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Rosca de Pascua: Argentinian Easter Cake with Jordan Almonds

In my Brooklyn neighborhood, I’ve noticed the windows of Italian bakeries steadily filling with Easter cakes and breads during the past few weeks. While the marzipan lambs and braided loaves stuffed with dyed eggs are lovely eye candy, they only reminded me how badly I wanted to make my own Argentinian rosca de pascua this year. The brioche-like bread that is shaped into a ring, covered in pastry cream and topped with candied cherries or almonds is traditionally sold in Argentinian bakeries in the week leading up to Easter. Like the Italian version, hard-boiled eggs are sometimes baked into the bread, but chocolate eggs have become a popular substitute.

I decided to keep this recipe simple by brushing the loaf with a light glaze and then covering it with toasted almonds. Instead of dyed eggs, I added a few Jordan almonds for their shape and color. To ensure an even layer of rich cream throughout, I used pastry cream as the bread’s filling. If the Latin American rosca de reyes marks the end of the winter holiday season and its cousin the Mardi Gras Louisiana king cake signals the beginning of Lent, then the Argentinian rosca de pascua lets you pick up right where the others left off.

Rosca de Pascua (Argentinian Easter Cake)

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31 Days of Cookies: Sleeping Almond Meringue Cookies

This year, we’re celebrating the season with a month of nonstop cookies. For the 24th day of cookies, ’twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, we were channeling a good night sleep with Sleeping Almond Meringue Cookies.

I think what I miss the most about believing in Santa Claus is falling asleep on Christmas Eve and knowing that, in what feels like the blink of any eye, I’ll be under the tree, ripping into boxes and finishing off cookies left out the night before. Now that I’m the one hiding the presents and baking the cookies, the lure of sleeping in while someone else does the work is that much more appealing.

It’s also why I love making these sleeping almond meringues. For years, I’d been trying to make my grandparents’ meringue cookies, which were always crisp on the outside but creamy in the center. The recipe, a straightforward combination of egg whites and sugar, was too simple for them to write down, and I couldn’t seem to replicate it. Most recipes I found gave helpful tips on how to completely dry out the meringues, which is exactly what I didn’t want to do, and the opposite of what I remembered.

Finally, a friend shared her own grandmother’s recipe. The meringues are piped onto baking sheets, then placed in a scorching-hot oven that is immediately turned off. Though they were wonderful with just a little bit of lime juice and vanilla for flavor, I couldn’t resist the added crunch of toasted almonds. Left on their own overnight, they take on a pearly sheen that gives way to a taffy-like center — just as long as you can keep yourself from peeking in the oven until the next day.

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Venezuelan Pan de Jamon: Christmas Ham Bread

Throughout the month of December, Venezuelan bakers produce countless loaves of pan de jamón — sweet dough rolls containing ham, olives, raisins and sometimes bacon that are baked and sliced. Served alongside hallacas (tamales), pernil (roast pork), ensalada de gallina (chicken salad) and ponche de crema (eggnog) on Christmas Eve, the recipe hails from a bakery in Caracas, Venezuela. It is simple to prepare and often shared with loved ones.

When I return to Florida for the holidays, I am greeted by one of my favorite adopted traditions: a pan de jamón prepared by family friends or neighbors in place of the traditional fruitcakes and panettones. While roasted pork and glazed hams dominate holiday tables throughout Latin America, the lighter and varied seasonal dishes like Venezuela’s pan de jamón are all the more special for coming only once a year.

Pan de Jamón Navideño: Christmas Ham Bread Recipe

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Puerto Rican Pasteles: Tamales for the Holidays

Some people are just better at celebrating holidays. In Puerto Rico, the season starts after Thanksgiving and goes through Christmas and Three Kings Day to the Octavas and Octavitas, a religious observance that extends the celebration through mid-January. The Fiestas de la Calle de San Sebastián caps it all off over the course of three days in Old San Juan. Friends will show up at loved ones’ houses singing and playing music, like Christmas caroling but with maracas, güiros and cuatros.

It’s common during these celebrations to make large batches of pasteles. Similar to tamales, pasteles are a combination of grated green unripe bananas called guineos, plantains and either yautia or yuca, blended to make a masa seasoned with achiote oil. The filling — pork, ham or chicken simmered in a sofrito of peppers and onions, then mixed with garbanzos, olives, capers and raisins — is tucked into the prepared dough and wrapped in plantain leaves. Once the pasteles are filled and wrapped, they can be frozen, then steamed or boiled just before serving so they’re ready to welcome anyone who may turn up at your door.

Pasteles Puertorriqueños: Puerto Rican Tamales Recipe

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Buñuelos Colombianos: Colombian Cheese Fritters

While it seems like the holidays begin earlier every year, in Colombia the season has always started on Dec. 7 with la noche del alumbrado, or Day of the Candles. People light candles in their homes and by parks, public landmarks, stores and churches. The celebration continues on Dec. 16 with the first of nightly novenas that will continue until Christmas Eve, when families and friends gather for prayers, petitions, villancicos (carols) and, of course, food.

While the observances vary from family to family, one constant element is the buñuelos: fritters made out of a smooth dough composed of fresh cheese blended with cornstarch, an egg and milk. I was given this recipe by family friend Oscar Marin who recalls buñuelos made with freshly ground corn in his youth. He makes sure to get the oil to just the right temperature so that the buñuelos rise to the top and swell up as they turn in the oil. If they rise too quickly, they won’t cook all the way through — too slowly, they’ll take on too much oil and become heavy. Traditionally served with hot chocolate or natilla made with whole cane sugar for the perfect combination of salty and sweet, buñuelos are a seasonal treat that are longed for year-round.

Buñuelos Colombianos: Colombian Cheese Fritters Recipe

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Garbanzo Stew with Malanga and Calabaza

When most people commit to eat seasonally, they gloss over the bleak days of winter and its dwindling produce. And though we are technically in spring, fresh produce still feels a ways away. If you’re looking for an alternative to frigid carrots and exhausted potatoes, tropical root vegetables like malanga make a great base for comforting soups and stews as you wait out the seemingly never-ending cold.

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Almond-Orange Flan for Passover

There are few desserts as versatile as Spanish flan, which is egg custard gently baked in a water bath until it can just barely hold itself together. A variant of the French crème caramel, most Latin American countries embrace it as their own. Though many flan recipes start the same way – caramelizing a metal mold with sugar until it’s pulled back from the brink of bitterness and ending with a precarious un-molding where it can still go all wrong – in between the possibilities are endless.

Cheese, pumpkin, coconut, coffee, pineapple, and even melon flans all have their adherents, not to mention the savory varieties. This almond-orange flan, made with almond milk and a strong dose of orange juice and zest, is a popular dairy-free option for Passover. As the custard bakes, the sliced almonds form a light bottom crust for added texture. Dense but smooth and brightened by the citrus flavor, it will be a welcome last bite.

Almond-Orange Flan
Serves 6-8

1 1/4 cups of sugar, divided
1 1/2 cups unsweetened plain almond milk 1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 cup sliced raw almonds 4 large egg yolks
2 large whole eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Zest from one large orange

Equipment: 8-inch round metal cake pan (preferably 2-3 inches deep), roasting pan

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Pour 3/4 cups of sugar into round metal flan mold.* Place over medium heat and carefully move the pan frequently, without stirring, until it takes on an amber hue. Off heat, swirl the caramel so that the bottom and sides are lightly covered. The caramel will be very hot. Set aside to cool.

Add the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar, almond milk, orange juice, sliced almonds, egg yolks, eggs, vanilla, salt, and zest to a blender and mix on lowest setting until blended.

Carefully pour the custard into prepared mold and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Place the prepared mold in a larger roasting pan. Pour enough hot water into the pan so that it comes halfway up the sides of the mold. Place the pan in the oven and bake for 60-75 minutes until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean though it may still appear wobbly.

Allow to cool completely inside the water bath then refrigerate covered at least 4 hours or overnight.
To un-mold the flan, run a thin knife along the side of mold. Gently shake to loosen. Invert a large plate over the flan and quickly invert the mold in one motion. The flan will gently drop onto the plate and the caramel will flow out so allow extra space around the flan.

Notes: The caramel could also be done in a small saucepan then poured into the mold.

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.

Up Your Party Game: Pastelitos de Carne

Pastelitos de Carne

By the time the holiday cooking fever has broken, there is very little entertaining ambition left for New Year’s Eve. Whether you’re having people over or looking for something to bring, summoning the energy to head back into the kitchen can be a challenge.  Pastelitos de carne – well-seasoned picadillo cooked in a sofrito of peppers and onions and tucked into flaky pastry – are a staple Cuban-American parties and easy way to see out the year.

Pastelitos

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A Cuban Christmas Must: Turrón de Coco

Last year, I decided to host friends who were staying behind for Nochebuena, the traditional Cuban Christmas Eve dinner. Knowing a few would be missing home, I asked everyone to bring one thing that meant the holidays to them. I might have been more specific, because I ended up with no fewer than 10 boxes of Spanish turrón.

Apart from the roast pork drenched in mojo and white rice and black beans, sliced turrones served on trays at the end of the night are a requirement at every Cuban holiday. Traditionally made with marcona almonds, everyone has their favorites – whether it’s soft and fudgy Jijona, nougat-like Alicante, or egg-rich yema tostada.

Looking for my own hostess gift, I decided try my hand at turrón de coco – creamy shredded coconut cooked down with condensed milk and brightened with orange zest and a few drops of vanilla. A perfect blank slate for experimentation, it sets up quickly and can be boxed up to take.  Of course, you might want to call first, but really, you can never have too many.

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Cuban Sugar Cookies with Guava and Lime (Torticas de Morón)

Gear up for holiday baking with Cooking Channel. Your favorite chefs & Food People have opened their kitchens to share their best cookie recipes. From mini Red Velvet Whoopie Pies to Chuck’s Maple-Pecan Shortbread, we’ll keep you baking all season. Visit our All-Star Cookie Swap, then head over to FoodNetwork.com for great takes on holiday baking from Food Network chefs.

When I was growing up, the closest thing we had in Florida to a white Christmas were the piles of sparkly cotton batting surrounding Santa’s village at the mall. It may have been in the spirit of the season, but cheerful decorations of snowmen, reindeer, and bundled-up elves looked out of place during a balmy December in Miami. Occasionally the odd cold front would move through the area to drive our family’s Noche Buena celebration indoors, but it was rare. Now that I live in New York, I realize that there are worse things then spending the holidays under the stars, and appreciate the sight of palm trees strung with lights, radiating the warmth of chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

Spending time by a warm oven baking cookies during our tropical Christmas didn’t always make sense either, but some holiday traditions are too delicious to pass up. Torticas de Morón, named for the town in central Cuba where they come from, are sold year-round in bakeries throughout South Florida. Spiked with rum, flavored with lime and filled with jewel-toned guava preserves, the torticas were once made with lard, but I substitute butter, which adds its own richness. Possessing all the brightness of a day at the beach, these simple sugar cookies are a perfect way to enjoy the holiday — wherever you might find yourself.

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