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Sunday, October 17, 2010

CAPIROTADA
I have had a lifelong love affair with bread. So it should be no surprise that bread pudding is one of my favorite foods. Actually, there is no real need to explain loving bread pudding. It’s got to be the ultimate comfort food; chunks of bread combined with milk and eggs and sugar. It can be leftover plain bread, French bread, coffee cake, croissants; any type of leftover bread will suffice. And then there are the enhancements. I have had bread pudding combined with dried fruit, fresh fruit, chocolate, remarkable sauces - any number of wonderful and sometimes unexpected things. I keep wanting to make a savory bread pudding and have collected recipes over the years, but still haven't tried that. Now that actually would be the ultimate; it would be the meal and dessert all wrapped into a bowl!

But like with so many foods, and I suppose many things we love, in general I think it all comes back to memories. Pleasant associations with particular foods stay with us all. My memory is of my mother making something called capirotada. A Spanish name, it is a bread pudding which in the past was traditionally made at lent, when meat was not consumed and some ingenuity was need for all the meatless dishes. Or it was a “clean up” dish, a way of using up foods in preparation for the Lenten fast. Both stories persist. Like any dish, and particularly regional dishes, the recipe varies from family to family, but the one I remember had very specific ingredients and although there are many bread pudding styles, no other recipes are, to me, capirotada.
Even though bread pudding is traditionally something that is made to use up the leftover bread, the reality is that once you get past the basics of bread and egg custard, what makes it memorable are the other enhancements, the interesting ingredients that make one version stand apart from another.

As a child who was only interested in food - at the eating part and not at the making part - all I remember of the recipe is that it had nuts and bread and some other stuff and then a sauce made from what I thought was candy because it was hard but crumbly, tasted sweet and was in a cone shape. I now know that it is called piloncillo which translates into cone shape and that it is a type of brown sugar pressed into that shape. Since it was hard it needed to be combined with a little water until it dissolved and became a sort of syrup which was poured over other ingredients. Then everything was mixed together and baked and when it came out was a delicious and an unusual treat.

Unfortunately, that particular dessert, like so many of the desserts I remember my mother making in my early childhood, disappeared by the time I was about 10 or 12. At that point all of the other kids in my family had grown up and mostly gone away. I am the youngest and was the only one left at home. It’s not the same to cook and bake for just one kid as it is for a bunch, I know. Not as satisfying I am sure and definitely not as necessary. No doubt other elements entered into it like my mother’s age and energy level. And, I now know that as you get older sometimes those sorts of foods don’t have the same appeal as they did in the past. Whatever the reasons, the end result is that there were none of those beautiful and delicious desserts being baked that I remembered from my childhood.

And then I entered my teenage years. Dieting into extreme thinness was not as common then as it is now and I think culturally my generation of girls were allowed to be a little more well-rounded than teens are now. So in my teens it was more about eating what I wanted to eat, and what my friends ate when we were out. It had nothing to do with the foods my mother was cooking. Teenage-hood took me into a time when all I wanted was store-bought stuff like Oreo cookies and bakery cokes and candy bars and oh deserter, hard shell tacos. Hard shell tacos are an American invention. Mexicans typically eat tacos on soft tortillas. But tacos with a hard shell, also known to some as deep-fried tortillas, was the way fast food restaurants offered their tacos, when they had tacos. Deep-fried, the round tortilla was bent in half to form a firm container to hold fried hamburger, shredded lettuce, some cheese and a little salsa. I thought it was pretty good and most people at the time thought it was authentic Mexican food. Luckily Americans have since evolved, with some help, into an appreciation of more authentic cuisine, be it Mexican or any other.

In any case the stuff I was eating was not home food. In fact no relationship existed to home-style food and that’s what I really wanted at that time. It was a way of distancing myself from family and my background as adolescents will do. So capirotada and other good things my mother made faded into the background. I went away, got married, she got older and with all the implication of those events, over the years capirotada was the last thing any of us thought of.

Now, a few years after my mother’s death, I kick myself for not having been more aware; more aware in so many large ways and small. The small ones being the lack of talking about things like cherished recipes which embraced a childhood. In search of that childhood food, I decided to research and find a capirotada recipe that most resembles the one I remember. Fortunately for me, these days we have the internet, and all manner of lost objects are possible to find. I did find the lost recipe with those ingredients from a memory I cherish. It was interesting to see how many versions of capirotada there are. Sort of like how many versions of bread pudding there are.

Having outgrown that childhood delight with sugary things and the capirotada, my current bread pudding favorite is a more simple one. It has all usual ingredients; good bread, eggs, cream, sugar, vanilla, but also has chunks of chocolate and just a hint of cinnamon. A confession - I do not make it; I purchase it from a nearby Pacific Whey cafe whenever I need a fix. I have asked for the recipe to no avail, but don’t worry about it too much. I know where to go to get it, at least for now.




CAPIROTADA

4 day-old bollilos* (or 1 baguette) sliced crosswise*
1 cup brown sugar or piloncillo, crushed
½ cup of peanuts
½ cup of raisins
1 cup of mild cheddar cheese
2 cinnamon sticks
(* or toast fresh bread in oven before using)

Place the sugar or piloncillo, cinnamon and water in a saucepan. Heat gently stirring constantly until the sugar is dissolved. Bring the mixture to a boil then reduce the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes without stirring. Remove the cinnamon sticks.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8" square baking dish with butter. Layer the bread, nuts, raisins and cheese in the dish, pour on the syrup letting it soak into the bread. Bake the pudding for about 30 minutes until golden brown.

Remove the dish from the oven, let stand at least 5 minutes, cut into squares. Serve the pudding cold with some cream or crème anglais poured on top. garnish with sliced almonds.

*Billilos are Mexican rolls sort of like a crusty French roll but with a little sweetness to them – They are great with butter and your morning coffee.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

ROOTS
The invitation said “please come and join us in our annual celebration of Luzarica”. This is the event which Steve’s relatives refer to as Gospalazoria. Whatever the correct name, what I found out is the rough translation is Rosary or Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary which is typically observed on October 7th or the first Sunday in October.

That was two years ago and it would be our fifth year to attend this event put on by former residents of the Croatian village of Preko. It was to be the last time the event was held, which we didn’t know at the time. Our reason for being there was because of Steve’s family connection.

His grandparents emigrated from the the island of Preko Dalmatia, then part of Austria Hungary, today part of Croatia to the US in the early 20th century along with, seemingly, hundreds of others. Many ended up in Chicago, which is Steve’s birthplace and others ended up in San Pedro, California, the event location. The city is water close and many of the immigrants to San Pedro not surprisingly were from areas in their respective countries that were fishing communities. In that town, in addition to Croatia, the residents include transplants from Portugal, Italy and Mexico. San Pedro also is the location of Los Angeles Harbor and is primarily a blue collar enclave. Any other location in Southern California so close to the water and with such spectacular views would be totally unaffordable to most but perhaps the grittiness of the Harbor atmosphere has kept that from happening here. Every so often the city leaders try to revitalize the community but for the most part not too much changes. New buildings appear and then are somehow engulfed in the prevailing atmosphere. Driving there what is most apparent are the large cranes in the harbor, for all the world like giant tinker toys, which are used for unloading cargo ships from all over the world.

The party was held in a restaurant named Ante’s, owned by a man named Ante Perko and is hosted by Tony Mihatov both of whom are first generation Americans of Croatian descent. Ante's has been located in San Pedro since 1945 and is located, happily, on a street named Ante Perkov Way, not too far from the harbor but surrounded by industrial buildings and lots, for the most part. They bill themselves as presenting authentic Croatian cuisine prepared according to recipes carried by Ante from the sunny Dalmatian coast. The food and space are contributed so what the attendees pay for their luncheons become donations, along with any additional money they choose to give.

So this was the location for the gathering. It’s been an opportunity for the older folks to connect with each other since many of the attendees are of a generation that has fond memories of the old country. They remember that in the old country, the feast includes a procession through the village carrying a statue of Mary, for which everyone gathers.

Although Steve’s mom is typical of most of the attendees in age, she is one generation removed from the old country so the memories she has have handed down from her parents.

There is a food aspect to this of course, it being a luncheon. But it’s all about the family and nostalgia; it’s not about the food, which is the totally undistinguished standard banquet fare with the usual choices of beef, chicken or fish. It’s helpful for me to keep remembering that it’s for a good cause.

If there is a highlight to the food portion of the luncheon, at least for Steve and some others, it is the side dishes of pasta. This usually includes what I have come to know as Croatian dishes although they seem to have some other, Mediterranean influences. One is mostacolli, prepared with a tomato sauce which will sometimes include a touch of meat. It differs from an Italian version in that it feels more like a casserole dish than pasta. Steve’s greatest complaint about the mostacolli dish is that it always seems to be overcooked, made as it is as a casserole instead of what he would prefer, pasta tossed with light sauce. Then again there is the sauerkraut, which I personally have come to love. This is usually made with a prepared sauerkraut mixed with a tomato-ey sauce and sometimes includes sausage which flavors it only slightly. Then there is usually some sort of simple penne pasta with olive oil as a bone to the non-meat eaters, of which there are few, perhaps only one, me.

Normally I would be all for any event that is centered around food, but this is one I might have written off as a culinary disaster except for the grand finale - dessert. Or should I say desserts plural. At the appropriate time platters with a variety of the tantalizing bits are distributed to each table, something we all anticipate with delight. These aren’t your everyday regular desserts and they’re not fancy French style stuff either. This is down home stuff, not available anywhere else except the bakers’ kitchens and what can I say except they’re delightful. Like so many of these types of things for the most part they’re from a small circle of regulars, most of whom have strong accents as they are not that far removed from their roots. And, they do know their desserts. It’s a large selection, perhaps a dozen, and can include apple strudel which is brought in long rolls then sliced there just before serving. There’s a version of cheese strudel which is more like little individual pockets, small round fritters containing pine nuts and raisins and a baguette-sized ground-walnut-filled bread called oregnaca which is cut into slices and which would, in my opinion make an excellent breakfast bread. We all have our favorites it seems, although given how fast they disappear maybe they’re all everyone’s favorite or maybe it’s just that dessert always is. The most favored always seems to be the crustula, which is a light and airy cookie-like crunchy thing lightly dusted with powdered sugar. It’s hard to believe they’ve been fried to get to that lightness and airiness because they don’t taste fried. A tribute to the makers since it’s obvious that most of the desserts were made just that morning.

At some point before we disperse, some of the older folks, usually men will stand up and expound way too long about the old country and the beauty of Preko, the smell of the hills, etc. and our host will let us know how appreciated this event, and our money of course, is in the old country.

We don’t care at this point. We’ve had dessert, and some lucky ones even get to take some in a go-pack. Then it’s all done until next year.


As a sad footnote to this, unfortunately the planners of this event got to a point where they could no longer do it, and so it has been discontinued. I did want to honor the Festival by describing the celebration, and noting the date.


Mostaccioli
Mostaccioli is not something we usually make at our house. Steve has an aversion to it, probably because it’s not like the pasta he has come to love as an adult. That is to say, pasta that is cooked al dente and lightly sauced. That is not this dish. But to me this dish is the essence of a family staple, especially with kids. It is easy and quick to prepare, is filling, inexpensive and has a sort of mushy texture that many kids like, in my mom opinion.
There are a lot of recipes out there for mostaccioli, many of them baked which would also be worthwhile. The type that is served at Luzarica is more basic in that it might take something like a 16 oz size container of marinara or ragu style sauce, add ground meat or sausage and then is tossed with a pound of the cooked pasta. The sauce can be homemade or bought and more or less cheese can be added to the mix, as desired, then it can be put into the oven and heated or kept warm. That’s pretty much it.

Steve found a recipe for Crustula on line and here it is. I haven't tried it and maybe never will as I tend to stay away from making desserts. But who knows? Never say never, right?

For those who might be interested, here is the recipe.


CRUSTULA
• 3 eggs beaten
• 3 tablespoons sugar
• 1 tablespoon oil
• a pinch of salt
• 2 tablespoons whiskey
• approximately 2 cups of flour
• ---
• what you do for crustula:
• combine eggs, sugar, oil, salt, and whiskey.
• mix in enough flour to make a mixture thick enough to roll out like thin pie crust.
• slice into strips about 1/2 inch wide by 6 inches long.
• fry in skillet in medium hot oil until puffy and golden brown.
• turn over once and brown the other side.
• drain throughly in a colander, or your preferred method.
• sprinkle generously with powdered sugar.
• ---
• please note: the cookies will brown quickly, so watch them closely.
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