July 16, 2014

Winter and Orange Bread

So, winter is a strange time here in Paraguay. This morning it's about 20 degrees Celsius, which equates to about 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Normally, it's supposed to be rather cold this time of year. Since I've been here, it's gotten down into the low 40s (F), which feels pretty damn cold when the buildings aren't insulated and there's no central heating. Those types of things aren't worthwhile investments in a climate that isn't cold enough for long enough. Instead of the leafless, bug-less, frozen wonderland I'm used to, winter now means a time with variable temperatures, alternate heavy rain and breezy, sunshiny days, and a time of the year when trees flower, sugarcane is harvested, and citrus fruits come into season. We have lime, orange, mandarin orange, and pomelo trees in our backyard.

Lime is more of a garnish, but oranges are a main event. The folks I live with have the magical ability to eat several in one sitting. They carefully peel the rind away in a spiral pattern with a knife, then cut a small opening at the top and suck out the juice. Then the orange is opened and the flesh is consumed. As a stubborn American, I still plug away at peeling my orange with my fingers and eating the segments one by one. The oranges here are sweet. They are harvested while the rinds are still green. If you let them turn orange, the birds will get to them first, as they do with the mandarin oranges. Limes are referred to as limón here. The yellow kind we know as lemon is simply another variety of limón. There's also an orange variety, which you want to be careful not to mistake for a mandarin orange, or you're in for a bad time. You also want to be careful not to take down a naranja agria, or bitter/sour orange, which is grown for it's essence, not for consumption. As an American who is still learning to have a relationship with her food from its source, I am often confused by all the different types of citrus fruits hanging around the house. Luckily I'm surrounded by experts.

Orange bread, or torta de naranja, is a very popular sweet treat in my current household. While my boyfriend's mom has her beloved recipe, I, as the lazy baker that I am, came up with something quicker, simpler, and almost as delicious ;)

It's certainly strange to be enjoying a citrusy treat in winter, but then it's not all that winter-like to a Midwesterner, anyway. If you're looking for a warm, sweet, happy treat with a fresh, citrusy kick, this is the recipe for you. If you pass it along, I would appreciate getting credit for it. It's not particularly mind-blowing, but I came up with it myself! And I'm pretty pleased with myself :) Here we go:

Orange Bread (Torta de Naranja)

2 cups sugar
3 eggs
2/3 cup of vegetable oil
juice from two small to medium sized oranges
3 cups self-rising flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
orange zest

Preheat your oven to 180 C (350 F). In a large bowl, beat together the sugar, eggs, and oil. In a separate, smaller bowl, mix together the flour and spices. Slowly add the flour mixture into the larger bowl, alternating with the orange juice. Make sure you finish adding the flour mixture first so you can determine if all of your orange juice is necessary. The consistency of your batter is important: not too thick, but definitely not too runny. At the end, mix in a little orange zest to taste.

Grease a cake pan or a couple of bread tins, whatever strikes your fancy, and pour in the batter. Stick into the oven and bake for 30-45 minutes. Tops should turn golden brown. Knife should come out clean. Bake time will depend on the whims of your individual oven.


Note: I wanted to add ground cloves, too, but was too lazy to grind up my whole cloves. If you try it, please let me know how it comes out! I'm guessing 1/4 teaspoon would be enough.

Is it bread or cake (torta)? Cakebread.

July 11, 2014

Cinnamon: The Great Uniter

Finding a solid recipe is always a joy. Solid, in my book, equals easy, fast, adaptable, and, of course, delicious. Enter cinnamon cake, or torta de canela, as it would be called in Spanish. I found the original recipe at Cocina facilisimo.com, a site that compiles recipes from various blogs. At the time, I was very excited to find a recipe that was in Spanish, used metric measurements (good luck with cups and teaspoons outside the U.S.) and appealed to both my and my Paraguayan family's taste buds. Let's talk about the power of cinnamon.

Cinnamon has a long and storied history, and if we were comparing spices like they were superheros, cinnamon would probably have a Superman-level ranking. Originally prized for its aroma (and magical powers, maybe?), cinnamon has since become a principal spice in both sweet and savory foods around the world. Cinnamon is the inner bark of the cinnamomun trees, and curls up when it dries. While most cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka, other countries like China, India, and Vietnam contribute to its production. As if it's aroma and flavor weren't enough, cinnamon is used in traditional medicine and some research has been done to investigate its supposed healing abilities with regard to diabetes and other illnesses.

What's clear is that cinnamon is liked by a lot of people. As an expat, it's always interesting to see what kinds of flavors reign in your new country. I mentioned peanuts in my last post and how differently they are utilized here vs in the U.S. Some of my favorite herbs, like basil and rosemary, are lacking in the Paraguayan kitchen, while oregano is almost overused. It's also really important to understand the role anise plays in Paraguayan cuisine. The prevalence of anise is quite baffling to those of us who rarely use it, but I have grown quite fond of the spice. In Paraguay, it appears in bread as well as traditional foods like chipa and m'beju. It's also used as a tea (I drink anise tea, like, 2-3 times a day. Too much?) and added to mate for both it's flavor and as an aide to digestion. (Side note, did you know yerba mate is part of the holly family? Well, now you do.)

Anyway, back to the cake. Or bread. It's a cross-cultural crowd-pleaser and that's a win in my book. Also, my dog Pepper likes to watch while I bake it. And I like having her company. I bake when I'm happy-sad, when I've reached that emotional midpoint and I want to shove something sweet into my face and wash it down with a glass of milk. There's something nostalgic about that. The cinnamon cakebread is mild in flavor but makes you warm and happy for a few minutes. And that's what a good cakebread is all about, right?

Pepper watching me bake. In her usual crossed-pawed position.

Here's my take on the recipe (the original is buried somewhere on the Cocina facilisimo website, sorry):

120g vegetable oil
2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
300g white sugar
2 eggs
300g self-rising flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
160ml milk

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. In a large bowl, beat the oil, vanilla, sugar and egg together. In a separate, smaller bowl, mix the flour and cinnamon together. Slowly add the flour mixture to the oil mixture, alternating with the milk, until all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed. Pour into a greased cake pan and stick in the oven for 30 minutes. When the knife comes out clean, it's done. Try to wait for it to cool down, but end up cutting out a big piece while it's still hot and enjoy with a glass of cold milk.

Cinnamon cakebread. Fresh out of the oven and half eaten already.