Sunday, April 17, 2011

Merienda Alarm Clock

In the hard drive of the brain are buried the myriad experiences of a lifetime, irrepressible memories ready to spring like a jack-in-the box, surprising us with their unpredictability. For example, around 3:30 on any afternoon at school when I'm not buried in work, when there is an unexpected lag in the usual mad teaching schedule, when the door of my classroom is closed and the rest of the world is on the other side, there is an alarm clock that goes off somewhere in my mind. Suddenly my memories turn to the routine (and the glories) of the merienda hour of my childhood.

A chilly, rainy afternoon like today reminds me of how by this time, my mother would have had the table set with hot cinnamon tea or a glass of milk and a plate of hojarascas, semita, campechanas (her favorites) and conchas for her three daughters. Sometimes we were joined by aunts from across the river or señoras who we knew and whose 'merienda alarm' was propelling them punctually across town in the direction of our welcoming table. We never learned to make these breads and cookies because, ¡qué idea!, who could make them better and more regularly than La Superior, the bakery in Laredo that had the best Mexican pastries? Going there to pick them out was just part of the ritual.
One afternoon, at a merienda at the house of my cousin, Hilda, (yes, I know, there's a confusing amount of Hildas and Gildas in this picture) in San Antonio, I tasted her hojarascas and got her recipe. I was reminded of Hilda's hojarascas when I was in Florence, Italy two weeks ago enjoying my favorite breakfast cookie with a cappuccino at Cibreo's. It's called occhio di bue (bull's eye) because it's a crumbly sablé cookie like the hojarasca except it's made with butter, has no cinnamon, and it has a raspberry jam center that looks like a bull's eye.

In the pure delight of the moment of sitting at a table under the spring sun, watching Italian grandmothers intermittently sipping their coffee, cooing to grandchildren in strollers, and bantering with the barista, I remembered Alex, my son, wishing I could share this precious moment with him.

As a child, Alex loved making cookies with me, the two of us up to our elbows and noses in flour.  His job: to do the cookie cutting.  Mine: to keep him from pinching off two much raw cookie dough to "taste test."  Often, he and I made Hildas' hojarascas. This recipe is a very old northern Mexico recipe which is most probably a new world descendent of European sablés. But in the family recipe, I've substituted the lard with shortening, realizing that's not much better health-wise, but the thing about cookies is that hopefully you don't eat them everyday and making them has the very redeemable feature of luring children into the magic of the kitchen.

The concentrated cinnamon/anise tea that you pour into the dough is the touch that makes them unmistakably Mexican. This is a dough with very little sugar since you will add the sugar on the surface of the cookie. Putting a thin layer of raspberry jam between them would make them divine, in my opinion, since the tartness of the jam juxtaposes well with the cinnamon. But as they appear in this recipe, they are beyond special.

Hilda's Hojarascas

Recipe Type: Dessert/Postre


  • Cookie Dough

  • 1/2 cup sugar

  • 2 cups Crisco

  • 5 cups flour approximately

  • A pinch of salt

  • Tea

  • 2 cups water

  • 4 sticks cinnamon

  • 1 tablespoon anise



  1. Combine the water, cinnamon and anise and boil down to 1/3 cup.


  1. Heat oven to 375 degrees.

  2. Beat Crisco to make it creamy.

  3. Add sugar and then tea (cooled).

  4. Add salt and flour (some flour may be left over).

  5. Don't over knead.

  6. Refrigerate for approximately one hour.

  7. Then roll out, cut with a cookie cutter and place on buttered cookie sheet.

  8. Sprinkle with part of the sugar/cinnamon mixture.

  9. Bake for approximately 25 minutes or until they are golden.

  10. When cookies are done, put them on cooling rack and then sprinkle them again with more of the sugar/cinnamon mixture.

For Cookie Dusting

  1. In blender, grind roughly 2 cinnamon sticks with 1/2 cup sugar.

  2. These roughly pulverized bits of cinnamon may also be added to the flour used for the cookie dough.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Planting Seeds and Promise

April memories of Laredo are of citrus trees, the creamy colored azahar (orange blossom) opening to the sun with the promise of glossy ripening oranges in the fall.  How fickle I was back then when I took for granted the proliferation of orange, grapefruit, tangerine and lime trees our father planted around the house. Is it any wonder that today I am so partial to food with a hint of orange or lime zest?  How could I have known then that I would spend the next 35 years in a place where these trees do not thrive?  This has not, however, stopped me from trying to grow them in pots in my sun room.

Three years ago, I was in San Miguel de Allende at the home of a friend, eating oranges and limes from her trees. I stashed some of the seeds in my jacket, intending to dispose of them only to find them in my pocket months later after I'd returned home. On a whim, I planted them.  And low and behold, three years later, I have a tree two-feet high growing safely in a pot indoors. It's still a mystery as to whether it will bear oranges or limes.

Were I still living in Laredo this April, I would not be craving Sopa de Lima, the recipe I am posting here. The weather there this time of year is too warm. Besides, I was not familiar with it as a child. I learned to eat this soup in the Yucatan when I traveled there as an adult. But here in Maryland, as in other northerly places, it is still chilly and a warm soup is welcoming, especially one with the fresh taste of lime.

I would have loved this soup as a child.  But I worry about children today. I'm always amazed when a child prefers a meal out of a jar over a good, warm, healthy meal.  As a teacher at a school for boys, I see this everyday.  A steaming platter of herbed roasted chicken on a bed of rice is brought to our table. And, yes, Dios mío! One or two boys at the table will turn it away, preferring instead to nibble away at peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or processed meats and cheeses.

We are grappling with a tremendous childhood obesity problem in this country for which there are many contributing factors.  I, for one, do everything I can to encourage my students to reject a diet of packaged, processed foods and jumbo-sized, sugary drinks. And while it may fall on deaf ears at the lunchroom table, I reserve hope that they will eventually develop a distaste for junk food.  It's up to us to teach our children well, as the song goes.

What strategies do you use to encourage your children to eat homemade soups or more fruits and vegetables?

Sopa de Lima

Recipe Type: Soup

Author: Gilda Valdez Carbonaro

Prep time: 30 mins

Cook time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour 30 mins


  • 1 ½ qts. chicken broth

  • 3 chicken breasts without skins

  • 3 corn tortillas cut into strips and fried to a golden brown

  • 2 bell peppers

  • 2 onions

  • 5 sprigs cilantro, chopped

  • cup (approximately) corn oil for cooking the bell pepper and onion

  • 2 or 3 limes (preferably Mexican or Key Limes)

  • A slice of Meyer lemon, for garnish (optional)

  • Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Boil the breasts in the broth until they are completely cooked.

  2. Remove them and cut into small, bite-sized pieces.

  3. Finely chop the onion and bell pepper and cook in the oil until they are soft.

  4. Squeeze the juice of a lime into the soup and drop in the other two limes, sliced thinly. Assemble fried tortilla strips, chicken bits, cilantro, and onion/bell pepper mixture in the plate.

  5. Pour the steaming soup over each bowel.

  6. Garnish with avocado slices and a slice or lemon or lime.


This soup has a wonderful zesty punch. To make it more appealing to a child's palate, add small alphabet pasta or their favorite seasonal vegetables, chopped finely and boiled into the soup at the last minute.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Food is Bond

Food binds us to each other on an intimate level.  This is undeniable.  So-called “comfort foods” remind us of our childhoods when we felt safe, perhaps enveloped in a grandparent’s affection.  Sometimes the dishes we prepare remind us of loved ones we’ve lost, their once palpable enthusiasm for a homemade meal now relegated to a bittersweet memory.

When we spend the day kneading dough together or drawing a new family member closer by sharing an old family recipe.  When we puzzle over a recipe and wonder how the art of cooking came so easily to those who came before us.  Well, these are the ways in which we deepen our relationships to one another and uphold our traditions.  Food lies at the heart of it all, as something we need for both physical and spiritual survival.

Case in point.  I’ve spent the entire day making empanadas.  The recipe is simple but the assembly arduous.  Gilda (la Madrina) and I made the first few together while we sipped wine and contemplated the chemistry of pastry.  But this recipe belongs to an auntie I acquired, along with several other lovable and adoring family members (most of whom hail from Argentina), when I married The Saint.  My Tía Raquel and her sister (my mother-in-law) recently treated me to a talk about their childhood memories of Argentina:

Like the gift that keeps on giving, a discussion about food resulted in my Tía Raquel sharing her recipe for empanadas, a “comfort food” staple in many Latin American countries and Spain.  Now, forever a food that will remind me of her and of this moment.  The gesture of remembering together, sharing a recipe, cooking and talking — these are profound ways we strengthen our ties to one another, almost without even noticing we're doing it. Beautiful, isn't it?

Raquel's Beef Empanadas

Recipe Type: Appetizer


  • Filling

  • 1 pound ground beef

  • 1 cup chopped onions

  • 1 cup chopped tomatoes

  • 1 cup chopped green peppers

  • 1 clove finely minced garlic

  • 1½ teaspoons corn starch

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 1 teaspoon sugar

  • 1 teaspoon black pepper

  • A “touch” of red pepper

  • 1 cup of water

  • 2 hard boiled eggs (optional)

  • 1 egg yolk, beaten (optional)

  • Dough

  • 3 cups of flour (I used whole wheat flour here)

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 1 teaspoon baking powder



  1. Brown the beef over medium heat.

  2. Add the onion, green pepper, tomato and garlic.

  3. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally and until the onions are transparent. Stir in the corn starch, salt, sugar, and pepper.

  4. Continue cooking for another 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Here, I also added two chopped, hardboiled eggs, something I really like in empanadas.

Pastry dough

  1. Stir together the unsifted flour (I used whole wheat flour, different from my aunt's recipe.), salt and baking powder.

  2. Combine ¾ cup of olive oil and ½ cup of water and add to flour mixture.

  3. Stir until dough is soft and cleans the side of bowl. (Note: I used a food processor to mix the dough.)

  4. Roll the pastry and use a cookie cutter to cut out circles more or less the size of your palm.

  5. Place about 1 tablespoon of the beef mixture in the center of each circle (more if circles are larger) and fold the dough over, gently pressing the dough at the seam.

  6. Seal the edges (In a pinch, use the tines of a fork, as I did here.).

  7. Place the empanadas on an ungreased cookie sheet and brush each with a beaten egg yolk.

  8. Also, don't forget to poke a few small holes or make small slits in the dough to allow the moisture inside to vent.

  9. Bake at 425 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown.

If and when you embark on the mission of making homemade empanadas — well, let’s just say there’s ample time for bonding.


After my Tía Raquel read this post, she sent me these additional tips:

I should have mentioned you can add almost anything you like to the filling.  In Argentina it is common to add eggs (as you did) as well as olives and raisins.  It’s just a matter of taste.

I always roll the pastry between sheets of waxed paper instead of on a floured surface.  You will find that by not adding additional flour the crust is crispier and flakier.  The olive oil in the dough mixture is not absorbed with additional flour which makes the empanadas “fry” in the oven.

If you like a juicier filling, don’t cut slits to vent; enough vapor escapes from the edges to prevent them from splitting. You do need venting slits if you make a pie instead of individual empanadas.

Our mother used to make a beautiful braided edge to seal. I can flute the edges but I haven’t been able to master the braid. When I was little, I used to eat the crust only. I wasn’t interested in the filling and to this date the crust is my favorite part.