written by Hannah Chinn, La Mariposa Intern
On Monday afternoon, we have cooking class!
We pile into the Mariposa van and drive to a spot on the outskirts of San Juan, where we take a short walk down a dirt road and arrive at a small house. A man directs us to the back, where we find a circle of chairs, a table, a bowl of dough, and a very large artisan oven. Our driver and guide, Josue, explains that we’re learning to bake three different traditional Nicaraguan bocadillos (snacks): empanadas, rosquillas, and viejitas.
We start by washing our hands (always an important first step in cooking) and then mixing the masa (dough), which is made with flour, cheese, butter, oil, eggs, and milk. When we arrived, it was already partially mixed… so we pour all the rest of the ingredients into the giant bowl and four of us knead it with our hands until it’s soft and easily formed into shapes (and Josue gives it his stamp of approval and tells us we’re finished).
It’s quite messy!
The baker then shows us how to take spoonfuls of dough, flatten them into circles, and fill them with a sweet-salty mixture of cheese and sugar — fairly common in Nicaraguan baking (and incredibly yummy… would recommend highly). With the help of a round plastic base, we fold the circles in half around the filling. Then we seal the edges shut with our fingers and lay them one by one in a long rectangular pan. Just like that, we’re finished with our first snack: empanadas.
We make viejitas next (literally translated as “little old ones”, which is rather confusing at first, but that’s just the name of the snack). Taking balls of the same dough, we press them with our fingers and form shallow bowls that would later be filled with a sweet brown sugar (it was very dark and tasted vaguely of molasses — several of the students taste it before we put it in). We place them carefully in the pans, and two students spoon sugar into each one of them before baking.
Finally, we roll all the leftover dough into small doughnut-like circles and put them into the pans as well — these, the baker tells us, are rosquillas.
It’s harder than it sounds.
Hannah’s note: if you Google “rosquillas” you’ll see something that looks a little like a doughnut rolled in sugar… but Nica rosquillas are different! They’re crunchy and a little bit salty (because of the cheese in the dough, probably) and definitely more like biscuits than like doughnuts. They were still pretty great, though.
Once we put everything into the pans (we go through all the dough and filled up four large ones!) to the baker’s satisfaction, he and Josue slide each pan into the oven.
Speaking of which, the oven itself is huge… about as tall as I am (5 feet) and easily 6 feet wide and long. It’s also very hot, since the fire has been burning brightly since we arrived, so the baker uses a long staff to push the pans into the side of the oven between the wall and the hot coals.
We wait about twenty minutes for the baking to finish, telling stories while we sit. Then we pour coffee and eat lots (and lots, and lots, and lots) of piping hot pastries… the baker even gives us bags so that we can take some back to La Mariposa with us!