Six years ago today, I was in Ecuador--specifically, the Napo river basin--having an adventure. It came nearly in the middle of my three weeks in the country, but since November 2 is my brother's birthday and Dia de los Difuntos, the precise date is pretty memorable (unlike, say, my wedding anniversary). The day started with sharing our nature guide's thick, cold fruit drink called colado morado (her grandmother had a pitcher delivered out to her at the lodge), along with delicious little pan de muerto rolls. The day ended with stress and sadness, because some guys with guns decided to rob the lodge where we were staying. There were a few hours spent under a table in the dining lodge, alternating terrifying adrenaline rushes with giddy attempts to play whispered "I Spy" (you can't actually spy much when hiding under a table). Two men were shot, one of them killed. At least one other spent the night in the jungle, hiding from the jerks-with-guns, and any number of staff were tied up in the kitchen while the tourists were in comparative comfort and being coerced at one point to eat our then-cold dinners. We lost only cash; other travelers lost passports along with cash. We got out OK, after a number of hours seeing too many people at their worst and developing a long-standing appreciation for certain members of the British Empire, who are fine under-the-table companions if you ever happen to be in need of some. Once we were all back in Quito, we continued hanging around together for a few days--including a night at what I remember as an Ecuadorian Marie Callendar's, watching a teen pop cover band play while their grandparents recorded the night for posterity.
That particular November 2 has gotten me to observe the day a bit in the passing years. I'm neither Latino nor Catholic; my dead relatives tend to be donated to science, or cremated and scattered, and ritual of any kind makes me preposterously uncomfortable (it's why I got married in the back of a limo). But still, there are a couple of recipes I have that I make annually around this time. They're good separately or together. I hope that neither of them are ever served to you while you're hiding under a dining table, trying not to catch the eye of the guy with the assault rifle.
Normally, this drink is made in a large quantity, but my husband doesn't like it all, which means I'm on my own; this makes 2-3 moderate servings. It's thick, dark purple, and sweet in a fruity way, with a lot of depth from the spices. If you're in a river basin near the equator, serve it cold; if you're in Seattle, and it's gray and drizzly, serve it warm. The only naranjilla pulp I can find in Seattle is from Goya; they usually have it at Saar's, the Rainier Valley Viet Wah, and the Mexican Grocery at Pike Place Market.
1 20 ounce can crushed pineapple, with juice
2 cups water
2 tsp cassia chunks or 1 cinnamon stick, broken into several pieces
2 whole cloves
2 allspice berries
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 wide strips lemon zest
2 wide strips orange zest
2 tbsps corn starch or arrowroot
1/2 cup frozen naranjilla pulp
3 tbsp seedless blackberry jam
Combine the undrained crushed pineapple and water in a medium saucepan. Place the spices in a tea infuser, and add the infuser to the pot along with the strips of citrus zest. Simmer over medium-low for about 25 minutes, then remove the spices and zest from the pot. Scoop about 1/4 cup of the spiced fruit mixture into a small bowl, and stir in the cornstarch to make a slurry. Return the slurry to the pot, stirring well to blend. Add the naranjilla pulp and the jam to the pot, and stir to combine. Simmer for about 10 minutes, until it's warm through and slightly thick. Serve immediately if you like, or chill overnight in the fridge and serve cold the next day.
The buns I bake have the stronger flavors of traditional Mexican pan de muerto, but look more like simple pan dulce. You could certainly mold them into little skulls or babies if you like. I am too lazy.
Pan de Muerto Dulce | makes about 15 sweet little death buns
2 1/4 tsp instant dry yeast
3/4 cup lukewarm water
3/4 cup sugar
3 1/2 cups flour
3/4 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon
3 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 large eggs, at room temperature
very finely grated zest from 1 medium orange
Dissolve the yeast in the water and set aside for a couple minutes while you prep the other ingredients.
Blend the sugar, flour, salt and cinnamon together in the bowl of a stand mixer. In a separate small bowl, beat together the butter, eggs and orange zest.
Pour the bubbly yeast into the dry ingredients, and mix gently with the paddle attachment. Switch to the dough hook and blend in the butter/egg mixture. Beat for a few minutes, until the dough is smooth and pliable. It should be fairly soft and stretchy.
Butter a large bowl, plop the dough into it, cover with a clean towel and let rise for 70-120 minutes, until it’s doubled (I use my proofing drawer, so it’s pretty fast. 90 minutes is a good average time).
Punch it down, and let it rest for a few minutes, otherwise it’s kind of a pain to shape.
Line a giant baking sheet with parchment or a silicone mat.
Pull the dough into 15 equal-sized little balls, perhaps 2.5 tbsp of dough each. Let the little dough balls sit on the counter and think about their sins while you make the topping.
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1 tbsp orange juice
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 egg white
Stir the sugar and flour into the melted butter, until the mixture is smooth and forms a loose lump in the bowl. Stir in the orange juice and vanilla until they’re completely incorporated. Beat in the egg white. What you’ll have is pale yellow, somewhat grainy and buttery, but more of a dough than a batter.
Now, return to your contemplative little dough
balls. Flatten each one firmly—not smashed, but reasonably flat—with the palms
of your hands. Place them on the lined baking sheet with a couple inches
between them on all sides. Once all the
little buns have been flattened and lined up, scoop about 1 tablespoon of topping onto each bun. I The topping is fairly soft, but I still pat it out
to mostly cover the top of the bun. You want maybe 1/4-1/2” thick layer of
sugary topping. Cover the buns with a cloth and set the pan in a warmish spot,
so they do a quick final rise while the oven preheats.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Bake the buns on the center rack for 10-13 minutes; the buns will be light brown around the edges and the topping will be bubbly but not browning.
Let cool briefly and start gobbling. If your family doesn’t eat all 15 at the very moment, let them cool to room temp and pop them into the freezer, where they’ll last at least a month. To reheat, wrap them snugly in foil and pop into the oven at 300 for 15-20 minutes.