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…