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Ecuadorian Bread

09/02/2009

Empanada with cheese, onions, and achiote

I wouldn’t describe myself as a baker. I much prefer the loose guidelines of cooking, having the freedom to look at the ingredients in a recipe and throw in the proportions that suit me–which is odd, considering that, as a rule, I tend toward precision. But there is something about producing a baked good that I love. Maybe it is because it requires exact measurements, but I like to think that it’s because there is something inherently communal about baking. If you make a cake or a batch of cookies, you really need to share it (or at least pretend they are for someone else).

Cooling empanadas

I baked a lot this summer. And these last two days have been intense–first I made Ecuadorian bread and then Hungarian jelly cookies (a family staple for the Jewish holidays coming up). When I was in Ecuador, my host mother was part of a long-time family tradition of bakers. Her mother bakes bread in a wood-burning oven in the “old style” to sell in order to support herself. My host family’s home was also equipped with their own outdoor oven and everyone participated in making bread and humitas (Ecuadorian tamales–they ground the corn into flour themselves!) both for family consumption and for sale. But every time they made it, some of the bread was reserved to take over to the neighbors and other family members. So, naturally, when I undertook my task of paying homage to my Ecuadorian family, I took little packages to my aunts and uncles and cousins.

Bread with cheese and egg mixture on top.

The bread did not turn out quite as I remember it, but it was delicious (and, more to my primary concern, edible). Beyond the obvious lack of wood fuel, there were a number of variables that could have easily lead my bread-baking astray. Firstly, the recipe. It wasn’t so much a recipe as a list of ingredients and general directions. I think part of the “old-style”-ness of the bread they make is that they don’t use measuring utensils, but rather use their hands and taste buds. Which is fine, except that my hand is probably twice the size of my host mom’s. Then there is the yeast factor. They use fresh yeast, which, so far, I haven’t been able to find. It comes in a refrigerated block and has almost a frozen butter texture to it. So I used my usual Fleischman’s Active Dry yeast (have to be loyal to my Cincinnati roots). The other obstacle was geographic–baking is very sensitive to altitude and Los Chillos sits at 2400 meters above sea level compared to Cincinnati’s 256 meters.

L1120545

So unfortunately, the nostalgia was relived only in the act of kneading dough and laughing in the kitchen and not as much in the taste (I’ll put my approximation of the recipe here anyway). DISCLAIMER: if you suffer from high cholesterol or the need to eat only healthy foods, stay away from this recipe!

Bread stuffed with cheese, onion, and bijol

Pan de Lupita (Lupita’s Bread)

4 packets active dry yeast

1 cup warm water

4 1/2 teaspoons sugar

5 pounds all purpose flour, sifted
12 eggs, beaten

1.5 pounds butter, melted

1 cup sugar

1.5 tablespoons salt

Optional filling:

1/2 wheel Queso fresco or other crumbly white cheese

3 Scallions

2 teaspoons Bijol or achiote

Salt to taste (depends on cheese)

1 Egg

OR

Butter

Mix yeast, water, and  4 1/2 teaspoons sugar in a bowl. Give it a stir and let it sit to proof.

Sift flour and place in a large bowl. Scoop flour out from the center of the bowl and pile it on the sides so there is a well in the middle of the bowl.

Beat eggs (Lupita always used her blender, so I did too).

Pour beaten eggs into well. Add the melted butter, sugar, and salt. Add yeast. Combine ingredients  with a spoon and knead the dough once it begins to get hard to stir (or just use your hands the whole time). Once the dough is well-kneaded, cover with saran wrap and/or dish towels and put in a warm place to rise.

Preheat oven to 375F.

After the dough has tripled in size, portion dough into rolls between the size of an egg and an apple.

Lupita made half of hers into savory breads (filled or topped with mixtures of queso fresco, scallion, achiote, and salt or queso fresco mixed with an egg) and sweet breads (stuffed with raw cane sugar called panela, cheese, and anise seeds).

Another option is mil hojas or 1,000 leaves. Once you have the rolls, a dollop of butter is placed on each and then they are kneaded at least 10 times each, with each time followed by a rest under a towel in order for more rising to occur.

Brush each roll with an egg wash made of one egg, beaten with a little water and salt.

Bake the rolls on ungreased baking sheets until the dough looks golden and the entire kitchen smells of freshly baked bread.

Serve warm (but not hot! Lupita says hot bread kills) plain or with fresh jam. My aunt recommends a drizzle of powdered sugar glaze on the plain rolls.

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