doesn't stick or burn. It will slowly thicken from a soup-like consistency to a thick, cream-of-wheat-like consistency; and then, finally, to a mixture resembling thick pancake batter. Scoop some onto your spoon and let it fall back into the pan -- if it plops into the pan in thick dollops, it's done. Remove from heat to molds, or small ramekins. Let cool to room temperature and serve.
Even though Crayton doesn't start work until 8 a.m., we rarely eat breakfast together. I'm usually still in bed, up late from watching iTunes episodes of Mad Men. And he gets free breakfast at work anyway. Most mornings I eat by myself. It's actually fine, because sitting alone at the kitchen table, I have an excuse to pamper myself. Toasted pecans on my cereal, maybe. Or oatmeal with agave nectar and diced acitrón. (As I think I've mentioned before, Crayton likes things plain and simple. Raisins in his cereal is as far as he'll go.) Lately, I've been on a cereal-fruit-raisin kick, and feeling kind of blah about it. Then I saw this recipe on Smitten Kitchen a few days ago: warm cinnamon apples, baked in the oven, covered with a crunchy granola topping. You top the whole thing with yogurt for a luxurious breakfast treat. (Sounds like a commercial, doesn't it?) Luckily, I had all the ingredients in my pantry -- I like to be prepared to make granola, even if I never do -- and exactly two apples in my crisper. I bought organic, unsweetened yogurt at Orígenes Orgánicos, a natural foods store and restaurant in Condesa. And I had three teeny gratin dishes I got on sale in Atlanta last month. Aren't they adorable? The result -- warm apples in a seriously cute dish -- was pretty much all the pampering I needed to take me through the rest of the afternoon. (Which ended up being fraught with Wi-Fi and printer problems.) To end the day on an even better note, I went to the bakery and bought a crusty loaf of country bread. Grilled cheeses for dinner. My scaled-down recipe below. ...
While at Central de Abastos last week, I spied squares of this jellied, lemon-yellow substance. "Acitrón," a hand-painted sign read. They were 15 pesos each. (That's little over $1.) I remembered reading something about acitrón in the newspaper awhile back, but I couldn't remember exactly what. So I bought some. Took it home, did a little googling, and found out that it's crystallized biznaga cactus. Not only that, but it's semi-hard to find -- the Mexican government declared the biznaga cactus in danger of extinction in 2003. Since then, according to El Universal, breadmakers all over Mexico have scrambled to find a substitute for acitrón in their Rosca de Reyes recipes, a traditional bread eaten during Three Kings Day. Most now use ate (pronounced AH-tay), another traditional type of jellied fruit. I wasn't up for making bread, or chiles en nogada, which is the other popular way to use acitrón. So a few days ago, I diced it and tossed it in a salad with toasted pecans. It had a mild, vegetal flavor I liked, despite being doused in sugar. Apparently you can also eat it plain, as a dessert with your digestif. This woman chopped it up and stirred it into muffins, with figs and dried cranberries. If you have any other acitrón suggestions, let me know. I'd love to hear them! UPDATE: Check out the comments section for LaZorra's very cool link to a photo of the weird-looking, roly-poly biznaga cactus.
Crayton's co-worker Carlos is a huge Chivas fan, so on Sunday we trekked out to the Estadio Olímpico at UNAM to see Chivas play Pumas, one of their biggest rivals. This was my second Mexican soccer game, and I gotta say, I'm becoming a fan. (As fan-ish as I can be. I tend to get very nervous during close games, and then my stomach starts flip-flopping, and then I can barely watch. So I try to stay low key about the whole thing.) Compared to Estadio Azteca, Estadio Olímpico is on the small side, with two tiered sections of seats. But Pumas fans are notoriously rabid, and so it took us awhile to actually enter the stadium. First, an employee at our ticket gate shooed us away, saying that Chivas fans had to sit "in section 23." When we walked to that section, we were told to go to another. At the third gate, the employee there told us we should go back to the first one we went to, where the girl had shooed us away. We finally found seats -- with the help of a high-up stadium employee with a walkie talkie -- just after the game started. The seats were okay. They lay directly behind Pumas' goal during the first quarter, meaning we didn't have an aerial view of the field. But we were immersed in red-and-white, which was fun. The guy behind me kept whining, "No maaa-mes!" whenever Pumas approached the Chivas goal. And there were several shouts of, "Dale Chicharo!", urging on Chivas player Javier Hernandez. My favorite part was the trash-talking. Pumas fans would launch into their traditional "Goya" cheer, which goes like this: Gooooya! Gooooya! Ca-choo Ca-choo RAH-RAH Ca-choo Ca-choo RAH RAH Goooya! Chivas fans would basically pee on it, singing it back and then tacking on a "Chíngala tu madre!" on the end. You can listen to an audio link of the original Goya cheer here. A few more pictures from the game: After the game we went to El Charco de Las Ranas for tacos. Of course, afterward I also had to try a gaznate from the vendor out front. It's a typical Mexican street-food dessert, comprising a tube of fried dough filled with a creamy meringue mixture. Been eyeing them for weeks, wondering how they were... but I didn't like it. Too sweet and heavy. Oh well.
Last week, a friend and I went to a cute new cafe called Maison Belen. After lunching on some truly fabulous pasta with wild mushrooms, I had a dessert that pretty much blew my mind: A slice of cake, made entirely from compressed Maria cookies. That's it above -- it's called a "tarta de galleta." If you don't know Maria cookies, you should run to your local Mexican grocery store and buy some. They're thin biscuits, lightly sweetened, and they're perfect with coffee or eaten as a snack. When I got stomach-sick a few months ago, the doctor prescribed them on my list of "bland" foods, and they helped keep me sane while I shoveled in boring steamed vegetables and plain chicken breasts. At the time, after eating Maria cookies for a week or so, my mind started to hum with the possibilities. Why not use them as the crust for a creamy banana pudding pie? Or maybe as the crust for a Lesley-inspired Chocolate Delight, one of Crayton's favorite dishes that involves chocolate pudding and cool whip and cream cheese, which I've been wanting to tweak for years? Of course, I haven't done any of this yet (been too busy making my own hamburger buns and butter), but a bite of the tarta de galleta brought all my old desires back. I took a bite and think I moaned. The layered cookies gave the dessert a dense, almost pudding-cake like taste. And it wasn't overwhelmingly sweet. Just thick. It had hips you could grab onto. Gonna attempt to make this over the weekend. And I'm going back to Maison Belen, because it was seriously the sweetest place ever, overflowing with scones, cupcakes on pretty plates, desserts in glass cases, and colorful upholestered chairs. Pictures below. Maison Belen, my new favorite Mexico City spot for a girls' lunch Location: Galileo 31, at the corner of Galileo and Emilio Castelar in Polanco