Tradiciones Navideñas

Legend has it — and it’s a good story so why not perpetuate it? — that the New World’s first buñuelos were made by stretching the dough over the knee of a nun. That the recipe was brought by the Spaniards, who got it from the Arabs, would seem to cast doubt on the notion, but never mind. How buñuelos came to be associated with Christmas and Lent is not clear, either, but as most colonial sweets did issue from convents, the nuns were likely involved in some fashion, knees or not.  

Many current-day recipes, however, do call for rolling pieces of the dough into 3- or 4-inch circles, then pulling them out carefully over the back of a round-bottomed clay cazuela. These recipes, in addition to the expected eggs, milk, yeast, and flour, also incorporate water in which tomatillo husks (precisely 10 in one rendition) have been boiled. Adds a “slight leavening” effect, we’re told. The desired result is an almost paper-thin wafer flavored with aniseed and fried in oil until crisp. If this sounds like a lot of work, there’s an easier alternative: The Original HemisFair Buñelos. 

The Original, in business for more than 40 years since its success as the “best-selling food item at the Fair,” does claim to use “an authentic Mexican recipe.” Of course, they don’t stretch each fritter out by hand, despite the company’s brochure depiction of a coy señorita showing some very un-nun knee, nor are tomatillo husks mentioned anywhere in the ingredients list. But their buñuelos, produced at a rate of around 2,500 pieces per day, do shatter wonderfully regardless. They can be purchased in two sizes, 3 inches and 6 inches, at the downtown location on Auditorium Circle or on San Pedro near Basse Road. At this time of year, it’s first-come, first-served. 

There is an additional component to the buñuelo tradition, however, that is often overlooked in the shower of sugar and cinnamon that greets holiday celebrants: the syrup. In Mexico, the lightly sweet fritters are frequently broken into quarters (this would not be necessary for the 3-inch models), placed in shallow bowls, and bathed in a hot syrup composed of water (to cover), piloncillo cones (6), cinnamon sticks (4), and sliced fresh guavas (6). Sugar overload might be the result if you’re using Original’s fritters, but it is the holiday season, after all.  

Atole is the classic accompaniment to buñuelos, bathed or not, and atole we do know something less-legendary about. Its origins are clearly in the pre-Hispanic, masa-thickened gruel, sometimes seasoned with chiles, that was once reserved for the nobles of Moctezuma’s court. Present-day champurrado is a chocolate-flavored version of the original atole, and it can be made with all water or a combination of water and milk. From Rick Bayless’s Authentic Mexican Cooking, we have adapted the following recipe:  

½ c fresh masa (or use ½ c masa harina mixed with ¼ c hot water)

2 c milk

2 ½ oz. piloncillo, chopped

A 3.3 oz. tablet of Mexican chocolate (Ibarra, Popular, or equal), chopped

A few crushed aniseeds (optional) 

Make a base by putting the masa mixture into a blender with 1 ¾ cups water. Blend until smooth and pour into a medium saucepan or a well-seasoned clay olla.  

Add the remaining ingredients and simmer, whisking constantly, until the piloncillo and chocolate are completely dissolved, about five minutes. If you’d like to make a show and happen to have on hand a molinillo, or chocolate-frothing wand, go ahead and use it, knowing that it’s really meant for conventional hot chocolate.  

Bayless offers several traditional variations on the chocolate champurrado theme, including one that substitutes ground nuts for the chocolate, so feel free to play fast and loose; a combination of nuts and chocolate might be good, for that matter.

Champurrado is a classic companion to your seasonal tamales, but there are two additional drinks that often appear on the Mexican seasonal sideboard: ponche navideño and rompope

Gotta love the term “ponche”; it sounds like punch with an additional wallop. The drink is a hot fruit punch that does have an earthier array of ingredients than most holiday concoctions: Prunes, apricots, guavas, dried hibiscus flowers (jamaica), pears, oranges, piloncillo, white wine … and, as a toque final, rum added at the last minute.

Rompope is another great name, and here we’re back to the nuns again. 

Rompope Santa Clara, bottled by the nuns of the Santa Clara Convent in Puebla, has been around since the early 1600s, having arrived there as a ponche de huevo from Spain. Now found all over Latin America, it’s basically an eggnog that contains ground almonds and cinnamon — and, of course, rum. Here’s a simple recipe: 

6 c milk

1 ½ c sugar

½ cinnamon stick

1 t vanilla extract (optional)

8 egg yolks

1/3 c blanched almonds finely ground or processed into a paste

½ to1 c rum or aguardiente 

Simmer milk, sugar, cinnamon stick, and vanilla, if using, until hot (do not allow to scorch) and sugar is dissolved. Whisk in nut mixture and allow to cool. Remove cinnamon stick. 

Beat egg yolks until thick and lemony in color, and add the cooled milk to the eggs slowly, whisking continually. (Some recipes call for returning the mixture to the stove and slowly heating until it coats a spoon — good advice for anyone concerned about raw eggs.) Cool if reheating, then add rum or aguardiente. Serve chilled.  

Rompope may also be used as a topping for fresh fruit, especially strawberries and mangos — though come to think of it, winter strawberries are usually terrible. Drink up instead. Yes, it’s rich, but it could be worse. One recipe from the 1940s begins thusly: “Take the yolks of 30 eggs … and swizzle them until you’re absolutely exhausted. Then you beat some more, slowly, adding a half a pound of sugar … ” •

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