Bread-making lesson with my grandmother

I love food. It makes me happy. It brings back cherished memories. It makes new memories as well. Food is comfort and nourishment for the soul and the body. It embodies whole cultures: food is identity. I have countless memories of meals at my grandparents with my extended family: parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, even great-aunts and second cousins. Sharing food, conversation, games, arguments (we red-blooded Latins have strong opinions), in a way, shapes who you are.

I am paella. I am asado. Tiramisú. Pasta made from scratch. Flan with dulce de leche. Pollo al horno. Birthday cakes. Locro. Humita. Milanesas. Facturas.

I am homemade bread – the pan casero con chicharrones my Cordobesa grandmother used to make and was such a treat for us.

Pan casero1

A few years ago I asked her for the recipe. She said she didn’t have one and that the only way she could describe it was to actually make it. So I bought all the ingredients: a cube of fresh yeast, a packet of flour and a kilo of grasa de pella (lard) for the chicharrones, the delicious crispy bits of beef that remain after rendering the lard, and went to her house.

My grandmother rendered the fat first, drained it and let the crispy bits cool down. The yeast sponge came next: she activated the yeast by mixing it with warm water and sugar. Then proceeded to make a crown with the flour on the worktop and slowly added the sponge and warm water, mixing the ingredients with circular movements. Once it was all perfectly mixed, she asked me to knead the dough because the effort was too much for her arthritic hands.

“Now we let it rise in a warm place,” she said as she turned on a small portable heater and placed it on the counter-top. A warm temperature is vital for proofing.

During the bread making process, my grandmother told me bits and pieces of her early life in Córdoba. Although a ghost of her native tonada (the rhythm of intonation with lengthened vowels typical of Córdoba) still lingered after decades of living in Buenos Aires, she still had the strong r sound of her homeland, a particular roll with friction.

050

She learned to make bread at the age of 15 and got up at the crack of dawn every day to make it for her family. She also told me about the deal she made with her sisters: she would make bread daily and sew their dresses if they did the housekeeping, which she didn’t like to do. She talked a little about her hometown, Villa Dolores. “If we were walking down the street and a priest was walking in the opposite direction, we had to step down the curb and let him have the pavement for himself,” she reminisced. I was aghast. She said it was the way things were then.

It was time to punch the dough down to deflate it and knead it some more. Then, we added the chicharrones and made the loaves: some were round, some were braids. I always loved to tear the airy, soft pieces of braid and eat them slowly. The loaves went into the oven until they were golden brown. The lovely smell of freshly baked bread pervaded the house. That is how I remember my grandparents’ home: there was always the most delicious food smells coming out of the kitchen.

The first time I visited my brother in Córdoba, we were driving towards the mountains when we saw a food vendor by the side of the road. He was selling freshly baked homemade bread. We were relatively hungry and bought some. The taste was very similar to the bread of our childhood, the bread my grandmother taught me to make.

Let this be a long overdue tribute to my grandmother, Maria Elvira Altamirano de Astri (1918-2012.)

My grandmother and I in the early 70s
My grandmother and I in the early 70s
 

Alfajores de maizena, an Argentinean sweet treat

An alfajor is a sweet treat similar to a sandwich cookie. Depending on the regional recipe, the cookie can be more or less moist, like cake, or harder like a biscuit. The filling ranges from dulce de leche to fruit preserve to meringue and they’re covered in chocolate or icing or dusted with confectioner’s sugar.

My mission was to make alfajores de maizena -Maizena is a traditional brand of corn starch and a household name in Argentina,- and since they happen to be my favourite kind of alfajor, I was more than happy to oblige. I made those alfajores for a dinner party my hubby and I threw in our Dallas home and got our American and British friends hooked on those little treats.

What you need

  • 5 oz (150 g) softened butter
  • 7 oz (200 g) sugar
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 egg
  • 3.5 oz (100 g) flour
  •  10.5 oz (300 g) corn starch
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • 1 tsp Cognac
  • 1 jar dulce de leche
  • Shredded coconut

How you make them

Beat the softened butter with the sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the egg yolks and the egg and beat well.

Sift together the flour, corn starch and baking soda and gradually add to the butter and egg mixture.

Add the lemon zest and liqueur and mix until the dough is smooth.

Sprinkle some flour on a work surface and start rolling out the dough to about ¼ inch thick.

Cut 2 inch rounds of dough and place on a cookie sheet (I did not grease it).

Bake in a preheated 300 ̊F oven for about 12 minutes. Don’t let the cookies turn golden.

Transfer to a cooling rack.

Once they’re cold, sandwich two cookies at a time with a dollop of dulce de leche. Press ever so slightly so that the dulce de leche oozes out and roll each sandwich on shredded coconut.

Recipe notes

  1. This recipe yielded 40 alfajores.
  2. I used a jar and a half of store-bought dulce de leche (actually, I smuggled it into the U.S. Shhhh!)
  3. I used some of my hubby’s 1974 Armagnac. Good quality booze equalled tastier treats.