Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Christmas Sweets from the Convent of Las Comendadoras de Santiago

dulces conventuales
In the twilight, the door slowly rotated until it stopped to the impression of weight and age. Blanca timidly stepped forward and said “hola?”*. Silence greeted her from the other side of the door. She knocked once on the door. Again the wood magnified the sound and seemed to mock her paltry efforts to get attention in such an auspicious place of worship. There was still no response. The light was quickly fading, the lights of Granada were streets away and the sound of the evening shoppers was now a distant memory. In this half-light we found a doorbell located to the left of the doorway. Its shrill note seemed out of place in this place of quiet prayer. Momentarily a frail voice came from the other side of the door “que quieres?” (“what do you want?), this greeting sounded more like an accusation to the shoppers.

The torno at the door of the convent.

A month earlier… in November this year, Amanda Hesser wrote an article on the Thermomix for the New York Times. In this she explained the somewhat “counterintuitive” marketing strategy used by the firm. The product is not sold in shops, it is sold through introduction (somewhat like Tupperware) and the US supplier was less than forthcoming with information. To summarise, she thought the service was bad. Up until yesterday, I would have agreed with her that this was certainly unusual customer service.

In Spain, there is a long tradition of nuns producing sweets. The “dulces conventuales”, whilst not specific to Andalucía, are more important here due to the number of convents and range of sweets that are produced. Two historical facts need to be examined in understanding the development of these sweets.

[i] Firstly, Granada was the last Moorish kingdom to be reconquered by the Catholic Monarchs. In order to celebrate this throughout the Christian world, from the moment of the victory both civil and religious authorities worked to Christianise the city. This was to such an extent that a number of years later, the archbishop of Granada had to put a break on the construction of religious communities. Nevertheless, by the end of the 16th century, there was approximately 1 religious person for every 30 inhabitants, or 622 nuns and 585 monks.

A knight of Santiago... a long way from sweet making.

One of the monasteries that was founded was called “El Monasterio de la Madre Dios” (by the full name; Real Casa de la Madre de Dios, de la Orden de la Caballería de Santiago de España; known as El Convento de las Comandoras de Santiago (The Convent of the Commanders of Santiago)). It was opened by Queen Isabella in 1501. The Order of Santiago itself dates back to 1175, when it was founded by Pedro Fernandez de Fuenteencalada whom, along with 12 other knights of the order, wanted somewhere to protect his wife and children whilst he was fighting the Muslims. Today live 20 nuns in the monastery, 11 of whom come from India.

The second fact that must be considered is the [ii] “desamortización” (disentitlement). This is an economic process that ran in Spain from the end of the 18th century and culminated in the middle of the 20th. It consisted of putting on the market, through means of public auction, the non-productive lands and wealth that were in the hands of the “dead hands” (typically the church and religious orders that had accumulated them through donations and wills). The aim of the desamortización was to grow the national wealth and develop a bourgeoisie middle class of landowners.

[iii] The process of desamortización was used to its fullest by Juan Álvarez Mendizábal, the first minister of Isabel II of Spain. Isabel II proclaimed queen at the age of 3 after the death of her father Fernanado VII. Her accession was disputed by her uncle Carlos María Isidro de Borbón, whom, citing the law (Ley Sálica) that there could be no female heir to the thrown, claimed the thrown for himself. During the war that followed; the First Carlist War (1833-1840), Isabell came to represent the liberal, moderate “nuevo orden”, whilst her uncle, the traditional, religious “antiguo orden”. Mendizábal sold many religious lands in order to finance Isabell’s victory. It is said that the loss of these lands and wealth forced many convents into the production of “dulces convetuales” and sowing in order to earn money.

Most of the recipes are egg based. Convents are often donated a large amount of egg yolks from surrounding wine producers who use the whites during the clarifying process. Additionally, Irene tells me that there is a strong tradition in the south of Spain of gifting eggs to the convents in order that they pray for no rain on wedding days. Blancs and I didn’t do this, but it didn’t rain.

dulces conventuales
The nuns of the cloister of Santiago are famed for their candied and preserved fruits. There are no written recipes. The sweets are made from memory, based upon recipes that have been maintained over centuries. There combine a cultural and gastronomic legacy and it is said that only the patience and devotion of the nuns can bring out the flavour of the sweets.

Nevertheless, here is a recipe for “Glorias”…

1 kg ground almonds
1 ¾ kg sugar
Zest of 3 lemons
1 kg Water

Mix the almond, ¾ kg sugar and lemon. Make a strong syrup by heating the water and sugar. Pour into the almond mixture. Beat until the mixture doesn't stick to the side of the dish. Once cool, make into little balls and cook in the oven until golden.

The nuns of Santiago live by a rule that they can not see people; this explains their unique form of salesmanship. At a more secular level, Ferran Adria swears by the Thermomix and there are approximately 200,000 sold every year in Spain and Italy. Whether it’s the mix of religion, history and economic reform or just something in the water… either way both have immense success in Spain.

¡Feliz Navidad!

Vocab builder:
- escarchada – candied
- confitura – preserved
- rosco – ring-shaped cake
- bollos – bread rolls
- erario – treasury
- subasta – auction
- avituallamiento – provisioning
- lote – plot of land
- puja - bidding


[i] Lola Quesada Nieto “Dulces de los Conventos de Clausura de Granada y su Provincia”
[ii] Wikipedia “Desamortización”
[iii] Ramón Tamales y Antonio Rueda “Introducción a la economía española” (26ª edición)

* We have since found out that the traditional greeting is an Ave Maria. This may explain the reception we met.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Pomegranate S.L.

Sea bass in Pomegranate Sauce (Lubina en Salsa de Granadas)

seabass with pomegranate salsa
Never has so much responsibility been placed in a fruit. Pomegranate S.L. is the name of our new company and Granada (where we've moved to) is the Spanish name for the fruit. So, if this whole move to Spain goes wrong at least we’ll be able to blame some other fruit.

Given all of the above, I thought it was time to cook something with pomegranate. This recipe comes from Blanca’s friend, Sofia Craxton’s “The Mexican Mama’s Kitchen: Authentic Homestyle Recipes”.

pomegranate fruit
Along with cactus pear, dates, figs and jujube, McGee[i] defines pomegranate as a fruit from arid climates. It was brought to Spain in the ninth century by the Moors. They named their kingdom after the fruit. Missionaries from Spain introduced the fruit to the Caribbean and Latin America in the 1700-1800’s. Today it is principally found in the Mediterranean and western Asia (with the best said to come from Iran). McGee rattles off a few adjectives in association with pomegranates that, honestly, leave me a little confused:
- very sweet – tasting of sugar
- fairly tart – sharp to the taste; acid; sour
- astringent – chemical substance that tends to shrink or constrict body tissues (incidentally a taste that is not detected by birds)

[ii]Jewish tradition teaches it as a symbol of righteousness due to the fact that it is said to have 613 seeds corresponding to the 613 commandments (mitzvot) of the Torah. It is often eating on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish new year for people, animals and, appropriately, legal contracts).

[iii]In a plot that makes the average Spanish Telenovela look tame, Persephone, in Greek mythology the queen of the dead, was said to have been damned to a month every year in hell for every pomegranate seed she ate. She was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter (goddess of the earth) who was abducted by Hades (god of the underworld). In her grief, Demeter became distracted and as a result life on earth came to a standstill. In order to save the world, Zeus ordered Hades to return his daughter. Before being returned, Hades tricked Persephone into eating 6 pomegranate seeds, thereby being condemned to return to the underworld for the same amount of months every year. For this reason, the earth flourishes with vegetation for the 6 months of mother and daughter unity every year.

I honestly never thought that I would get a picture of a grenade into a blog...

On a rather more prosaic note, the hand grenade gets its name from the pomegranate. The seeds of the pomegranate burst forth with juice in a similar manner to the grenade’s fragments. The juice of the pomegranate stains permanently, whilst the grenade can have similar long-term effects.

One pomegranate myth that is not true relates to the English. Some sources believe that Australians call the English POMS either due to the fact that they have a habit of turning red in the sun or that they came on boats that were also carrying pomegranates. The name in fact comes from Prisoner of Mother England.

pomegranate and baseball
The arils (seed casing) are surrounded by a rind that is rich in tannins and very bitter. So much so that it was once used in tanning leather. Each fruitlet contains one prominent seed which is used “as is” or cooked into a molasses, or fermented into wine. A ripe pomegranate spurts juice as soon as it is pierced, for this reason Blanca showed me the “beat it with a rolling pin” technique. This highly sophisticated method involves cutting the fruit in half and beating each half with a pin in order to dislodge the seeds. Note: a baseball bat could be used for this purpose.

Ingredients (for 4):
2 seabass
1 ½ large pomegranates
1 tsp sugar
Juice of ½ lemon
1 cup basmati rice
½ cup coconut milk
1 cup water
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

Sofia agrees that pomegranates came to Mexico from Spain. They are in season from September to December. This innovative recipe needs only 20 minutes of preparation to produce a really original taste.

Extract the seeds (reserve some for garnish) and blend with the sugar and lemon until pureed. Place the fillets on their own sheets of aluminium foil. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the sauce over and drizzle with olive oil. Close the parcels, ensuring that the edges are well sealed. Bake in a 180 C oven for about 15 minutes until the fillets are cooked.

Pomegranate seeds lose their colour during cooking, it is important to garnish the cooked fillets prior to serving.

Sofia recommends serving this dish with white rice. In Mexico this is a traditional partner for fish dishes. We cooked the lighter version; melt the butter, add the milk and water and bring to the boil. Add the rice, bring back to the boil, cover and simmer for 10 minutes, leaving to rest before serving.

[i] Harold McGee “McGee on Food & Cooking An encyclopedia of kitchen science, history and culture”
[ii] Wikipedia
[iii] Stephanie Alexander “The cook’s companion”

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Homemade Pasta (not money)

Homemade Pasta

homemade pasta
Within a couple of weeks of moving to Spain, I realised that the civil war is used frequently as a gauge against which time is judged. Comments such as “these windows haven’t been cleaned since the war”, “the electrical wiring in this apartment hasn’t been examined since the war” or “the company that sold you your kitchen went out of business during war” are (depressingly) commonplace. They also go some way to explain why we have been here for 3 months and only now have gotten our apartment working.

The last three days have been spent sorting through boxes of Blanca’s family belongings in storage. In colloquial terms, some of these boxes seemed to have been untouched since the war. Amongst others, the following nuggets of history featured:
- A copy of “El Practicon”, a 1917 cookbook that Ferran Adria cites as being where he learnt to cook.
- Hugh Thomas’s 1961 book on “The Spanish Civil War”. This has now been recommended to me as “optional” reading. Note: yes, I realise that this was written after the war.
- A steel Italian pasta maker still in its original box.

The pasta maker was put into immediate use on our return to Granada this afternoon. This was my first time cooking pasta from scratch. In Spanish, “la pasta” means money. Despite the fact that we have now been in Spain in “business planning mode” for a few months, we are yet to discover the art of making money at home. We’re working on it, but I’m not sure I’ll blog it.

The following instructions come from Marcella Hazan’s “The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking”. Knowing how I love instructions that aren’t exactly correct, Blanca chose to modify these in a few key places along the way. I suffered so that you can have the 100% accurate directions to making pasta in the home...

Ingredients (for 2)
115 g flour
2 eggs (medium)
1 Italian pasta maker (not edible)

The first modification that we would suggest is that the above proportion does not suit conventional soft flour. The ratio could be closer to 4:4 of flour to eggs i.e. 400 g to 4 eggs for approximately 4 people.

Combining the eggs and the flour

Another modification would be to not add all the egg at once, it is best to break the eggs into a glass as this will allow you control the amount that you add to the pasta mixture. Beat them as you would an omelette. Next place the flour in a mound on the worksurface. Hollow a hole in the centre into which you put half of the mixture. Work the flour and eggs together with your fingers and the palms of your hand. You should aim for a smooth mixture that isn’t moist.

Pastry still strikes fear into my heart and it can be quite intimidating at first. Like dogs, it smells fear so don’t be afraid of it. Marcella gives a good tip for when the pasta is ready… wash and dry your hands; press your thumb into the centre of the dough. It should come out clean with no sticky mass on it.

Blanca says that when her class was learning pasta making in Le Cordon Bleu, often they would over flour the dough. It is easier to mix wet into a dough than dry and for this reason the students would wait until the chef’s back was turned, bin their dough and start again. I have this image of students carrying over dry dough into the pubs at night or around in their bags for weeks afterwards.


One of the great techniques of dough making, kneading, focuses on elongating and toughening the gluten strands that have developed within the pasta (combination of the egg and flour protein).

Place the heel of your hand on the top of the dough and push away from you. With your fingertips bring the back of the dough up and over the front. Give the dough a quarter turn. Repeat the process with your other hand. Always ensure that you are rotating in the same direction in order to develop longer gluten strands. Continue the kneading process for about 8 minutes until the dough is very smooth.


We used the pasta machine that we found when digging through the family trove. This is made by Marcato Company of, eh, Italy, who obviously have bought out or scared away all of their competition; it seems to be the only design of pasta maker that you see in books or on the web. This company started “at a craft level” in 1938. Their standard model is the futuristically named “Atlas 150”, I’m not sure about the 149 that went before, but it works very well. I just noticed that the guarantee for our pasta maker expired after 3 years… I guess that covered its first 1/3 of living in a box (I’m a living in a cardboard box). With flavours of its fine Italian heritage, the Atlas 150 has a clamp that locks it to the kitchen table, this is mandatory if your pasta is planning on escaping during the torture.

The instructions are pretty straightforward:
1. Work with a handful of pasta at a time.
2. Set the rollers to their widest width. Flour the dough to ensure that it doesn’t stick. Feed it once through the rollers.
3. OPTIONAL: watch as the handle falls off, pick it up and put it back in the machine.
4. Fold the pasta across its width and repeat the process two or three times.
5. Reduce the separation of the rollers and repeat the process twice for every setting.
6. OPTIONAL: watch as the handle falls off every time you adjust the setting. Bend down and pick it up each time.
Whilst drying, cultured pasta will often admire the view and historical places of interest of the old Jewish quarter of Granada...

7. Leave the pasta to dry on a towel for about 10 minutes, turning occasionally.


This is only going to make sense if you have a cutter on your pasta machine (comes standard with the Atlas 150). We used the narrow cutters for tagliolini (broad for fettuccine). Feed the strips through the pasta cutter. As the ribbons emerge, separate them and spread on a tea towel.

There are over 300 shapes of pasta, for anyone with an interest in learning them all, I found the highly comprehensive (I nearly wrote very interesting) “World Dictionary of Pasta Shapes and Names”.


Notably, above there is no salt included in the pasta mixture. The only salt that you use should be added during the cooking. Boil plenty of water, add salt and return to the full boil. Put all of the pasta in at one go, return to the boil (use the lid to hasten the return) and cook uncovered.

Cook until the pasta is al dente, with bought pasta this is usually signified by the fact that no white remains when you bite into the pasta. For homemade pasta this will not work. The pasta will never be as firm or chewy as bought. When the pasta floats and still offers some resistance, it is ready (2-3 minutes).

Related and next on the cards for pasta making, it’s going to be Japanese Noodle Making…

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Nearly not a casserole blog

Pollo en Pepitoria (Chicken in egg, almond and sherry sauce)

pollo en pepitoria
“This dish combines all of the ingredients most often associated with Spanish cooking – garlic, saffron, sherry, and almonds – into an unusually savoury sauce” Penelope Casas[i]

Last night we went for a very typical Spanish casserole dish. It is a dish that was frequently served at the Spanish court in the 17th century…

That is at least how this blog could have started. As it turns out, I misunderstood where we were going. Instead of going for a CAzuela, we went to see a ZARzuela. This is basically a Spanish musical; alternating scenes of speaking and singing. It rose to fame in the Spanish courts during the 17th century. We went to see “Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente”, written in 1897 by the composer Federico Chueca.

Anyone who has been to the West End of London will know that musicals are not the hardest to grasp. From what I can understand, zarzuelas consist of Spaniards going to the theatre to see how Spaniards live. We arrived a little late when the cast was dancing and singing, the next scene focused on relationship problems, the next on financial problems, the next on tapas, the next on landlord problems, work problems… As with many things in Spain, the Virgin Mary had a somewhat unorthodox role during the production, she seemed to be there to guard the raffle prizes that were located to the left of the stage during the show. As it turns out my parents-in-law won the prize (ham and wine), so thank you Mary.

"La Mancha" means "the stain"... harsh on the citizens, but that's Spanish politics for you...

I don’t want this to be a “nearly not a casserole blog” so I’m going to loosely define a recent recipe as casserole … pollo en pepitoria. This is a recipe typical to Castillia-La Mancha. One of the 17 autonomous communities of Spain, Castillia-La Mancha is the central community of Spain (excluding Madrid). It is the flat land wherein much of Don Quijote (de la Mancha) is based. It is the 3rd largest community, with 79,463 km square and 9th in terms of population, with 1.8 m people.

Ingredients (for 4):
1 chicken
3 medium onions
3 garlic cloves
½ l of stock
½ cup of sherry or dry white wine
1 laurel leaf
100 g finely ground almonds
2 hard-boiled eggs
Saffron, salt and pepper

sliced onion
For the mise en place, finely slice the onions. I used a mandolin that we got in Japan. Crush the garlic with the fine end of a butcher knife.

pollo dorado
Cut the chicken into portion sized pieces, season and roll in flour. In a large casserole heat the oil and sauté the chicken over a high heat until well brown. In order to maintain the heat of the pan, add only a few pieces at a time.

Sieve the oil so that a good tablespoon of oil remains. Reduce the heat and sauté the onion and garlic until translucent. It is best to leave the lid on the pot at this point as it will build up the heat and effectively steam the onion rather than flame cook it. Stir in the stock, sherry, saffron and laurel leaf. In order to get the strongest flavour from the saffron, it is worthwhile to toast it in tinfoil over a flame.

THE LAID BACK ENDING: There is an option in the recipe now. We followed the low-maintenance route which basically left the casserole to simmer for 1 ½ to 2 hours, until the chicken is bland. 15 minutes before the end we added the finely ground almonds and the chopped eggs.

THE FOOD ACADEMIC ENDING: Penelope Casas recommends a slightly more comprehensive method; simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the chicken and bay leaf to a warm dish. Blend the casserole with the ground almonds. Return all the ingredients to the casserole. Cover and cook at 350 F for 20 minutes adding broth as required. Sprinkle the egg only 5 minutes from the end.

A bit about Saffron[ii]:
Image courtesy of Gernot Katzer’s spice page.

Imparting both an intense yellow colour and unusual flavour to food, saffron is a vital part of many Spanish dishes. It was brought to Spain by the Arabs. The name is actually derived from the Arabic for “thread”. Iran and Spain are the major exporters of the spice today.

It is the world’s most expensive spice. There are 3 stigmata per saffron flower. It takes about 80,000 flowers to produce 5 lb of stigma, which in turn dry down to about 1 lb (450 g) of saffron… this relates to a 1,000 metre square field or, because the stigma are so delicate, 12 days for an experienced picker. All of the stigma must be harvested on the same day that the flower begins to open (typically a busy day in late autumn).

Crocin is the name for the intense colorant in saffron. It is a carotenoid pigment made up of a sandwich of one pigment between two sugar molecules. The sugar is the reason that the usually oil-soluble pigment is actually soluble in water and hence particularly useful in cooking. Alcohol is commonly used in conjunction in order to dissolve additional fat-soluble carotenoids.

The flavour is described varyingly as “notable bitterness”, “penetrating”, “hay-like aroma”, “unique flowery”, “medicinal” or… “subtle”.

Vocab builder:
Trocear – divide
Salpimentar – babelfish defines this as “to salpimentar”; “to season” is somewhat closer
Estofar – sauté

Endnotes and acknowledgements:
[i] Penelope Casas “Food and wine of Spain”
[ii] Harold McGee “McGee on Food & Cooking: an encyclopaedia of kitchen science, history and culture”