Thanks to a tiny thumbnail sized ad in The Stranger, the free weekly newspaper in Seattle, my friend Michelle and I stumbled onto a festival seemingly made for us: the Seattle Edible Book Festival. For the subset of us who are both bookfiends and foodies, there is a festival where you bring a scene of a book to live or something nice and punny – as long as it’s all edible.
We were in. After flipping through our bookshelves, we settled on Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel for the sheer sensuality of its food-related writing and The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri because it’s one of Michelle’s favorite books. In the first case, we wanted to bring to light the subject of the second chapter, where the protagonist weeps into the cake for the wedding of her lover…to her sister. We went for puns in the second case, making Jhumpa Lumpias with a Namé Sake Cocktail (revised to a mocktail for the family friendliness of the festival). You can find us on their Flickr stream here.
Feeling pretty cocky, we began to plot and to cook.
Like Water for Mexican Chocolate Cake
The awesome thing about Like Water for Chocolate is that every chapter begins with a recipe, and there is indeed a recipe for the cake she makes. Unfortunately, it takes 17 eggs and nobody seems to be sure whether or not it makes a decent cake. Since we still had things like schoolwork and work work to deal with, we cheaped out and whipped up a Mexican chocolate cake we knew would work. I decided to get fancy and make it more like a trifle; we could make it look like a mixing bowl full of cake batter like the book scene and treat everyone to a surprise when we actually started serving the cake. We served crumbled cake interspersed with whipped cream lightened cajeta, a Mexican goat cheese caramel. Well, Cool Whip lightened, because I was concerned about deflation and I knew Cool Whip was…sturdier. Which is why I don’t usually use it. But hey, this is competition cooking, right? We needed it to last.
After perusing the internet, we decided on this cake.
Mexican Chocolate Cake
For two 8 inch cake rounds:
3 c flour
2 c sugar
1 c of unsweetened cocoa
4 tsp cinnamon
4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp cayenne or chili powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 c cold water
1/2 c of canola oil
2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp (Mexican) vanilla extract
Mix the dry ingredients, then add the wet ingredients until fully combined.
Pour the batter into 2 well greased 8 inch cake pans. I love our cake pans because they have a little arm that scrapes around the sides and bottom, separating any sticky patches. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool the cake layers in the pan for about 15 minutes, then turn onto a wire rack to cool fully.
I love cajeta, and for mine, I referred to this recipe. When I made it for the festival I unfortunately had no vanilla beans, so I just substituted in Mexican vanilla, which is the only type of vanilla that we ever have in our cupboards because it is just so ridiculously tasty.
This cajeta is super time-consuming, but it’s also pretty patient – you can do other things while it’s simmering away to itself.
1 quart goats’ milk (cows’ milk ok)
1 c sugar
1/2 to 1 vanilla bean, split open, or 1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp baking soda dissolved in a Tbsp warm water
I also like to add a few grinds of salt at the end to tone down the sweetness and up the complexity.
In a large heavy pot (not cast iron, lots of chemistry going on here) over medium heat, dissolve the sugar in the milk and toss in the vanilla bean. When you’ve reached a steady simmer, take it off the heat. Add in the baking soda solution and stir it until it stops foaming. This is the same underlying reaction that makes all those elementary school volcanoes: the acidity of the milk is reacting with the basic nature of baking soda. Stir down the foam and put it back on the heat.
I had a lot of issues with foaminess (which did nothing to hurt the cajeta) so these pictures reflect that. I’ve made it again since then and had no problems. I have no clue what I did differently, sorry to say. There are still a lot of mysteries in my kitchen.
Adjust the heat so that you get a steady simmer, but not an outright boil. Guard your pot for a few minutes to double-check that the foam isn’t going to get a second wind and mess with your stove top (like my first attempt), then go ahead and leave it simmering to itself for an hour, hour and a half, coming back to give it a good stir every ten minutes or so.
Go ahead and drink a Mexican Coke with some lime juice for verisimilitude.
After an hour has passed, the cajeta should be a light creamy brown. Now you should start paying more attention to it, and stirring more often. You still have another half hour, hour of stirring and looking to go. Turn on a telenovela or chit chat with a friend. Do some laundry. Make a sandwich.
Come back. Now lets find out when it’s done. That involves something magical called the soft ball stage. You can always decide “Hey, this feels like a nice thick caramel sauce, I’ll call it good.” Which is chill. Go ahead. For those who are more anxious, the soft ball stage is when you drop a bit of the cajeta into a glass of cold water, it should form a soft ball. See below.
Ok. Now, pull it off the heat and let it cool down. If you used a vanilla bean, pick it out when the cajeta is no longer threatening to burn you (hot sugar = ow) and scrape the seeds from inside and add them back to the cajeta. Strain the cooled sauce through a wire mesh sieve into another bowl to get ride of any other vanilla bean detritus and store it in the fridge.
I have no clue when it goes bad – we’ve eaten it the day or two after.
Ok, finally lets pull the cake together. Mix about 3/4 of the resulting cajeta with a tub of Cool Whip.
End with a cake layer, then ice with buttercream. We then made a pool of tears out of blue royal icing and stuck a wooden spoon in it to ‘mix in’ the tears.
I’m not going to give a recipe for either icings, because neither of them were anything to write about. The royal icing was particularly disastrous. We had planned to have a cookie person stirring the stick, but her red dress oozed everywhere and made it look like a massacre instead of a wedding celebration. We ate her and made gory cookie dioramas with the T-Rex cookies we made at the same time.
I don’t suggest that as a part of this recipe. It’s just so you know that yes, mistakes are often made in my kitchen. Mistakes often made by me.
Here’s the final product:
Now for our second entry, Jhumpa Lumpias and Namé Sake Cocktails
The lumpia recipe came from my stepbrother’s girlfriend, Glenna, whose family is from the Philippines, so it’s at least semi-legit. It’s completely delicious, though.
1 lb ground beef
1 lb ground pork
Soy sauce (to taste)
Oyster sauce (to taste)
5 celery stalks
2 cloves of minced garlic
1 package egg roll wrappers (25 wrappers)
Chop all ingredients finely. Add some olive oil to a pan and fry the onion until semi-translucent. Add the garlic, carrots, and celery and fry for a few more minutes. Add the pork and beef, fry until brown. Add the oyster sauce and soy sauce. Start with a teaspoon or two of each, then start tasting. At this point your filling is cooked, so this is not some mad plot to give you food poisoning and protect some secret recipe.
Once the filling is tasting fabulous, pull it off the heat and let it cool down. Get out your egg roll wrappers and gather your patience – these things do not want to be separated from the herd. Peel off one and put a damp paper towel over the remaining stack to keep them from drying out. Roll the lumpias as follows:
These can now be frozen for the future, or cooked up immediately. Either way, deep fry those suckers! They are good hot or room temperature. We cut them in half for easy serving.
The cocktail is my favorite part of our entries, because its brainstorm was the most entertaining. We knew that it would have to be sake based, but we were stumped about how to relate it to the actual book. The name came from a half-remembered stand up routine Michelle retold to me, where people refused to believe that Namesake is an English word and kept saying it as if it were supposed to be like Namaste. So in that spirit, we started thinking about flavors we like from India. We ended up with mango, the obvious choice, and lime, because I drank buckets of nimbu-panni, or a quicky lemonade made from the bitter lemon that grows there. Ta da! Cocktail.
1 part sake
4 parts mango juice
Generous splash of lime
Serve over ice.
Of course, for the festival there was no alcohol allowed, so we just put an unopened bottle of sake next to the lime-laced mango juice, which is also nice and refreshing.
In the end, we didn’t win anything. We had been concentrating very hard on making everything taste wonderful. We weren’t aware that indeed, there was no tasting before judging – it was all on looks, basically. We were actually next door neighbors to two of the winners of the most appetizing. But there was a nice consolation prize:
We were one of the first to run out of food. Booyah? We’ll be prettier next year! In the mean time, we will kick back with a cocktail and lumpia and eat ourselves into a comfy food coma.