… On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love left his shoe by the door and waited for the three wise men to leave a present.
Yes this is what happens on Epiphany night in many countries. In Mexico many people celebrate this night almost as much as Christmas eve, because this night is also loaded with symbolism, it is the night when the three wise men finally arrived to give gifts to the baby Jesus; and as such it is expected that the men will arrive and deliver a present to children… you just need to leave your shoe by the windowsill or by your bed or by the Christmas tree and the morning after there will be something there for you.
Of course this follows the previous night of families gathering to drink hot chocolate and cut the ‘rosca’. This is a bread/cake that is made on this night and it has the shape of a large ring, inside of which there is a token like a bean, a coin or even a plastic baby or person. When you cut the bread, if you get the token, that means that you have to host a party on the 2nd of February that usually features tamales.
These breads used to contain one or two tokens or babies, as the world keeps turning, it seems that these have reproduced and now at least in Mexico City roscas’ you can find as many as ten or more. Personally I prefer the cakes that contain one or two tokens because then, the one who gets it, becomes ‘special’ a king for a day I guess.
This is not an exclusive Mexican tradition, it is an adaptation from other countries like Spain and France where they eat Roscon de Reyes and Galette des Rois, respectively.
Below is a simple recipe for a Mexican Rosca, this is followed by one for Galette des Rois.
This is another excuse for getting together, gather on the last night of this period, drink hot chocolate and have a slice of this bread, if you get the token, then make tamales at your place and invite more people.
For the Bread
500 g strong white flour
100 g caster sugar
10 g salt
100 g softened butter
3 medium sized eggs
2 sachets or 14 g easy blend yeast
200 ml water
zest of 1 lime
zest of 1 lemon
zest of 1 orange
2 plastic babies for the rosca, or substitute with a dried bean
100 g acitron [this is a candied cactus] if you can’t find this, substitute with candied fruits
100 g soft butter
100 g icing sugar
150 g flour
2 Tbsp caster sugar
In the bowl of an electric mixer, add all the powdered ingredients for the bread mix, then add the softened butter and cream, add the eggs, water and the zest of the citrus fruits, mix using the bread hook for three minutes at a slow speed, increase to a medium speed and mix for six minutes or until the dough is very elastic, you need to develop a lot of gluten here, leave to rest for 30 mins or 1 hour is your kitchen is cold.
Take out of the bowl and roll into two balls that you are going to shape into two long saugages that you are going to link into a ring, don’t forget to insert the tokens.
Place on baking trays that are covered with greaseproof paper.
Mix the ingredients for the cover by beating them in a bowl to fully incorporate. Decorate the roscas by alternating the candied fruits and placing strips of the bread cover.
Leave to prove for another hour and place on greased in a medium hot oven 160 C fan, 180 C conventional Gas Mark 4 for 35 minutes. The roscas are ready if they sound hollow when their bottoms are gently tapped.
Galette des Rois
Make about 250 g puff pastry [or rather buy…] and roll it out into two round shapes about 2 cm thick. Place these on a baking tray that is covered with greaseproof paper. Push a bean into the dough. Sandwich them together with frangipane cream before baking. Trace a pattern on the top of the dough with the pint of a knife and brush it with egg. Bake in a very hot oven at 250 C conventional oven, 230 fan oven, Gas Mark 9, until the top is golden brown.
Below is a simple recipe for frangipane:
125 g butter
125 g sugar
200 g ground almonds
½ tsp vanilla essence (optional)
Cream butter and sugar until white and fluffy
Add eggs one at a time add vanilla essence and fold in almonds
With thanks to Ingrid Vargas-Cessa for giving me her version of this recipe for Rosca de Reyes that I have adapted.
Galette des Rois Taken from Larousse Gastronomique
The evocative power of food, its flavours and aromas can be used to take us back to long and forgotten corners of our mind. Periods like Christmas are of course charged with a variety of memories, so each one of us have our personal catalogue of food experiences that relate to certain moments of our lives.
It is no surprise that for some, the aroma or roasted chestnuts on a cold corner is equivalent to Christmas and for others, the flavour of ginger biscuits or of Bacalao is the marker of this time.
For some of us, the smell of tropical fruits slowly poaching in a syrup are instant reminders of this period. In Mexico ponche de Navidad is a delicious and warming drink that takes me back to posada parties.
What is a posada? The word literally translates as inn, and this is a representation of the journey that the Virgin Mary and St Joseph did at the time of the birth of baby Jesus, that culminated in barn and manger.
Like most things, these parties have changed with time, but the format remains the same: a street procession that stops and chants a litany which culminates at the house of the hosts of the posada –or the place where the party is going to take place. The joyous entry to the house by those outside and the subsequent pinata breaking, food sharing and ponche drinking!
It is the combination of fruits and the sweet aroma of a lightly spiced syrup, simmering somewhere that gives this drink a particularly strong power for memory of cold nights in Mexico. The smell of sweet sugar-cane and guavas, tejocotes and cinnamon, always take me right back to my childhood and I can again see and hear things that lie otherwise dormant in my mind: my younger parents, the unique feeling of attempting to break a pinata, the sounds of children laughing. Sometimes it is worth forgetting about food miles for once and make some proper ponche just for the memories.
Here is a simple recipe, if you live away from the tropics, it might be difficult to find some fruits, I give alternatives in the recipe below. Try doing this at this cold time of year, repeat doing this and you will see how with time, this evocative drink will take you back to good memories.
Cultivate your future memories by having good times now!
Recipe for ponche de Navidad
Makes about 3 litres
20 tejocotes –these are quite particular to Mexico, if you can’t find substitute with 10 quartered apricots and 4 green apples in chunks
7 guavas, cut in wedges
3 Tbsp raisins
about half a kilo of sugar-cane chunks –found in caribbean shops
4 Tbsp dried apples
2 sticks of cinnamon
3 litres of water
Begin by making the syrup, dissolve sugar in water –I have deliberately omitted quantities here, add enough so that it tastes nice and sweet to you.
Add the fruits and bring to below boiling point, simmer gently until the fruits soften and poach, the syrup should be slightly thicker at this point.
Before serving add some piquete a dash or rum or brandy to give it extra warming properties.
Serve in cups with a few fruits.
** If you have a memory of ponche that you want to share here, please add a comment. My memory now is of a posada at secondary school aged 13, with my friend Marcelita, on a very cold day and how my father threw himself to get some goodies at the pinata with the kids!
Save our corner shops / NO to Sainsbury’s in Stoke Newington!!!
This is an old rant on corner shops, but surprisingly or rather NOT surprisingly, nothing changes, please say no to Sainsbury’s in Stoke Newington by signing this petition,just click here
Last week, I heard somewhere that if trends carry on as they are, the corner shop will disappear in a few years… I remember now, I heard this on Radio 4. There was a slightly sarcastic comment saying that it will be a ‘shame’ to loose those shops that sell overpriced and dusty tins of rice pudding…
…the corner shop contains features that makes us remember dusty, half empty shelves of expensive items that are near their sell by date, and maybe the owners of these shops will need to review their stock in more ways than one in order to keep their shop and not to sell it to a developer that will transform it to a ‘charming flat with a shop front feature’.
However there are other kinds of corner shops, and these are the ones that I feel we should support. I happen to live in an area that thankfully has not yet been invaded by hypermarkets, supermarkets or their ‘city/express’ equivalent. My nearest supermarket -if it can be called that, is an organic one where we can find fabulous produce and all eco-friendly-organic goodies that cost a lot of money. There are as well a myriad of small shops that sell produce aimed at the local Turkish community, and it is these type of shops that I think we should try to support. In my part of London these are mainly Turkish, but depending on the area where we live, these shops can be Indian, Bangladeshi, Greek or Portuguese.
What I like of these shops is obviously the things they sell, in my case we can find large chunks of fetta cheese, wonderful yoghurt, freshly baked flat breads and the usual basket containing bunches of fresh dill, coriander, parsley, basil, mint and spinach. These goodies sit happily next to neat rows of dried pulses, nuts and rice, Turkish tea and coffee as well as the usual -often dusty, packets of breakfast cereal and digestive biscuits.
The staff at these shops are usually friendly and welcoming, sometimes they give me free chillies, other times they let me pay later, once I was even able to use their fridge! These guys are always there, 365 days open from 9 to 9, many times they are glued to the blasting Turkish version of the Oprah show; other times they are just chatting to their mates and -especially in the summer, this seems an OK existence. However what we don’t see is that in order to keep their shops running, they have to get up at 4 am and buy fruits, veg and herbs. I have been to Spitalfields to buy fruit and veg at that time in the winter and I know that is not exactly fun. Then they have to be there in the shops all year round. For the place to look open, they need to have their doors fully open too and that means living in the cold for half the year.
Then, there is also the problem of prices, at markets like Spitalfields, the price of the produce varies everyday, so our friendly shopkeepers are constantly having to juggle with prices, often making very little money if any at all. As an example, my local shop sells avocados at 70p each, he buys at 50p so his profit is hardly what we can call a profit. The bullets that resemble an avocado in a supermarket -the ones that have obviously not been ‘ripened for flavour’ cost the same amount. I wonder how much to they get these at? it is certainly not 50p, otherwise the profits would not be so healthy for these guys.
There is the question of choice, for some strange reason, we are led to believe that a large supermarket has a large range of items, well think again; next time you go into a supermarket look into the stock and ask yourself the question if there is really a large selection, or are you really being sold what they are telling you what you buy… I don’t want to portray large supermarket chains as evil guys that are planning your life, dictating what you should consume; however, it is extremely annoying to go to these places and then find that the only kind of cocoa powder they sell is their own brand, that you can only find ‘the most popular’ of meat cuts i.e. mince and two others, that their fish counter looks like a fishmonger but they cannot sell you the heads of the fish to make stock. Instead they have oversized rows where they sell oversized ‘family’ bags of all kinds of flavoured crisps… if we are not careful our families will be oversized in a very short time.
We complain and mock that the stock at local shops is nearly out of date and that they don’t often have what we want, and the reason for this is exactly because we don’t buy enough stuff from them. It is very difficult to always have the same selection of produce if half of it goes to waste, when there is really no need for that to be so. If we bought more from these shops, then the stock rotates more often and we will find more choice and fresher stuff as well. Regarding choice, well, my local shop does not sell 27 varieties of tortilla chips but they sell amongst other things medjool dates, white onions, shallots and large white eggs by the piece (10p each), and frankly I prefer this kind of choice, I like my ‘totopos’ (Mexican for tortilla chips) plain thank you.
What I am trying to say here is that I think there is enough room for both kinds of shops to survive, yes it is nice and comfy to take the car and buy a whole year load of dishwasher tablets and toilet paper, yes it is nice to buy two for the price of one items like chicken breasts… although we should ask if this is actually an ethical thing to do… and yes it is nice to be able to get cashback when we pay and to buy very cheap wine. But it is also nice, very nice to be greeted by the local shopkeeper and to feel like a human being there. It is nice to find weird and wonderful seasonal produce, pomegranates in September for instance, but it is nicer to feel that one is contributing directly to keep somebody in business. Next time you think that your local shop is a weird place packed with dusty and expensive items, think again, yes things might cost a little more, but not much more and also think that this extra price keeps these guys in business and this includes the community feel that these shops bring.
Yes, there is the question of lifestyle, of living busy, of our life being made easier by doing all the shopping in one go, but have we actually stopped and thought how little we need to buy in a week? how much waste we create by buying lots of veg in one go and then spending all week eating out or eating take aways? Maybe, just maybe if we divide our shopping and spend 10 minutes at the local shop we will end up buying things that we did not know existed and we are prompted to use our imagination, we might find things that we have not seen in years -white eggs for instance. Just doing a little bit of shopping at these places will help save them. So why don’t we do it?
Last Saturday pm I had the misfortune to go to a large supermarket and just when I was feeling lost in the family size crisp department, amongst many upset people that looked more like lost robots than actual human beings; there was a cute Spanish girl having a fit, she said to her mother: ‘there is nothing I like about this shop and the only thing I like you won’t buy’. Obviously she wanted to get some crisps, but what I thought interesting is that she did not like that place, and it seemed that most of us seemed unhappy there. Then the question is, why do we carry on buying like if there is no tomorrow, when there is an option to buy stuff from our local shop? if we carry on like this, there won’t be a tomorrow for our little shops and we might come to regret that.