Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Welcome to American Confections hosted by Nicki Sandberg

At last I was able to put my passion for cooking to good use this week, teaching a group of women who run a bakery some new recipes. I’d been waiting for months to get their training off the ground; and our last planned date was cancelled due to the oven suddenly not working. I had decided on three simple but savory recipes to share: Zucchini Bread, Peanut Butter Cookies and Devil’s Food Cake. All could be made with ingredients we could buy in town and didn’t require any special techniques.

I’m positive I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating, that although Hondurans consume a great deal of baked goods with their omnipresent cups of coffee, its alarming how poor the quality and flavor of most baked goods are. Not to say that some people don’t make delicious things, because they certainly do, but on average, people are strangely content to eat mostly crumbly, corn-based treats that you have to soften in your coffee before you have any chance of consuming. The bakery in question did and does have some good items, banana bread, donuts, muffins and a few others, but I wanted to help them take things to the next level and beat out the competition in town.

As we get started in the morning setting up the ingredients and tools, I start to realize that baking here is a completely different art and science. For starters, all the bakery’s current recipes use weight measures not cup/spoon measures that I’m accustomed to, so they have tons of scales in the shop, but when I start the hunt for measuring cups, which they luckily have, I find them tucked into a corner, full of bugs and spiderwebs. I’m not sure why they even have them to be honest. I actually imagine that for many recipes things are just eyeballed, or as my grandmas always says, just add more “until it looks good”.

I then start the search for something I can mix things in, you know, like a large mixing bowl. Not one. (Ok, I exaggerate; there was one, the bottom to a stand-up mixer. Soup bowls, cake pans and huge buckets galore, but not a single normal mixing bowl. Then I realize why – they just pour their ingredients together on a wooden table top and mix the dough by hand, a classic technique for bread-like dough, but useless when it comes to cake mix. I had to send someone to their house to bring back some small plastic buckets we could use.

Lucky for me they have an industrial oven, which they think is absolutely worthless, but is actually better than most I’ve seen since it has a temperature knob that corresponds to the correct internal temperature – I know because I brought my own thermometer to stick in there to make sure. As many of you might know, baking is an exact science when it comes to amounts and oven temperature, a detail I think they overlook because either it doesn’t matter for their recipes or because they have a sort of intuition about what the oven ought to be set at rather than measuring it specifically.

We start with the zucchini bread which turns out to be squash bread since there was apparently no zucchini to be found in the market. Luckily it’s a versatile recipe. Mix the dry, mix the wet, combine and we have our batter. These women are bakers after all so they caught on quick. We throw it in the oven, but because the pan in too big and not of a great material, and because we apparently didn’t grease it enough, it comes out a little over done and stuck to the bottom. When we scraped it out though, the women really liked it. They were impressed with several things, 1) it didn’t have manteca (veggie shortening) which is ubiquitous in any type of cooking here, although it did have oil so that was a moot point, 2) it had a good flavor because of the cinnamon and nutmeg, which they do not use in any of their current products, and 3) that it was made from squash but you couldn’t taste it so it was healthy(-er)! They were talking about all the possibilities for it – make it for kids for their merienda (mid morning snack) or use it as a birthday cake. Success!

Recipe 2 was the peanut butter cookies. Another pretty simple, wet, dry, mix and go type of recipe. They were stunned by the presence of peanut butter, an item which although available in grocery stores here, still is completely unknown to people. Nolan and I have decided that it’s because the average person doesn’t shop at a real grocery store, only the richer people do, and PB is not something you generally find at your corner pulperia. One woman also said something like, “If you’re not looking for it, you’d never realize what it was,” which I understand. I completely disregard whole aisles of my grocery store because there’s nothing I think I want there. If you have no known use for peanut butter, why would you know that it exists? Think about it. They were also surprised at how nicely I could roll balls of the dough. Mine were all similar sized, perfectly rounded, whereas they would make one gumball size then the next like a golf ball, slightly flatter on one side than the other. But everyone has a different skill set. I liken it to making tortillas but in reverse. They can pat out tortilla after tortilla, corn or flour, which are perfectly round and smooth, whereas no matter how hard I try mine always turn out a little squarish with roughed edges, a little dough sticking to my hands. Back to the cookies….they liked how fast the cookies came out, 7 quick minutes, and each scarfed down a few before taking the rest home for their families. Success!

Last but not least, the devil’s food cake. For a cake recipe, it’s surprisingly simple and doesn’t involve cream or milk or anything strange. The most costly part is the cocoa powder, which was yet another item like the peanut butter that surprised them, but that they quickly fell in love with. The cake came out a little stuck to the pan, but super moist and richly colored. They were probably most amused by the name - I told them it was because it was sinfully good. They thought that was hilarious, but then in very serious faces said they didn’t think when they sold it they should call it that because it might offend people. “We can call it chocolate cake though, right?” they asked me. Of course, I reassured them. At least that means they are thinking about selling it…..success!

After 5 hours of feeling like I was on a cooking show, we finished all 3 recipes, enjoyed some baleadas they whipped up and called it a day. During the morning, I think I learned just as much about their unique baking style as I taught them about our American confections. The next step is getting them to make the things by themselves and market them so stay tuned…

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Copan Ruinas At Last

We’ve been to Copan Ruinas several times now and have yet to write a blog about it so, well, here it is.

Copan Ruinas (henceforth just Copan although that is technically the name of the whole department, not the town) is probably one of the nicest tourist spots in Honduras. The charming cobblestone-laden town is set on a sloping hill that falls into a big rolling river and is filled with quaint accommodations and a variety of dining options. We especially enjoy a 100% German brewery (run by an actual German guy) that serves up homebrewed wheat beer and German sausage, a cafĂ© with toasted bagels and scrumptious veggie cream cheese, and several pizza places, all things we cannot find in our own town despite it being twice as big as Copan. It’s ironic to us that although Copan is the largest inland tourist attraction, the road from San Pedro is still a two lane mountain highway with more fallas (failures/depressions) and derrumbes (landslides) than can be counted, serviced most often by chicken buses rather than a more luxury line of coaches. You’d think they’d put some priority into improving that route and transportation options since it’s one of the most heavily trafficked.

German brewery that rents it's upstairs space to the Mormon Church.....What would Joseph Smith think?

Obviously, the most important reason to visit Copan is for the Maya ruins which are just a 10 minute walk outside of town. The ruins are small in area and height when compared to other notable sites like Tikal, Chichen Itza and Caracol, but they offer some of the best artistic endeavors of the period. Copan was ruled by 16 kings before it was abandoned similar to other Maya sites. It was important for each king to demonstrate his power and status by building things. One highlight is the Hieroglyphic Staircase completed by the 15th King which is a temple of hundreds of intricately carved steps that tell the history of all Copan’s leaders. When discovered, it was a pile of rubble and the archaeologists didn’t really know how to put it back together, so they just guessed, meaning the order is incorrect, but it still looks magnificent. Also, the archaeologists decided it would be good to take a piece of the staircase with them, so part of it is actually missing, on display at Harvard University.

Hieroglyphic Staircase covered by a tarp to protect it from the elements

The most powerful ruler was King 13 called 18 Conejo (18 Rabbit), which actually isn’t his name somehow. He built some of the biggest and best temples and a number of stellae honoring himself in various vestments, warrior, priest, young man, ball player etc. Our tour guide said some of the figures of him have Asian looking features (eyes, beard), evidence that some Asian peoples had contact with the Maya and influenced their art. They have a small but nice ball court which is famously pictured on the one Lempira bill – we got the idea from another volunteer to take our picture at the ruins with the bill.

18 Conejo as a ball player - these stella are huge!

The central area where everyone visits is mostly a ceremonial center where the royal people lived and the rulers and priests performed ceremonies. The middle class lived in a separate area around 1 km away and the thousands of peasants needed to grow crops and build things lived in dispersed settlements all over the valley. The most memorable event came when we were walking over to Las Sepulturas (where the middle class lived) and we ran into a short Honduran Maya man. Turns out he was the assistant to the head archaeologist currently working in Copan and decided to give us some history and cultural lessons on our short walk. He told us the first settlers in the area lived in caves up in the mountains. He explained to us about the Maya class system, making us act out the ruling, middle and lower classes. The rulers picked one wife, the smartest, who would have one child (a male) to be the heir, then proceeded to host a number of concubines (the dumb chicks) to populate the city. He told us about a sacred birthing spot (Los Sapos/The Toads) where the smart wives usually had C-sections, after which they could no longer have children. He told us the Maya didn’t really disappear, more like dispersed themselves, and he was proof because he was Mayan, a modern Mayan. He kept asking us if he was taking up too much of our time, but we of course were thrilled with our free tour guide. He just had so much to share and was so proud to share it, what a guy.

We had the chance to visit a bird park full of exotic species such as the Scarlet Macaw which was extremely sacred in Maya culture. Its feathers were used in headdresses and it was believed they were the link with heaven/the gods because they could fly. We also saw toucans, parrots, owls and a host of others we can barely remember. They even insist that you hold the birds to take pictures, which we all did despite them eating assorted items of our clothing such as buttons and earrings.

Birds kind of freak me out

But Nolan seems to like them

We also took an interesting tour of a coffee finca (farm) where we hiked down a mountain among coffee, banana and cardamom plants and learned about the benefits of shade grown coffee, ideal altitudes and the steps of harvesting, processing and roasting beans. Our tour guide looked like he should be in WWF rather than giving cheesy tours, but he gave a good performance. We had an awesome three course lunch with a special type of encurtido (pickled veggies) that included the flowers of the yuca (not yucca root, but yuca like the palm) which have an artichoke-like flavor. Since then I’ve been seeing people selling them at our local market all the time.

You can't fully appreciate his muscle mass from this angle

Hanging out and sortin' coffee beans

Maya woman grinding corn to make dough (masa) for tortillas

We highly recommend Copan for anyone coming for a visit, although to us it doesn’t feel quite like the real Honduras we know. The fancy restaurants, hotels and attractions seem to suggest to tourists that everything is hunky-dory, when actually it’s not. Still, it’s a pleasant escape for us once in awhile and should be on anyone’s tourist itinerary.

Copan River Valley