SPANISH SEMANA SANTA SWEETS
By Steve VandeGriek; photos by Jan Behmer ©2017
My wife and I have a thing for Spain. We’ve been going there on occasion for more years than I care to admit having under my belt. And under my belt is the issue here. Spanish food is a rustic joy. Any region, any time of year. Madrid has its roast suckling pig and Valencia its paella. The cuisine of Andalucia in the sweltering summer is distinct from the fare of Galicia and Asturias in the wet and wild winter. And in the delicious Spanish spring, as the Lenten season comes to an end, every region does its own version of Semana Santa.
The Spanish do Holy Week like no other people on the planet. And as it is with so many things in Spain, tradition is key. The stunning religious processions full of floats and masked penitents flow through the streets at night in every city and hamlet.
As they say, you always remember your first time. Ours was many years ago, a few days before Easter, in a small city in Andalucia. We were in our hotel room on the second floor and just after dark we were taken by surprise. A procession was suddenly trudging down the street right below our window. I’m not a religious person, but the Medieval aura surrounding the event was commanding.
The processions in Seville are famously spectacular. Likewise in Leon. Saetas, those haunting flamenco-like sacred songs, fill the air. Some towns scatter straw dolls in the streets, which are later torn apart and burned. Home dining tables are laden with special Easter dishes, customarily meatless for practicing Catholics. And how do they compensate for the lack of meat? Dessert! Spain isn’t as staunchly Catholic as it once was, but Spaniards haven’t lost their sweet tooth. The week before Easter, bakeries all over Spain are filled with confections especially for that week. Many were created by nuns. They are traditional, and traditionally simple and sweet.
Rice pudding is prevalent around the country, in many regional variations.
Sweet dough balls are popular and come in a multitude of incarnations. Pestiños in Andalucia are of Moorish origin. They are anise flavored puffs of dough, deep fried or baked and dunked in a syrup of honey and liqueur. Buñuelos in the north are fluffy balls of yeasty dough, sometimes anise flavored, and usually stuffed with something sweet. Semana Santa balls are baked donuts flavored with Galician Orujo, a potent clear liqueur similar to Italian grappa, distilled from the dregs left after pressing the wine. Bartolillos are a type of cream puff and are a Madrid specialty.
Huesos de Santos (Saints’ Bones) are egg and sugar filled marzipan shells. Monas de Pasqua, chocolate eggs filled with little presents, are popular in Catalonia and Valencia. Flores de Semana Santa are crunchy fried pastries resembling opened roses. Hornazo is sometimes a pie, but usually a round flat bread stuffed with boiled eggs, chorizo sausage and other cuts of pork. It is traditionally eaten on the day AFTER Easter, due to that no meat during Holy Week rule. But there is a sweet non-meat version for the week prior. Hornazo is prized in the region to the west of Madrid, in Salamanca an Avila in particular.
Torrijas are ubiquitous throughout Spain, but a special favorite in the bakeries of Aragon. They are similar to what we think of as French toast, but they’re fried in olive oil instead of butter.
And the queen of Spanish Easter desserts has to be the Tarta de Santiago (Saint James Cake). It is found throughout the country, St. James being the patron saint of Spain, but it has pride of place in Santiago de Compostela, where its namesake’s remains are housed. The cake is thought to have originated or been brought there by a pilgrim during the Middle Ages and, due to its almond base, has an apparently Moorish pedigree, not as common in Galicia as it is in the south. Galicia was probably the region least affected by the Moorish occupation.
There are as many recipes for these last two confections as there are regions in Spain. The following are our take on the many variations.
1 baguette – stale lemon and/or orange zest
3 C milk 3 or 4 eggs, beaten
2/3 C sugar ground cinnamon
1 cinnamon stick sugar or honey
Good mild olive oil
Slice the baguette into roughly one inch thick slices.
Heat the milk in a saucepan over medium high heat. When it is almost boiling, remove from heat and add the sugar, zest, and cinnamon stick.
Return to the heat and stir until almost boiling again.
Lower the heat and continue stirring at a simmer until the milk thickens a bit.
Remove from heat and let cool a little.
Soak the bread slices in the milk on both sides for about 30 seconds each – don’t let them get so soggy they fall apart.
Beat the eggs well, and dip each slice until well coated on both sides.
Heat the oil – about an inch deep – in a skillet until it quickly browns a cube of bread. Fry the bread slices until golden on both sides.
Drain them on paper towels and sprinkle with ground cinnamon and sugar, or drizzle with a little honey.
Torrijas can be eaten warm or at room temperature.
St. James Cake
There are dozens of recipes for this cake, all with a ground almond base. Some use a little flour and some are flourless. None of them are overly complicated, but in my experience, a little flour works better.
10 oz. ground blanched (peeled) almonds
1 C flour
1 ¼ C sugar
8 T butter, softened
1 tsp. baking powder
½ C water
Zest of 1 lemon
Grind the almonds in a food processor or blender. You can grind them to a smooth dust, but leaving them a tiny bit coarse gives the cake a nice crunch.
Preheat oven to 350. Spray the bottom and sides of a 9 inch springform pan with nonstick spray, or, my preference, grease it with butter.
In a large bowl, use an electric hand mixer to beat the butter and sugar, then beat in the eggs, one at a time.
Add the flour, baking powder, and water and beat well.
Add the ground almonds and the lemon zest and stir thoroughly.
Pour the batter into the pan and bake on a rack in the center of the oven for about 45 minutes, but check for doneness after 40. It’s done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Cool thoroughly on a wire rack. Remove from pan.
Place a piece of cardboard cut out in the shape of a cross on top of the cake. Sprinkle the top of the cake well with powdered sugar, using a sifter. Remove the cardboard carefully, leaving the impression of the cross on the cake.