Generally after a period of indulgence, follows a craving for something healthy and simple, yet still tasty. Like this week, when I couldn’t handle the thought of any more meat, sugar or heavy sauces. Not so the kids, who I managed to keep happy with some left over beef curry and rice. But for me, vegetables were calling, zucchinis and capsicums (bell peppers) to be exact. Normally I would have either turned them into some ratatouille-like dish or grilled them on the BBQ. But that would have involved too much for a person who felt like soup or steamed vegies. Then I found the perfect compromise with a Tom Colicchio’s recipe for Zucchini with nicoise olives and burrata. Dainty little cubes of zucchini were stewed in just enough water to cover them and a dash of olive oil to bring out their flavour. I loved that cooking method. I adapted the original recipe to include what I had on hand (red and yellow capsicums, fresh mozzarella, mint) and didn’t worry about the olives and the squash blossom (not a staple in my pantry I’m afraid), cooked some penne for extra sustenance, and voila! The perfect Tuesday night vegetarian dinner, if you ask me.
Cakes and soups. That’s how I will remember October. With a visitor from France as keen on eating as we are, it was the perfect occasion to sample more Mexican food, either during our many excursions (see this post) or in the boat. Tortilla soup,
black beans and chorizos, …
so enthusiastic we girls were about experimenting with local produce that Terry eventually was crying for anything but tacos! Luckily for him, our dear friend, Marie Suzanne had the perfect antidote and stepped in with dutch baking recipes.
It actually started with her daydreaming in the back of the car, while on the road to Merida. We talked about food (what else?) and her project to set up a Dutch Pastry stand at her town’s Christmas Market, and thought nothing better than have her doing a practise run on the boat. Her description of homemade marzipan, speculoos biscuits, and Christmas bread made my mouth water all the way back to P.A and I couldn’t wait to add new pages to my notebook. Marie Suzanne was only too happy to oblige, though found it challenging to start without any of her familiar ingredients available in Mexico. Welcome to my world!
About a month ago, I posted a photo of this cake I made and a few of you asked for more details – it was a coconut layer cake inspired by the 12-Layer Coconut Cake from the Peninsula Grill in Charleston, South Carolina.
Exactly 12 months ago, as we were sailing down the US east coast, we pulled into Charleston Harbour seeking shelter from bad weather brought on by hurricane Sandy. We ended up staying for 9 days, waiting for a good weather window. The city has much to offer and I loved walking around the historic district, mostly eating my way around! I wrote about our Charleston stay here, of particular interest was the culinary tour during which our group sampled southern specialties in handpicked establishments. Some of the town’s most famous restaurants were also pointed out, notably the Peninsula Grill renowned for its decadent coconut cake. Top choice for local brides, highly rated by the likes of Martha Stewart and the New York Times, the advice from our guide was that even if we had dinner somewhere else, at least save room for dessert and walk to the PG just for the cake! Unfortunately we never managed this ( we were always too full to contemplate dessert anywhere), but I did do some research and found a recipe which I kept in my “to-do-one-day” list. The original recipe from the Peninsula Grill not only calls for an incredible amount of butter, sugar and cream, but also involves more time that one is used to bake a cake (unless you’re a pastry chef, then it’s all in a day’s work). The (dare I say) easier version I stumbled upon, while still very rich, didn’t require as much time and precision to put together.
Or so I thought, until my daughter asked me at 6pm to bake it for school the next morning. Panic on board: I had most of the ingredients on hand, except the sweetened flaked coconut, which I needed over 6 cups of! Mad dash around Playa del Carmen supermarkets to discover it is a US thing unheard of in Mexico (apart from expat americans who bring the stuff in their luggage), so used dried shredded coconut instead ( a very good move as there is already plenty of sugar in the recipe, it is an American based recipe!)I thought I could prepare it all the night before, but due to limited space in my fridge, I found that the recipe is best done in stages: make the cakes and the filling the night before, then assemble and apply frosting the next day. So yes, it takes over 12 hours of preparation , but boy, is it worth every mouthful!
Coconut Layer Cake
Serves 12 hungry kids for afternoon tea, probably 20 more restrained guests for dessert
3 ½ cup plain flour
1 tbsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
2 ¼ cups sugar
1 ½ cups unsalted butter at room tempearature
5 large eggs
1 1/3 cups whipping cream
1 tbsp vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 180C
- Line the bottom of 3 9” Teflon non-stick round cake pans with parchment paper ( or butter and flour if using ordinary pans)
- Whisk flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl and blend
- In another bowl, beat sugar and butter with an electric mixer
- Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition
- Beat in cream and vanilla
- Sift flour mixture into butter mixture
- Divide batter equally among pans
- Bake until tester inserted into center oc cakes comes out clean, about 45 minutes
- Cool completely
2 tbsp cornstarch
2 tbsp water
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 ¼ whipping cream
½ cup sugar
½ cup unsalted butter
2 ¼ cups fine dessicated unsweetened coconut
¼ cup sour cream
- Stir cornstarch, water and vanilla in a small bowl to dissolve cornstarch
- Bring cream, sugar and butter to a boil in a heavy medium saucepan
- Add cornstarch and bring to the boil
- Remove from heat and stir coconut
- Cool completely
- Mix in sour cream, cover and refrigerate overnight
250g (8oz) cream cheese at room temperature
½ cup unsalted butter at room temperature
2 cups icing (powdered) sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups shredded dessicated unsweetened coconut, toasted
- In a large bowl, beat cream cheese and butter with an electric mixer
- Beat in icing sugar and vanilla extract
- Place one cake layer on a plate
- Top with half of the filling
- Place second cake layer atop filling
- Top with remaining filling
- Place third cake atop filling
- Spread frosting over top and sides of cake (easier if placing the plate on top of a cylinder shape container like a spaghetti jar, to be able to rotate the cake at eye level!)
- Pat toasted coconut over top and sides of cakes, pressing gently to adhere (use a narrow spatula for the sides)
- The cake can be prepared the day before, keep covered and refrigerated. Leave at room temperature for 2-3 hours before serving. Enjoy!
I have just returned from a week end in Merida, taking my girlfriend Marie Suzanne who is visiting from France. Driven by Terry, who has no interest in this city, but who wanted to come along for the ride anyway, we started with a quick tour of Plaza Grande looking for somewhere to have lunch. We were starving, and on a mission to find authentic yucatecan food. There is no shortage of eating places in the Yucatan capital, from the cheap street side vendors to upmarket white linen-clad tables restaurants. After being accosted by a local, advertising his grandfather’s genuine yucatan restaurant a few bocks “that way”, taken to a Mayan’s artisanal store to see “the best hats”, we escaped to the quietness of X’CATIIC, a mid-range restaurant, overlooking the Plaza in full view of the Cathedral on our left and the City Hall on our right. While we waited for our meals, we watched families, couples strolling in the park, horse drawn carriages waiting for tourists (there were virtually none!), old men playing chess…
Then the food arrived and the action was on the table: mixto ceviche, pork pibil and papadzules, it was pure yucatan on a plate!
The ceviche was delicious, with not too much lime as some tend to have. Papadzules are tortillas stuffed with hard boiled eggs and topped with a sauce of pumpkin seeds: not as heavy as you’d think, and a very mild subtil flavour (until you drop some habanero chili sauce on it, then look out!!!) The pork pibil made up for the mild flavours: wrapped in banana leaves and spiced with achiote (annatto seed paste), garlic, sour orange, salt and pepper, it certainly tickled the tastebuds, though it was not spicy hot. Washed down with limonada natural, we left stuffed and ready to tackle the walk up to the Paseo Montejo, scouting for a restaurant suitable to take Terry later on. Dinner was only 3 hours away after all!
The Paseo is a wide boulevard, modelled on the Champs Elysees in Paris, albeit on a much smaller scale: it is a lovely swath of green open space, especially appreciated after experiencing the hustle and bustle of stone and concrete downtown Merida! Late afternoon (5pm) was quiet time: most shops had closed for the day, the restaurants had not quite yet opened for the night, and empty stalls were waiting for vendors to set up. The most activity we found was around the dulceria HELADO COLON, where Marie Suzanne could not resist sampling the lemon ice cream (“to help digest lunch” she said). I was too full to take another mouthful of anything, in fact, I was obsessing about the hotel swimming pool where we’d left my husband when we arrived. Which is where we ended up, soaking our sore feet after miles of walking in the searing Mexican heat.
In the evening, we took Terry to our new find, CASA SAN ANGEL, a restaurant part of the hotel of the same name, at the very beginning of the Paseo. Saturday night happens to be “Noche Mexicana”, a celebration of Mexican culture, thru songs, dance and stalls, and the restaurant is located right next to the stage. You’d think the show is made for tourists, with the colourful dance groups and the mariachis, but we were amazed to find very few gringos around. Instead the place was packed with locals, families, young and old. Unlike any outdoor public event I’ve witnessed before, everyone was dressed to the hilt, sitting quietly on the chairs provided, listening to the performers and genuinely enjoying the show. Just as if they were watching opera. We commented on how well the kids behaved and if it were in Australia or France, they would be running everywhere, people would either be talking to each other or texting on their smartphones. More incredible for us, was the fact that despite alcohol being sold and consumed publicly, there were no signs of drunken behavior or fights ( Terry reckons the audience was too proper for that, the rowdy were probably in the club nearby!)
Anyway, on to dinner: we sat on the footpath in full view and earshot of the musicians, whose loudness was made bearable by ordering a couple of margaritas and beers! Marie Suzanne had her heart set on trying Chicken Mole which she found here. Terry adamant he didn’t want to eat Mexican was left with a choice between pasta and (of all things) Iranian food. The chef/owner being Persian, the menu featured dishes like Iranian spiced rice with chicken or Aubergine with beef, probably unique in Merida. That was a nice change to the usual tacos and bean soups! We should have stopped eating after that, but strolling past HELADO COLON again (doing a roaring trade at 11pm!), Terry could not resist trying their chocolate ice cream. And ended up disappointed as chocolate was only in the name, it had more cinnamon and ice than anything else!
The plan was to go back to the Paseo on Sunday morning and join the thousands of Meridanos (Merida residents) who take advantage of the streets being closed to vehicle traffic, to ride their bikes, enjoy the sidewalk art shows and live music. But I woke up with the realisation that the Food Market was near the hotel, and maybe we could sneak in a quick visit there first. It didn’t take long to convince Marie Suzanne (she’s as mad about food as I am), ditch the terrible hotel breakfast and walk down the 2 blocks to the Lucas de Galves market. What a place! It is a mass of small businesses, with stalls selling everything, from panuchos ( a handmade tortillas stuffed with black beans, fried and topped with chicken and salad) to live animals and hamacs. Different buildings house specific products: we started in the vegetables and spice section, mixed with cooking hardware stalls offering dozens of tortilla making devices, juicers, pans…then came across the poultry area, complete with fresh chicken and turkey hanging down (some were opened with eggs and entrails still attached, I am still wondering why), and trays of different parts. Just as we were commenting favorably on the lack of smells, we crossed over to the meat section, and were hit by a mighty whiff. I don’t think the meat was bad, it was just strong smelling: pork and beef were the choices, heads to tails and everything in between. To my disappointment I could not find the fresh sausages I spotted a few months ago in the San Cristobal market ( must have been a Chiapas specialty). I had come equipped with a freezer bag, but since the meat was not refrigerated, I doubt it would have lasted the 4-hour drive back to the boat (that’s if Terry allowed it in the car in the first place!) The fish, on the other hand, were kept on ice (thankfully) and compared to the meat, didn’t smell much at all. Fresh prawns from the Gulf of Mexico, baby sharks, octopus, ready mixes for ceviche, …all beckoned. Marie Suzanne and I were in foodie heaven, and as we walked past cheap taquerias (taco joints) and coctelerias (seafood shacks serving shellfish cocktails as well as ceviche), where you sit on a stool at a narrow counter, we agreed to come back for lunch.
First we had to drop off our loot of fresh veggies, so cheap and tasty, I still kick myself for not buying more (think, a bag of 16 fat and juicy limes for 10 pesos, that’s A$1!!!) and visit the City Museum, one of the many things on my to-do-in-Merida list. It was such a nice reprieve from the hustle of the market, that neither of us wanted to go back to the confined and noisy environment of the eateries as inexpensive and authentic as they were. Instead we opted to walk a few hundred meters back to the Plaza Grande, which had been set up with food stalls as part of “Merida on Sunday”. I was only too happy to help Marie Suzanne cross more Antojitos Yucatecos ( yucatan snacks) off her list, so ordered Sopa de Lima (chicken broth, with shredded chicken, strips of fried tortillas and lime juice), Chicken Tamales (shredded chicken rolled in fresh masa (ground corn soaked in lime) then wrapped in banana leaves and barbecued) and Torta de lechon ( Suckling pig in a bread roll). Very light compared with lunch the day before (both on our stomach and our wallet), this meal was a perfect ending to our culinary safari.
By then, we didn’t feel like returning to the Paseo, particularly after finding out that we had only walked half way the day before, and the more lively and interesting section was another 6 klm further north! We toyed with the idea of taking a taxi there, but it was getting late, we knew Terry didn’t want to drive back to Puerto Aventuras in the dark and we also had Anne to collect from friends who had kindly agreed to look after her during the week end. So we headed back to the boat, with heads full of memories and stomachs full of food!
What a strange month that was! A mix of celebrations ( Australian Father’s Day, Terry’s birthday, some friends farewell, other friends return…) should have kept me busy in the galley, but strangely enough, it was the lousy weather that forced me indoors.
22 successive days of rain meant hours spent either in the galley, cooking favourites and experimenting with new recipes, or looking for inspiration on the internet. Here are some of my most memorable moments:
– EXPERIMENTING with Baked Cauliflower slices smothered with bacon and vegetables, side of avocado and tomato salad, layered coconut cake, lemon cream cookies
– ALL TIME FAVOURITES with Pan fried chicken and Caesar salad, pizza bar, roast chicken with macaronis
– EATING HEALTHY with Quinoa salad, very raw salad, potato and spinach salad
– MEXICAN COOKING with Pork Verde and black beans, spicy garlic prawns
And just on cue, as a friend came to stay for a few days, the sun came out and actually stayed out for the end of the month. Perfect days to enjoy lounging around in Tulum and sample some of the best Mexican food.