cafe chocolate con churros

If you were to say the first thing you thought of when I said ‘Spanish food’, what would you say? My guess is either ‘churros’ or ‘paella’. While I don’t think that I have the willpower to correctly make a paella; it involves not stirring the pan while it simmers and I am far too hands-on for that, I do have the willpower to make churros!

chocolato con churros
chocolato con churros

Spanish cuisine has not expanded into the mainstream Western world to the same degree as Italian or faux-Chinese, and even though most people would not be able to differentiate between Spanish and Mexican styles of cooking, I would say that 9 out of 10 people have tried churros before.

Before travelling to Spain, I had only ever eaten churros as a dessert, you can imagine my glee when I discovered these crisp, sugary treats are eaten at any time of day, even breakfast!

I recently had churros at a night market with a friend who is somewhat of a self-proclaimed churro aficionado and gladly shared with me some of her pointers on what makes a good churro. Like any traditional food; a pizza in Italy, a croissant in France, you will not find a churro as good as a Spanish churro anywhere but Spain. The ratio of sweet dough and runny chocolate sauce for dipping has to be just right, it must easily coat the golden batter and not be too thick like a paste – in Spain the churro is treated as an accompaniment to hot chocolate rather than the other way around.

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What I find most important is the dough, it needs to be crisp and golden, but often I find it has been deep-fried for too long, and while it is aesthetically perfect, the scent of caramelising sugar and the crunch as you bite into it are let down by the dry centre, and the disappointment at realising that crunch that you initially savoured is there the whole way through.

I kept this in mind when I decided to make my own, instead of deep-frying mine, I wanted to oven-baked them. Because of the slight moisture levels in an oven, I could save them from drying out, and in order to achieve the quintessential golden colour; a few minutes under the grill after they have baked through.

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Heat 1 cup of water in a medium size saucepan, add 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, 170grams of butter and a pinch of salt. Simmer until the butter is completely melted and the mixture begins to boil. Remove from the heat and mix with 1 cup of flour and leave the mixture to cool slightly. While you are waiting, whisk 2 eggs and a teaspoon of vanilla extract until the egg begins to foam up. Mix the contents of both bowls together and the batter is done.

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Now comes the fun part!

Transfer the batter into a piping bag with a serrated bit and a width of about 2cm. If you don’t have a piping bag, cut the corner off a zip-lock plastic bag, it won’t have the jagged edge that is usually associated with churros but it will work nonetheless. Line a baking tray with baking parchment and pipe the dough into sticks about 8cm in length, it is helpful to have a second pair of hands with this step as the dough in incredibly thick so get an assistant to chop them with a pair of scissors as you pipe them – the bribe of fresh churros should be tempting enough!

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Bake at 220°C for 10 minutes before switching the oven’s settings to grill for 5 minutes. Such a hot temperature will almost steam the insides of the churros, while the butter will liquefy and provide an even golden shade. Once they have crisped up nicely, turn the oven off and leave the tray in for a few more minutes. Remove from the oven, dust with sugar and cinnamon and leave to cool.

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I served mine with a simple espresso dark chocolate sauce: a shot of espresso, 50grams of finely chopped dark chocolate and just enough milk to thin the chocolate out, gently heated until melted and gooey.

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Serve your churros with strawberry jam if chocolate isn’t your thing, or you want an excuse to make them for breakfast. They are even delicious eaten by themselves.

How do you like to eat your churros?

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arriba arriba, tortilla tortilla!

Spanish tortilla; a staple recipe that every Spanish housewife knows off by heart and can whip up in no time in the event of entertaining unexpected guests. And around Corpus Christi, one should expect a lot of unexpected guests.

While the general concept of a tortilla is very simple to prepare, there are a few complex nuances that are needed to prepare the perfect tortilla – they are essential, because, remember, the whole street is going to be judging you based on it.

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A tortilla is essentially a potato omelette – a frittata, so the ingredients don’t really extend further than potato, eggs and milk. Oh, and an unreasonable amount of oil. My first piece of advice is to think about the amount of potato you have in relation to milk and eggs in relation to the size of your frying pan. You don’t want too much potato that each piece isn’t saturated in egg mixture, but you want enough so that when it is all in the pan it isn’t spread too thinly. I would suggest two medium size potatoes to three eggs and a cup of milk.

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My second piece of advice is to cut the potatoes very small, you want them to cook all the way through without crisping up too much. And the smaller the pieces the quicker they will cook. As a guide, I would say cut them into pieces roughly the size of your fingernail. I did it here with parsnips.

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Gently heat about three tablespoons of oil in a pan and add the potatoes, stirring frequently. ADVICE: Use a non-stick fry pan or don’t even bother. Speaking from experience, if it’s not non-stick, you will end up with lumpy scrambled eggs.

It will take you about 15 minutes to cook the potato all the way through, be patient. When you think they are done, wait a few more minutes, because you are probably wrong and no one likes to eat raw potatoes.

Scoop the potato out of the pan, keeping the oil for later. While the potato cools, whisk the eggs and milk together. Some recipes say to separate the eggs and whisk the whites to firm peaks before mixing in the milk – you can do this but I don’t think it makes for a better end product and just takes up time. Season the mixture with salt, pepper and half a teaspoon of nutmeg. Nutmeg is the key ingredient, the ‘secret’ ingredient – just ask anyone, they are all more than willing to tell you, as long as you promise you won’t tell anyone, and if you do tell anyone each person will insist that they came up with the great idea of adding nutmeg.

At this stage, you can add anything fancy you want; spinach, sundried tomatoes, or cheese. I prefer mine left plain and simple. Mix the potato into the milk, reheat the oil and pour the mixture in. Use a slow eat so the tortilla cooks through without burning, this will take about 5 minutes or until the edges have begun to solidify.

Mentally prepare yourself for the hardest part of this recipe – the flipping. Turn off the heat, place a plate on top of the pan and with a tea towel in each hand, and flip the pan upside-down. The plate will now have the tortilla on it, raw-side down. Place the pan back on the heat and slide the tortilla back into the pan and cook for another 5 minutes.

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Flip it out of the pan, slice it into wedges, bit-size pieces or just tuck into it with a fork each. It’s not much to look at but tastes like an afternoon lying in the sun. Serve with salad, beer and people you like.

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corpus christi in the pueblo blanco

Tomorrow marks the holy feast of Corpus Christi; one of the most important religious days in the calendar for many people in Southern Spain. This time last year, I was staying in a small pueblo blanco called Olvera, in North-Eastern Cadiz.

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With a population of 8000 people, I was completely taken back by the live and energy the festivities of Corpus Christi breathed into this seemingly sleepy little community. Many of the town’s young people come back from the cities where they have moved for university or work to celebrate and spend time together – not just important from a religious perspective, it also features very highly on the locals’ social calendar.

I think that the social element of the day may have overshadowed the original meaning behind it, as someone who had a very non-religious upbringing, I asked many of the locals what Corpus Christi was actually celebrating; none of them knew. For many of the older generation, particularly the older housewives and widows I spoke to, it was about judging the other women’s tortilla recipes, making sure everyone noticed your new dress or shoes, and generally gossiping about everyone else in the neighbourhood.

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The preparation begins a week before, each household must wash the exterior of their house; doors are scrubbed, door handles are polished, and as it is illegal to paint your house any colour but white in the older part of the town, houses will sometimes even be repainted in an attempt to have the whitest walls in the street. The more work you put in, the more impressed everyone will be by how nice it looks, more importantly is that the more time you spend cleaning, the more people will see you putting in the effort, and that’s what really matters.

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On the day, the streets are decorated with palm fronds and a shrine featuring the Virgin Mary on each block. The statue on our street was outside the house I was staying in, so I was roped into hoisting banners and flags up through the windows and arranging vases or flowers, all the while being fed roasted peppers, gazpacho and tortilla. The locals were more than happy to share their recipes with me, although whenever I asked them to write it down for me they wouldn’t, or more accurately, couldn’t. Many of the women are illiterate, having grown up under Franco’s regime where education was not considered important, especially for girls, they are only now beginning to learn to read and write.

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As the afternoon sun begins to wane, the procession begins.

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The local priest, accompanied by many of the school children and important local figures, makes his way from the church at the top of the hill through the old village, stopping at each shrine to say a blessing. The locals line the streets dressed in their Sunday best to watch this age-old ritual before following behind to visit all the other shrines, because you have to see them all to be able to gossip about them later!

Later on this week, I will share some quintessential Spanish recipes I picked up on my travels; a traditional tortilla and oven-baked churros with dark chocolate espresso sauce.

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