Though many people give up their favorite vices for Lent – chocolate, alcohol, Facebook – the season has its consolations, too, mostly in the form of custard-soaked bread fried in olive oil and drenched with wine, honey or spiced syrup.
This dish, known as torrijas in Spain and torrejas in Latin America, is most popular during Semana Santa, the final week of Lent leading up to Easter. The earliest mentions of it go back to the Andalusian convents of the XV century. Similar to French pain perdu, it was a way to use day old bread and stave off the hunger caused by dietary restrictions which were probably a little more vigorous than today.
Growing up in Miami, where they’re served cold year around, torrejas are a dessert I’ve always liked in theory. I theorized that they were delicious before they’d spent hours on a bakery tray soaked in heavy syrup. Deciding they’d be better made fresh at home, I found a finely textured Italian bread with a heavy crust that could absorb the custard without falling apart. Wanting to bring in some spring elements, I added lavender to the honey syrup and garnished it with edible flowers – pansies and geraniums. Quickly fried, the torrejas browned without taking on too much oil so they were still good the next day, soaked in the syrup and a little cold, an old habit I may not give up just yet.
Torrejas with Lavender Honey Syrup
Makes 4-6 servings
For the bread:
1 loaf Italian or French bread (preferably day old), finely textured with a heavy crust, and cut into 3/4-inch thick slices
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 cinnamon stick
2-inch strip of lemon peel
Pinch of salt
1/4 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
For the syrup:
1 cup of water
1/2 cup orange blossom honey
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon dried lavender
Olive oil for frying
Additional cinnamon and sugar for sprinkle
Edible flowers to garnish (optional)
- Place slices of bread in a deep dish or glass baking pan.
- Combine the milk, cinnamon stick, lemon peel, and pinch of salt in a heavy saucepan over medium heat until it just begins to boil. Remove from heat and set aside to cool. In a separate bowl, beat together the egg yolks and sugar until they are pale yellow and form a ribbon. Whisk in a 1/4 cup of the cooled milk. Gradually whisk the rest of the milk. Return the mixture to the saucepan and heat until slightly thickened so that it just coats the back of the spoon but is still loose, 3-4 minutes. Strain and discard cinnamon, lemon peel and lavender. Blend in the vanilla while still warm.
- Pour over the slices of bread and soak for 20-30 minutes, turning the slices over so they absorb as much liquid as possible.
- In a heavy skillet or deep fryer, heat 2 inches of oil over medium-high heat to 365º F. Working in batches, use a slotted spoon or spatula to lift the bread slices out of the custard and carefully add to the hot oil. Working in batches, turn until brown on both sides, about 3-4 minutes on each side. Remove and drain on paper towels or cooling rack.
- To make the syrup, combine all ingredients in a heavy saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook until it reaches the thread stage (225° F). Remove from heat, strain and serve.
- Combine cinnamon and sugar in a small bowl and sprinkle over the bread while still warm. The syrup can be poured over the torrejas and soaked before serving or on the side, warm or at room temperature.
More From Ana Sofia:
Ana Sofia Peláez covers the spectrum of Spanish and Latin American cuisine on her blog hungrysofia.com. From the rich smells and flavors of the Cuban food she grew up with to modern Peruvian causas, hearty Brazilian feijodas and delicate Mexican flor de calabaza soup, she’s always looking for her next great meal.