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SOPAIPILLAS AND HONEY

A swarm of bees has invaded one of our canales, the little troughs that drain rain water from the flat roofs of New Mexico. We don’t know the first thing about bees, so that prompted a call to the local bee expert who advised that we call Nicolas, an expert bee keeper who specializes in extracting bee hives. Part of his fee is that he keeps the queen bee for a new pollinator hive. He has many hives that he moves around the orchards and farms of Northern New Mexico. Nicolas grew up in Provence, helping his uncle move hives in the fields of lavender that are so well known in that part of France.

“Nico” assessed our situation and then returned with his bee-keeping gear including his netted hat, heavy boots, and full-length coveralls with thick gloves that extended to his elbows.

 

Nico in full bee-protective gear

Nico in full bee-protective gear

Unfortunately, the bees proved more aggressive than usual, although Nico did not believe they had been Africanized. Still, he did not want to use the queen with her “bad genes”  in his pollinator hives. He did plan to capture the bees without exterminating them. That required a new strategy, and we are still waiting for Nico to come back with additional equipment.

As spring has arrived, the bees have become more active. In fact, they dive bomb us during the afternoon if we walk below their nest. They are more peaceful when they are busy among the flowers.

 

As a gift, Nico brought us a small jar of honey collected from his bees.  He has a business where he sells his honey, Fool’s Gold Honey. That made me think about ways to use honey beside just smearing it on a hot biscuit. What could be a better alternative than a Northern New Mexico sopaipilla? Sopaipillas are deep-fried flaky puffs  very similar to the beignets of New Orleans. They are also related to Navajo (or Pueblo) fry bread and buñuelos that are such important parts of Southwestern cuisine.

As to sopaipillas, there is no doubt that they originated in Northern New Mexico. My first memory of them was in 1948 when I visited my aunt and uncle, then living in Los Alamos. The recipe that follows is theirs.  The popularity of sopaipillas has spread throughout the Southwest, and they now are on the menus of practically every Tex-Mex restaurant, including those in New York City. They are usually served at the end of a meal with honey and maybe butter to pour inside, but they can be dusted with powdered sugar, coated with honey, served with jam, or even stuffed with chili con carne or carne asada as a main dish. Any way you eat them, they are delicious.  My most memorable sopaipillas – actually non-sopaipillas – were served years ago in the Cactus Taqueria in Dumas, Texas. The restaurant is no longer open. While traveling, our family stopped for lunch. We ordered the usual tacos and enchiladas. Sopaipillas were promised as dessert. Next to us, three cowboys were just finishing their meal, so the waitress delivered three big sopaipillas. At first, each of the cowboys poured honey into his dessert from a plastic dispenser sitting on the table. Shortly, one of the cowboys, unsatisfied with the flow of honey from the dispenser, stuck the end in his mouth and sucked away. We paid our bill as quickly as we could, and left with the waitress chasing after us shouting, “You still have your sopaipillas coming!”

Sopaipillas are very simple, and very easy to make, but there are a few tricks. First, the dough needs to be rolled to the right thickness. Too thick or too thin, and they will not puff up. Second, the oil for frying must be the right temperature – close to 400ºF. Otherwise they will not puff and/or become greasy. Finally, they need to be held under the surface of the oil for awhile when you first put them in the hot oil.  Otherwise they will not puff up. If they don’t puff up immediately or completely, they will not.

RECIPE

Sopaipillas

Ingredients

  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons lard or vegetable shortening
  • ¼ cup water

Method

  1. In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Cut in the lard or shortening with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles cornmeal.
  2. Add the water and knead gently until the dough comes together. If it is too sticky, add another teaspoon or so of flour. If it is too dry, add more water, a few drops at a time until the dough holds together and forms a smooth ball.
  3. Turn the dough onto a heavily floured surface. Knead gently by flattening it out, folding it in half, flattening out again, and folding in half again. Repeat the process 10 or so times. Then form into a ball, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest for 15 minutes
  4. Place the rested dough on a floured surface and roll it out into a rectangle about ¼ inch thick. Cut into rectangles, squares, or triangles about 6 inches on a side.
  5. Cover the individual pieces with a cloth while you prepare to fry them.
  6. Heat at least 3 inches of oil in a heavy skillet or deep-frying pot to 400°F. When the ol is hot, gently drop one or two pieces of dough in the oil. With a spatula or pancake turner, hold the pieces under the surface of the oil until they start to puff. When the sopaipillas are brown underneath, turn them over and brown on the other side. Remove from the oil, and drain on several thicknesses of paper towel. If you wish, at this point drench the hot sopaipillas in powdered sugar or a mixture of sugar and cinnamon. Keep the finished sopaipillas in a warm oven (170 – 200°F) while you finish cooking the remaining pieces of dough. Serve with honey and butter while still warm.
  7. This should make 10 to 15 6-inch sopaipillas.

After I had written this post, I realized that I had already written about sopaipillas nearly a year and a half ago (October 9, 2013).  Worse, I had told the same stories about my aunt and uncle and about eating sopaipillas in the Cactus Taqueria. I guess that’s because good stories are worth hanging on to, or more ominously I should chalk it up to old age. I need to ask my kids if I have started to repeat myself. I don’t think I want to know the answer.

I have included some of the images from the earlier post, but as a  request for forgiveness, I have added some images of the wildflowers and garden flowers that have attracted bees from our hive.

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SOPAIPILLAS

Nearly every cuisine I’m aware of has a deep-fried fritter that is puffy and flaky. The Northern New Mexico version is the sopaipilla. I first had them during a visit with my aunt and uncle in Los Alamos when I was ten yers old. I liked the treat so much that I brought the recipe back home with me and tried to make them – probably with not much success. Since then I’ve had countless sopaipillas, some delicious, some not very good, some light and fluffy, some greasy.

The most memorable sopaipillas I never had were at the Cactus Taqueria in Dumas, Texas. On a long road trip, our family had stopped for lunch. After we had placed our order, one of the kids went to the restroom only to report on return that there was a dead cow in the kitchen. When I checked it out for myself, sure enough there was a black and white spotted cow lying in the kitchen with its four legs stuck straight up. That should have been our first clue to leave, but we decided to wait for our food.

While we were eating we noticed three cowboys at a nearby table. The waitress brought them their traditional complimentary basket of sopaipillas for dessert. The men ate the puffs with honey and then stuck the squeeze bottle of honey in their mouths, sucking out the last few drops. We left before we got our dessert.

Sopaipillas make great containers for both sweet and savory foods. Traditionally, they are served with honey (although traditionally it is expected that you put the honey container back on the table instead of your mouth) but they are also delicious when filled with stew or chili.

The real thing should be made with lard, but you can substitute vegetable shortening.

If you are trying to make them for the first time, you may have difficulty in getting them to puff. The two secrets are that you need to make sure the deep-frying oil is hot enough, and you can hasten the process by holding the frying sopiapilla under the surface of the frying oil for a few seconds using a spatula.

The frying oil should be hotter (400° F) than the usual 350° F recommended for deep frying. I have suggested using peanut oil because it has a smoke point above that temperature even though sopaipillas are traditionally fried in hot lard with a smoke point below 400° F. I used my new infra-red thermometer to measure the surface temperature of the oil. That was amazingly similar to the temperature that I got with an instant-read probe. Use whatever thermometer you want as long as it will register the temperature of deep-frying oil.

If the sopaipillas don’t puff up right away in the hot oil, they won’t puff, but you can still eat them, covered with honey, with a fork.

RECIPE

Sopaipillas 

Ingredients

  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons lard
  • ¼ cup water
  • powdered sugar (optional)

Method

  1. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Cut in the lard with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles cornmeal.
  2. Add the water and knead gently until the dough comes together. If it is too sticky, add a little more flour. If it is too dry add a little more water a few drops at a time. The dough should form a a firm, smooth, ball.
  3. Turn the dough onto a floured surface. Flatten it out with the palm of your hand. Then fold it in half. Repeat this process 10 or so times. Then form the dough into a ball, cover it with plastic wrap, and let rest for 15 minutes.
  4. With a rolling pin, roll the dough into a rectangle about 1/8 inch thick. Cut into squares, rectangles, or triangles about 6 inches on a side.
  5. Cover the cut pieces with a cloth to keep them from drying out before you fry them.
  6. Heat at least 3 inches of peanut oil in a heavy skillet or deep-frying pot to 400°F. When the oil is hot, drop one or two pieces of dough into the oil and hold them under the surface of the oil with a spatula for a few seconds until they begin to puff.  Fry the sopaipillas on both sides until they are golden brown.
  7. Remove the fried fritters to drain on several thicknesses of paper toweling. Then transfer to an oven heated to 200°F to keep them warm until you have finished frying the remaining dough pieces.
  8. Serve immediately while still hot. If you wish, you can sprinkle them generously with powdered sugar or a mixture of cinnamon and sugar.  Serve with honey for a dessert or serve them plain if you want to fill them with stew or chili. They are also delicious just plain with butter.

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CORNBREAD II: DEANIE HICKOX’S SWEET CORNBREAD

Several months ago, my daughters and I started on a book project about the history of corn, cornmeal, and corn-based recipes. As part of our effort, we got into a friendly competition to find the best cornbread recipe. As a purist, my contribution was totally sugar-free. Sarah submitted this recipe, which has a lot of sweetening including honey. For my taste, it is too sweet to sop up pot liquor or beans. Still, it is absolutely delicous, so much so that it is difficult to resist eating the whole batch by oneself even though it should serve four to six. There is relatively little cornmeal as most cornbread recipes go, and it is almost like a cake. That is why in this post I have presented it as a dessert paired with macerated strawberries and whipped cream.

The recipe came from one of Sarah’s cooking friends, Deanie Hickox, who at one time worked as a pastry chef at Michael Mina’s in San Francisco.  The original version made enough cornbread for a crowd of restaurant customers, so I adapted it for the home baker. You’ll see that my finished cornbread fell a little in the middle.  That was from my using too much baking soda for this altitude (7,000 feet). If you are a high altitude baker,  see the note below

RECIPE

Ingredients

Dry Mix

  • 1½  cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup cornmeal
  • 1½ teaspoons baking soda *(for high altitudes, reduce to 1 teaspoon)
  • ¾  cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon salt

Wet Mix

  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 4 ounces (one stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1 cups buttermilk
  • ¼ cup cream
  • 1/3 cup canola oil
  • 1½ tablespoons honey

Method

  1. Combine dry ingredients
  2. Mix eggs and butter, and then add other wet ingredients. The order is important to keep the butter from solidifying too much.
  3. Add the wet mix to the dry mix and stir. Don’t worry about getting out all the lumps. Most of them are lttle clumps of butter that will melt during baking.
  4. In a pre-heated oven, bake at 350°F (177°C) in a greased 8 x 8 x 2 inch pan for about 45minutes. Cover with foil if the cornbread takes on too much color.
  5. Cool for 5 minutes. Then cut into serving-sized squares.
  6. For dessert, add macerated strawberries or other fruit, and top with whipped cream.

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THE PARTHENON AND BAKLAVA

The Acropolis in Athens must certainly be on most people’s list of places they want to visit. It has been on my list since grade school, so it was a thrill to go there during our recent cruise. At the time of our visit, Athens was a worrisome place. The city is a teeming metropolis of more than three million people and there were demonstrations outside our hotel on Syntagma  Square (also called  Parliament Square) which caused the management to lower metal screens to protect the windows. The changing of the guard in front of the Parliament building went on schedule , but we had to walk past a cordon of police buses and armed military to get to our hotel.

Visiting the Acropolis was as if none of this was happening.  We got off our tour bus across from the entrance and began the long walk up the paths cut into the steep, rocky base of hill. Even though we were “off-season”, there were thousands of other tourists making the same pilgrimage, some racing up the steep stairs while others like me took it more slowly. Marble steps and paths were polished smooth, and one could only reflect on the thousands of years and millions of footprints that produced the patina. Even at that, there were flowers pushing up through the cracks.

As we climbed higher and higher, we could see some of the great landmarks. First was the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. The ruins of this enormous theater, built in the second century are set against the Athens skyline. At one time this was one of the largest covered theaters in the world. Now it is an open air setting where Athens frequently stages modern musical and theatrical productions.

Beyond was a wonderful view of the Olympieion, an enormous temple to Zeus begun in the sixth century BCE but not completed until the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian more than 600 years later. Only a few columns remain standing, but it is clear how huge it once was.

We reached the steps of the Propylaea. This served as the ancient entrance to the complex on the Acropolis. Apparently the purpose of the structure was to serve as a barrier to individuals who were not qualified to visit the holy sites.

Off to the left we saw the Temple of Athena Nike with its beautiful columns and lovely symmetry.

Then the centerpiece of the Acropolis: the Parthenon. Construction equipment, scaffolds, and cranes were all over the place obscuring views that were not already obscured by tourists. Even at that, the building is an impressive sight and the ruins are beautiful. The building has been much abused over the centuries. The famous statuary of the friezes was taken by the Scottish Lord Elgin and now resides in the British Museum.  The building has been a Christian church, a Muslim mosque, and a Turkish munitions warehouse at which time it was it was destroyed by the Venetians. It is truly amazing that such a lovely ruin has survived so much abuse and neglect.

The Erechtheion sits off to the side with its famous Porch of the Caryatids. The pillars supporting the roof of the porch are marble maidens – both sculptural and engineering marvels in that their thin necks provide support for the heavy marble roof. Unfortunately, Lord Elgin  took one of the maidens for his estate, and one was seriously damaged, but the others have been moved to the Museum of the Acropolis. Still the replicas capture the marvel of the originals.

Too soon our visit to the Acropolis ended and we rushed back to the bus. It is clear that one could spend a lifetime visiting and studying this magic place.

RECIPE

Baklava

When I think of Greece I think of baklava even though it is apparently originally a Turkish creation. That should not be too surprising since the histories and traditions of Greece and Anatolia have been intertwined for thousands of years (Think Trojan War.) In Greece, baklava is a traditional Easter confection, and apparently it is often made with 40 leaves of phyllo to honor the 40 days of Lent.

In this version, I have used only one of the two packages of dough that come in a one-pound box. There are 20 leaves in the package, so if you are able to fold them over on themselves, you will have the 40 requisite layers. I used an 8 x 8 inch pan, so that wouldn’t quite work, but I think you’ll find it close enough for an amateur try at the real thing.

 

Ingredients

  • 2 sticks (½ pound) unsalted butter
  • 3 cups mixed walnuts and unsalted pistachios, toasted in a dry sauté pan and coarsely chopped
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon powdered lemon peel
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/3 cup honey (preferably orange blossom)
  • peel from 1 orange without pith
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons orange liqueur
  • ¼ teaspoon orange flower water
  • ½ pound (one packet from one pound box) frozen phyllo dough, wrapped but thawed for 2 hours

Method

  • Prepare clarified butter by melting in an ovenproof measuring cup in the microwave. Skim off foam and pour off carefully without the solids that settle to the bottom. You should have about 180 mL. Set aside
  • Combine the chopped nuts, sugar, powdered lemon rind, and cinnamon in a small bowl. Set aside.
  • In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, water, orange peel, and lemon juice. Bring to the boil and then reduce heat to the simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the liqueur and orange flower water. Strain and set aside. Reheat when ready to pour over the baked baklava
  • On a clean, dry work surface, open the package of phyllo dough.The leaves will probably measure about 9 x 15 inches.  Spread out, cover with a sheet of plastic film, and a damp kitchen towel to prevent it from drying out while you work. Work as quickly as you can.
  • With a pastry brush, paint the bottom and sides of an 8 x 8 inch baking pan. Then take one leaf of dough and fit in the bottom, folding over as much as you can. Brush on some of the clarified butter. Repeat with 4 additional leaves of dough.Then sprinkle the top with 1/3 of the nut mixture.
  • Repeat the layering process twice more. You should have three layers of dough and nuts.
  • Top with the remaining leaves of dough, buttering each one as you go. That should use up all of the phyllo.
  • Score the finished stack into 1½ to 2 inch diamonds with a sharp knife. It is important to do this before you bake the baklava; otherwise the pastry will shatter when you cut it.
  • Bake in the middle of an oven preheated to 325°F for 30 minutes. Reduce the heat to 300°F and bake for 6o minutes more.
  • Meanwhile, reheat the flavored syrup.
  • When the top of the baklava is a golden brown, remove from the oven and cover with the syrup while it is still warm.
  • Let cool completely for at least 4 hours so that the syrup is completely absorbed.
  • Serve by cutting through each score.

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