Monday, May 28, 2012

Berry Jello Pretzel Salad in Pennsylvania

I approached the small vehicle, eager to climb it, as I was in a rush. As it climbed the mountain slowly and diagonally, the panoramic view of the green valley opened up before me, as if a curtain had been opened. My mind floated, as if I had been travelling in a hot-air balloon. I was on the inclined plane in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
My next stop was at a factory founded in 1934 that made one of my most favorite ingredients/desserts! At O'Shea's, the makers of my most recent chocolate easter egg bunny were busy creating confections, which were like brown treasure chests filled with different shades of precious metals.
And last but not least, in the countryside around the town, I enjoyed travelling among tall pine trees, where you can spot deer skipping across the road. Or seeing an occasional dairy farm.
History of the Recipe
Its addictive salty pretzel crust, the firmness of the gelatinous strawberry layer, the ever-luscious cream cheese, and the delicious mixture of flavors... That is what I recall of a strawberry jello pretzel salad I tasted 20 years ago in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a time when sea salt caramel or dark chocolate and sea salt were not in vogue yet. This memory motivated me to finally look up an online recipe and make it.
There is not too much information about the pretzel jello salad recipe, but some cooks state that they have been making it for at least forty years.
As for its main ingredient, gelatin was discovered in the 1680´s and was commercially patented in the 1750´s in England. It is obtained from meat bone tissue by boiling. Jello began to be sold in the U.S. in 1897, and later around the world in 1964.


1 cup pretzels, crushed and ground as finely as possible (approx. 4 oz., or half of a 9 oz. bag)
6 tablespoons butter, melted
1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Preheat oven to 350º. Use flavorful pretzels; the better the quality of your pretzels, the tastier the crumb layer will be. After you have ground your pretzels, add the melted butter and sugar and mix well. Press into an 8 or 9" round springform pan. Place in oven for 10 minutes. Take care to not overcook. Let it cool before preparing the cream layer.

4 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup Cool Whip or whipped cream
Let the cream cheese get soft. Cream it with the sugar until it is well blended. Fold in the cool whip. If you prefer to use whipping cream, beat 1/2 cup of whipping cream with 1 tablespoon sugar, then fold into the mix.
Place the cream mixture on top of the cooled pretzel layer and let set in the refrigerator until it is solid.

1 cup boiling water
3 oz. raspberry jello
10 oz. berries (make the combination you like. I placed 5 oz. of a raspberry-blueberry-blackberry-strawberry mix in the cooling jello, then placed fresh strawberry-heart slices and fresh blueberries on top of the jello).
Mix the raspberry jello powder into the cup of boiling water, then let it cool. Add frozen berries, then let it set in the refrigerator. When it is semi solid, then you can place it on the solid cream layer.


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Colombia´s Pastel Gloria- Guava and Arequipe- a luscious combination

After I took a step into the dark room, the iron door closed behind me. I was shut inside a vault! I would not be able to get out in the next few minutes, at least. I began to hear bird calls, as well as wild animal cries, accompanied by drum beats. Where were these hypnotic sounds coming from? Before I entered into a trance, dozens of small, golden objects flew in front of me. Gold earrings, gold plates, gold decorations that shone floated across the room. The drumbeats replicated the rituals of  the Muiscas and other ancient indians who lived in Colombia, South America, in the 1500´s, before the Spaniards found them.  They became one with nature, as they dressed in golden art that disguised them as condors, eagles, toucans, parrots, crocodiles, vampires, snakes, and more, to obtain the "powers" or special abilities that these animals possess.  

The treasures the Muiscas obtained by bartering with other towns would motivate Europeans to begin several unsuccessful treasure hunts, on a quest to find the famous golden kingdom, or "Reino Dorado".

I was in the gold vault of the exhibits at the Gold Museum (Museo del Oro) in Bogota, Colombia. After leaving this magical "portal" to the Muisca kingdom of the 1500´s, under the pitter patter of soft rain, I was free to find arequipe and guava candies as I explored the clean downtown streets that surrounded the Spanish buildings that were placed when Bogota was one of the viceroy capitals of the Spanish empire. 

Guava and Dulce de Leche- a luscious combination

The creamy, sweet arequipe lay inside the purple-toned, candied guava half like a jewel inside the setting for a large earring. That was the first time I had ever tasted this incredible combination of flavors. Because I don´t have any fresh guavas yet (the guava season takes place around August) to make the candied guava halves, I decided to use my homemade guava paste instead, to make a pastel gloria for the first time. 

1 lb. Puff Pastry
4 oz. arequipe or dulce de leche (Latin American milk candy)
4 oz. guava paste
4 oz. farmer´s cheese or queso fresco or mozzarella
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cut the puff pastry in half. Make a 10-inch round with each half. Place one of the rounds in a 12-inch cake pan. Recipes advise making puff pastry desserts like these on a cookie sheet, but I prefer to do so in a pan that has sides, so that any of the liquid that leaks out won´t fall on the oven floor. So far, I have not been able to make a puff pastry concoction that does not leak! Butter the arequipe/dulce de leche onto the center of the dough circle, taking care to leave a wide margin all around. Add the grated farmer´s cheese on top, followed by the guava paste. Make the second puff pastry circle. Lightly brush the edge of the dough circle with a very small amount of water, then place the second dough circle on top, and press it shut all around with your fingertips. Cut small slits with a knife, all around the "pie", to seal it shut. Bake for an hour in oven.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Mother´s Day Chocolate Coconut Pudding (Tembleque) Flowerpot Cake- Puerto Rico

Gumpaste roses in an oreo crumb-covered chocolate pudding pot

The lagoon in the center is cushioned on green vegetation that surrounds it. Now, the lighthouse on the highest hill in the center lies peacefully overlooking the soft blue bay. Last night, in contrast, the beacon shone its light routinely around the sky.
To the right, the paradisiac islands lie in a line.... Icacos, Lobos, Palominos... perfect snorkeling, scuba diving and beach spots. They resemble coulis decorations on a dinner plate.... interspersed drops running along the horizon.
I was at Fajardo, Puerto Rico, at the beach. I had sherbets and ice cream, and even though I unfortunately didn´t try tembleque while I was there, I know that this coconut custard´s hydrating electrolytes would have come in handy, too.
I travelled only half an hour away to find a contrasting national park. Within it, on the top of a castle-like structure in the middle of the forest, I could see a hill nearby plastered with Sierra Palms that held swaying palm branches in the breeze. They looked like origami cranes; the boughs were poised as if they were ready to fly away from the approaching grey clouds. That and the sound of the elusive coqui are my most vivid memories of El Yunque Park, located in Puerto Rico.

History of Tembleque
It is a custard made by cooking coconut milk with spices and sugar. Its name is derived from the spanish word temblar, which means tremble, as the dessert is supposed to jiggle like jello. A similar dessert in Brazil is manjar branco, except that it doesn´t necessarily include coconut.

Sierra Palms in El Yunque, Puerto Rico

El Yunque
View of Capitol building of San Juan, from the Cristobal Fort
Recipe 1
Gumpaste Roses or washec,very clean silk roses
Flowerpot lined with parchment paper
Oreo cookie crumbs
Graham cracker crumbs (optional)

Recipe 2
You can make a more traditional tembleque in a savarin mold (or similar  mold, like a "flanera") I used a rose mini cake pan from Nordicware, which you can find at the following link:
The recipe for traditional tembleque is in this link:
At only 170 calories per serving, and full of coconut milk minerals (magnesium, potassium, among others) this silky dessert is very satisfying and refreshing.


Saturday, May 5, 2012

Cinco de Mayo Mexican Cheese Candy (Chongos Zamoranos)

The caramel syrup silk enrobes the firm pieces of cheese, as the heavenly combination of vanilla and cinnamon invades your senses. These chongos zamoranos are an ideal dessert to have on the Cinco de Mayo.

History of Cinco de Mayo (May 5, 5 de mayo)
This date is conmemorated because in 1862, in Puebla, Mexicans were able to defeat the French in a battle. They later lost other battles, but proudly remember that triumph. In the U.S. this celebration has become more generalized and is a day for enjoying all Mexican traditions. And of course one of the most important type of traditions involves Mexican food...

History of Chongos Zamoranos
By the whey.... Chongos Zamoranos are from the state of Michoacán in Mexico, one of three central states where milk candy has been produced. Chongos have been made since the 1600´s. In 1934, this candy was made for the first time by María Luisa Verduzco Vaca through an industrial process; nowadays, it can be found in cans in supermarkets.

8-10 cups of milk
1 rennet tablet (Mine was for 50 liters of milk)
Juice of 2 limes
1 1/2 cups brown sugar, up to 2 cups, to taste
4 cinnamon sticks
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

Warning! Chongos take a very long time to make. Place the milk in the largest pot you have. Place it on a stove burner and heat it at a medium heat. When it is warm, but before boiling, dissolve a rennet tablet in 1/4 cup water, and stir it quickly into the pot. Leave it for 30 minutes. When the surface of the milk, resembles one large piece of cheese and the liquid around it resembles plain water, test it for doneness by inserting a knife inside. When the blade comes out clean, the cheese is ready. Cut the surface with a knife into 1 inch squares. Sprinkle 1 cup of brown sugar over the cheese. Insert cinnamon stick pieces in between the cut pieces, and add vanilla. Let it cook at a low heat without boiling (so the curds won´t disintegrate) for 3 hours, until most of the liquid has evaporated, and, more importantly, the pieces of cheese are tough in texture. Pour out the liquid into another pan, add 1/2 cup of brown sugar, and cook until the liquid has thickened and turned into a syrup. Place the milk curds into a dish, and cover with some or all of the syrup. You can then serve it or chill in the refrigerator before serving for a more firm and cool taste.


Thursday, May 3, 2012

Day of the Holy Cross in Panchimalco, plus Marañon Candy

Marañones, or cashew apples basking in sunlight
As you walk up the hills on a cobblestone road, you find colorful dancers on your way. Surrounded by people, they wear painted wooden masks depicting jaguars, colorful birds, and other creatures. The figures bob up and down, and twirl at times to match the hypnotic beats of the music.
Cashew apples hanging from the tree (Marañones)
You arrive closer to the church, which was built in the late 1600´s (finished in the 1730´s). The whitewashed colonial style of the facade welcomes you to the town. Next to it, ladies finish assembling large decorations of palm leaves filled with beautiful real pink, purple and yellow flowers that look like they are made out of crepe paper, and that have been inserted in the leaves as if they were beads pulled through a string to make a necklace. These large leaves will wave through the air as the processions advance to enter the church before mass is given. You are in Panchimalco,  forty minutes away from the capital city of El Salvador, in Central America.

Facts about Cashew Apples, Anacardiums (the "Inverted Hearts, or Upwards Hearts")

Most people have seen or tasted cashew nuts, but never seen or heard of the fruit it´s placed on... Cashew apples, which resemble upside down hearts, were taken from their native Central/South America to India by the Portuguese in the 1560´s. It is through India that they arrived to Asia, and thus were included in their cuisine. Some Asian or West Indies countries have turned them into an alcohol that the Dutch considered tastier than brandy! Cashew apples have also been used in curries, turned into candy like the one described above (in Panama), and its juice is enjoyed in Brazil or turned into a fruit drink in many other Latin American countries.

History of the Holy Cross Day

The Holy Cross Day was originally celebrated on May 3rd and September 14th. Nowadays, the Roman Catholic Church officially celebrates only the September 14th date; however, in Latin America and Spain, the May 3rd celebration continues to be celebrated. In May, the pagan celebrations celebrated spring and fertility. Therefore, when the catholic missionaries arrived in the New World, they transformed this pagan feast into a Catholic celebration of the finding of the Holy Cross, of its rescue from the Persians during Constantine´s reign.
Nowadays, in Latin American countries, a wooden cross is placed in the ground, surrounded by fresh fruit, and decorated with links or other crepe paper decorations. In a few towns such as Panchimalco (see above), larger festivities are held.
Cashew apple nestled on the grass

Recipe for Marañon Candy/Jam
2 pounds of marañones
1 cup of water
4 cups of brown sugar, or one atado de panela (a block of dark molasses sugar)
2 cinnamon sticks

Remove the cashew seed/nuts and set them aside to roast another day. Wash the fruit, peel and shred/cut into pieces. Place it in a large pot, and add water. Boil for 20 minutes. Let it cool, then place it in the blender. Remove it, then place it again the pot, add sugar, and boil for another hour or so until it reaches the thickness of jam.

With this jam, you can make many items! If you have a bucketload of fruit, jam is a classical preserving option that will enable you to make many recipes with that fruit. The first thing I tried was a maranon coffeecake, after adapting a recipe I found in a Goldy Schultz culinary mystery novel (Crunch Time, by Diane Mott Davidson)
Cashew Apple Coffee Cake, baked in Nordicware Mini Flower Cake Pan
(left to right: sunflower, rose, and daisy)
Cashew Apple Coffee Cake
1 cup of natural yogurt
1/2 cup of cashew apple (maranon) homemade preserves
1/2 cup of butter
1/4 teaspoon of salt
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 tablespoon lime zest
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cream the butter with the sugar and add the eggs. Add the rest of the ingredients, and beat well with a mixer. Place the batter into two greased and floured 9 inch cake pans, or use your favorite good quality mold (I stress this because the cake is very moist, and thus it will probably be hard to get it out of a pan that has too many crevices for the batter to stick to.) I used a Nordicware mini flower cake pan, and prefer the rose shape, above all. The petal arrangement in the design is flabbergasting.

Squished cashew apple, a common sight under the tree

Marañon Shortcake (See:
Crunch Time, by Diane Mott Davidson