Friday, September 30, 2011

Pain aux Raisins

Cleaning out the fridge for the next leg of our journey, I’m left with a serious quandary. What to do with the large bag of pasas (raisins) I’ve bought for yeast making, a bowl of said yeast (that I’m not really motivated to make more bread), a large sack o flour and the biggest slab of butter (the only convenient way to buy butter in San Marcos)…I’ve ever seen in my life?

Hmmmm. [Tapping finger on my chinny chin chin]. I look at the boy.

By Jove, I’ve got it!

Pain aux raisins is by far the most ambitious and one of those baking experience where you score a serious touch down when it comes out of the oven and into a salivating mouth.  Did I have enough patience and gumption for the ever so fickle and demanding pâte feuilletée (puff pastry)? How is it physically possible to fold that much butter into flour!? [In my best dirty harry look, I throw some flour over my shoulders]. Bring it!

What I’ve learned: The first batch of pain aux raisins was very flaky and….dry like a palmier. The taste and the texture…pretty spot on but I didn’t allow enough time for the dough to proof before baking (it must double in size and especially with homemade yeast, you need to allow, ample, ample space and time for the yeast to do it’s thing). Also, I let the first batch bake for 45 minutes at 180 C / 360 F (which was much too, much time). So, note to self, allow the dough to proof (2-2/1/2 hrs…yes trust me) and use a higher temperature 190 C / 375 F for 25 - 30 mins (what worked for me was to cut the heat at around 25 mins, let sit in the oven for another 5; that did the trick).

The result…..oh la la la, oui, oui! Who needs a parisian bakery, when you can enjoy, these lovelies out of your own oven. Enjoy the recipe & pictures. May the butter gods be with you! Buen prochevo.

Pain Aux Raisins Recipe (16-18 lovely buns)

2 tablespoon of dry yeast
1/2 c of water
1/3 c + 2 c of flour
½ c of butter
1/3 c of sugar
2 tablespoons salt
¾ c milk
3 c butter
creme pâtissière
1 egg yolk for brushing

Creme Patisserie Recipe
1 c milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or a vanilla pod
1/4 c sugar
2 egg yolks
4 tablespoons flour

For the dough. Create the poolish or sponge. Whisk the yeast, water and 1/3 c flour. Pour the mixture inside a mixer (with a dough blade). Add remaining 2 cups of flour, salt, sugar and milk. Slowly add the ½ c butter.

When the butter is incorporated, remove the dough and let it rest for 1 hour. Punch the dough and allow it to rest in the refrigerator for another 2 hours.

On a floured surface, roll the dough out into a 10in x 12in rectangle. To fold the butter, visually section the rectangle into 3rds. Butter 2/3 of the rectangle, leaving an unbuttered flap at the top.  Fold the unbuttered flap over the rectangle, then fold again, the remaining 3rd. You’ll now have a thin long rectangle. Roll out the sides of the dough to the original rectangle. Then fold again in 3rds, working from the width. Let the dough rest for another 2 hours. One last fold, then rest again in the fridge until it’s nice and cold.

For the pastry crème. Boil milk in a saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat and reserve. In a bowl, whisk egg yolk. Gradually add flour and mix until the mixture smooth. Ladle in boiled milk to temper the eggs. Return the mixture to saucepan and cook over low heat. Add vanilla. Stir continuously until the mixture is thick and custardy. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

Final assembly. Roll out the chilled dough into a 10in x 12in rectangle. Spread the pastry crème. Add a good handful of raisins to cover the surface. Make sure to add raisins on the side of the dough. Roll into a log. Slice into 1 inch pieces. Place on an oiled tray pan. Allow the dough to proof in a warm place (oven with the light on) for another good 2-2 ½ hours or until it has doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 200 C / 400 F. Reduce the oven temperature to 190 C /375 F and bake for about 25 minutes, or until a deep golden brown. Let it rest for another 5 minutes in the pan before serving.

¿Que es esto?

Eggplant Stew

On my yogurt cake post, I mentioned the amazing eggplants I’ve been grateful to find here in Guatemala. Berenjena or planta de huevos are smaller then the average eggplants in the states. I love their intense purple color. When you slice into them, they have very little seeds and the taste is very sweet and firm, exactly like the ones I remembered as a kid.

The first time I ate an eggplant, I stood underneath my mom’s chin. My mom would slice them to be eaten raw, along with fresh lettuce leaves, tomatoes, cucumbers and bundles of fresh mint and cilantro. You’d take the fresh cut eggplant or vegetables and dip the slice into a highly pungent, fermented fish paste called mam (in vietnamese), then scoop some white rice into your mouth to enjoy the flavors of sweet and salty mixing inside chipmunk cheeks.

The times we would eat mam, I was petrified of the neighbors calling to report a gas leak. The smell was seriously toxic, yet so delicious and addictive. Little by little, I would finish the caramel colored mam, my father placing another slice of eggplant with his chopsticks inside my rice bowl.

It wasn’t until I was in my 20s, that I started eating eggplant in its cooked form…italian veggie lasagna or middle eastern stews, a quick favorite. But the taste was always slightly bitter or watery.

Sadly (and fortunately for the neighbors here), I couldn’t find mam in our Guatemalan village, so instead, I made a delicious stew that made me happy and wiggle just the same. 

Enjoy y buen provecho.

Recipe for Eggplant Stew
2 medium eggplants, large dice
2 ripe tomatoes
1 zucchini, large dice
1 potato, small dice
4 cloves of garlic, smashed and peeled
1 medium onion, large dice
olive oil
1/3 cup water
1 cinnamon stick
sea salt
mint or fresh picked basil (5-6 leaves), chopped

Fry garlic, onions and tomatoes with olive oil on medium heat for 10 minutes until the onions release their perfume. Mix potatoes and cook for several minutes. Add the eggplants and the rest of the vegetables; plop goes the cinnamon stick. Cover and cook on low for 35-45 minutes. Season with a good dash of sea salt. Add mint or fresh basil to the pot and one last good stir.

Enjoy with crusty bread, rice or pasta.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Artista de Flores

Several weeks ago, I posted a piece about Ines, God as a Maid. This week is especially hard for me because it's our last week in Guatemala (this weekend we continue our journey onward to El Salvador). For a couple dollars, she comes weekly to clean the lake house and leaves these beautiful flower arrangements that nourishes our daily lives. I'm so blessed and inspired by the beauty she offers. I've been baking her bread shaped like leaves and flaky pain aux raisins (placing my gifts inside her drawstring por ti). When it comes time for Ines to leave, she places a hand over her heart and says that she is sad to see us go. The feeling is real. Then comes a hug shared only among family. I say good-bye and call her by her name, arista de flores.

Every day, it seems I walk the tightrope; the fine line between the path to love and the path that separates. There are things that I still try to my feelings, the world around me, trying to make things better for others. I forget that even in the hardest times, when the ephemeral moment passes, when it's time to let go, as difficult as it is for me, I place my hand over my heart and trust. And Ines carries me back to love.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Pineapple a Good Bread Make?

So over the last 3 months on the road, I've been breaking in each place we're lucky enough to have a working oven with some homemade bread. Inside my kitchen laboratory of flour and water, I've been experimenting with different possible bread starters...yeast made from raisins, then guava, and now pineapple! Today, this beautiful 1 pound loaf emerged from the fire...newly made. 

The method: I saved a couple of the pineapple rinds, placed them in water (enough to cover), then waited for the fermentation process to kick in. The fermented pineapple liquid was ready in a record 3 days, before it started smelling like moon shine. Then, another 2 days feasting and yeasting (by removing the rind and adding flour to make the starter). When it was time to make the bread, the dough was incredibly sticky (so I used more flour than usual); I gave it 12 hours to rest, one fold, then another good 3 hours to proof before it was time for the inferno. The taste is along the lines of a san franciscan sour dough, very moist and dense in the if I can just figure out how to get some clam chowder. Photos for the scrapbook. (For the bread recipe, read from raisins to bread). Enjoy and buen provecho.

Rinds soaking in water happily bubbling after 2 days. 

Pineapple yeast starter. Smells like banana.

Hamming it up for the camera.

Another photo op...with a ms. b cameo

Perchance to nibble thy crust?

Monday, September 26, 2011

On Top of the World

On an early morning, when Manly and Biela still lay snuggled inside warm beds, I climb a volcano. Ok, it's not an active volcano hike, but an especially meaningful hike because every minute since our arrival at San Marcos de Atitlan, Guatemala, the volcano of San Pedro has been greeting us with all its beauty and majesty...a priceless view from the lake house. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the peak is 9,908 ft! (for a perspective on the scale, scroll to the bottom).

My companions: Juan, the reincarnated mountain ram and volcano guide; Antonio, the playful pan and cultural/plant guide; (reminding me every now and then to use the energy of the plants to guide my steps when my asthma blocks a needed breath); and my love, Cedric, the muse… offering a timely hand to pull me forward from the depths of steep steps…a glimpse of his smile on a sunlight path, lightens and transports. 

Each step leaks sweat from every pore; each step brings a deeper resolve. In the last 5 minutes, Antonio urges us to move quickly…before the clouds descend. All I can do is repeat to myself over and over again…yo puedo, yo puedo…I can, I can. After 3 ½ grueling hours weaving through a mayan coffee plantation, cornfields, guatemalan cypress forests with sweeping visitas…before my legs turn completely into jelly, I set foot on the top of the world. And what a magnificent view that I've ever had the good fortune lay my eyes on! Enjoy the pictures chicos.

With sore legs and love, mb

5:50 am

Sunrise over the Volcano of San Pedro.

6:00 am 

Behind tuk-tuk controls. We're driven to the entrance of the volcano.

7:00 am 

My climb starts.

7:35 am


8:00 am 

Catching my breath at the rest stop with Antonio. ¼ way into the hike...

10:10 am

A little diversion on the way.

10:30 am

Finally made it! A view from top of the world.

The studs: Juan, the boy and Antonio.

A perspective on man vs volcano.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Apple in My Yogurt Cake

Several weeks ago, I jumped for joy over a new discovery at the San Pedro market....pippin apples! These crimson and yellow-green orbs made my day. Almost 3 months into our central american trip (read when we first started, Time to Go), I've been seriously missing these exotic delicacies. Yes, exotic! I never thought I'd consider an apple...exotic. Here in Guatemala, amidst the fragrant pineapples and papaya, jeweled strawberries, the rejuvenating oranges and limes...the tropical array of mother nature's candy...I still yearn for the texture and crunch of an ordinary apple.

guatemalan beauty

Every autumn, mom has buckets brimming full of golden delicious or fujis harvested from her San Jose suburban backyard. There's always something magical growing in unsuspecting branches or sized pomegranates, darling dates, long green squashes, fire peppers, honey nectarines. For me, the hallmark of autumn is a hand picked apple from mom's house. When the boy and I moved up to San Francisco, we made less trips to San Jose, so instead, my brother, Vince would be coaxed to deliver the treasured cargo. But there would always be a bucket or a generous bag for far back as the first years when I lived on my own.

I never told my mom, but over the years, I'd be sharing my apple stash with coworkers, neighbors and friends. Friendships forged through apples. There was a time, when even a ceo at work declared that nothing tasted better than one of mai's mom's apples!

apples from my mama's tree (autumn 2011)

I bought 6 pippins from the woman dressed in red mayan weaves. I paid 8 quetzals (about a dollar). Rubbing the apple on my jeans, the boy and I shared one on the boat ride back, the wind and lake mist brushing against fearless cheeks. They're not as sweet as back home but very good nonetheless. 

With my apples, I later made several wonderful cakes, by caramelizing them first as if you were making a tart tatin, then adding them to the yogurt cake batter. I shared one cake with Miguel and Mateo (the house crew on the lake house) who'd been hauling large rocks on foreheads to rebuild the dock...the result of water raising daily from rains. They smiled when I gave them each a piece wrapped in customary cloth. 

Last night, we ran out of gas and I left the kitchen door open...the boy and I later act of war. This morning, when the gas tank was refilled, I sliced the last of the apples. The smell as the cake baked, filled every space of the oven, the kitchen and beyond...mixing with the lake air and clouds, bringing a sweet tide of calm and gratitude. The boy and I finally made peace over a piece...licking the caramel from our fingers.

Can apples make a better world? 

Caramel Apple Yogurt Cake (use the yogurt cake batter)
1 and a half medium apple or 1 large apple (a firm apple, granny smith, golden, fuji, pippin, sliced)
4 tablespoons of butter (for the caramel)
3 tablespoons of sugar (for the caramel)
yogurt cake 3-2-1 batter (3 eggs, 2 c flour, 1 c yogurt, 1 c sugar, 1/3 oil, baking powder, salt)

Pre-heat oven to 200 C or 400 F while you make the batter. Set batter aside. Liberally grease a 10 inch cake pan. 

For the caramel apples or apples tatin, in a pan, add butter and sugar on a medium heat. Allow the butter and sugar to form a very light, bubbly caramel. Arrange the sliced apples into a circle or free form. Cover with a lid and allow the apples to cook through...but not entirely. Keep to low heat. When the apples are ready (firm yet, you can pierce a knife easily through them), pour the apples and caramel into the greased cake pan. Spread the caramel out to the edges of the pan and arrange apples. (Also, if the pan is large enough and oven proof, pour the batter directly in the pan and bake it).

Pour the batter in the cake pan. Lower heat to 180 C or 350 F. Place pan in the center rack. Back for 30-35 minutes until the top is brown and you can slip a toothpick in the center and it comes out clean. Allow the cake to sit in the pan for another 5 minutes inside the oven. Run the knife on the sides and flip the cake over. Allow it to cool for another 5. Best to slice and eat right away when the caramel is still warm.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


It's been a month since I last baked bread. If you remember the last time, back in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico when I was experimenting with yeast made from guava, the result resembled something from the smurf village bakery.

I had everything I needed in my Guatemalan kitchen at the atitlan lake house: oven, some raisins, space and light...but after several attempts, the raisins wouldn't ferment. On one try, I kept the resurrected dijon mustard jar (the container for my raisin yeast batch) indoors like a grounded teenager... a film formed and finally mold. Disheartened, I tossed the whole batch out. I started again. Rinse, new raisins, new water.

It took a little over a week for the yeast to grow, probably because of the altitude and temperature (a hunch from the boy). This time, I'd leave the jar of raisins completely open...basking for hours in the sun or in wet sprinkles, hoping the lake ambience would induce some serious yeast love making. Finally, on the 7th day, the bread spirits said, raisins, thou must bubble, and they did. Hot diggity, it was christmas all over again. That was 2 days ago, and every since then I've been feeding this growing litter a tablespoon of flour and a little water every day like a doting mother cat.

This morning, we ate our buttered slices, communing with the lake, watching the majestic clouds hug the shoulders of the volcano mountain, waiting for the sun to find us again. Each day, the same surroundings but always a new perspective...just like the lessons of bread making.

Photos below for the scrapbook. (For the recipe, read from raisins to bread). Saving you a buttered slice. Buen prochevo chicos!

yeast feast

Saturday, September 17, 2011

God as a Maid

Every Tuesday, Ines comes to the house to do the weekly cleaning. During these days, I’m a mix of panic and childish pride. I don’t want her to clean the space that I occupy. Secretly, I feel shame and guilt…responsible for keeping her tied to this profession, keeping her from her family.

The sound of the taxi boat engine roars nearby around 9am. Ines disembarks and steps onto the little dock. The kitchen door opens and I hear her being greeted by the boy. They exchange cheerful words. I’m upstairs listening in, fearful of the moment when I’ll be seen. The wood creaks near and behold Ines.

Ines and the boat

I have a clown smile on. “Hola, Ines!” She comes in and kisses wind on my cheeks, we exchange skin and air. She’s in a pink floral blouse and a red mayan weaved skirt, barefoot. Her shoes are placed in front of the door marking her transformation from outside Ines to inside Ines. She starts her work.

While she cleans, I find refuge in corners, at any moment her look can turn me into a green toad. What am I so frightened of? A smile, eye contact, the exchange?

I find a place next to the boy outside on the veranda. He’s my ally. My interpreter.

“Disculpe! Do these need to be washed?” Ines raises some of the clothes I’ve left on the bedroom’s rocking chair. My Victoria Secret padded bra waves in the air unceremonious like a ship wrecked flag.

I sink into the chair….um, I search the boy for the baton.

“Do they need to be washed?” He whispers over to me.

My catch is slow, but I grip the stick…

“Do they need to be washed?…Oh, no, no, No! Gracias.” I relay to Ines like a parrot repeating human words.

The truth is, they probably needed washing. Too embarrassed to receive the offer. Before I realize it, before I can change my answer, Ines' smile is out of sight.

My ostrich neck bends deep into the sand.

I don’t feel well, I tell the boy resting my head on his arm. I think I’m coming down with something. I need to sleep I have a headache, it’s the weather, a soar throat coming on. I want to lie in bed but I can’t because Ines might see me and what would I say?

I close my eyes and make my best attempt to sleep with folded arms on folding chairs. The sun makes its way high up on a cloudy sky.

After several hours, Ines moves to the kitchen. I’m relieved, my queue to run upstairs and lie down. But not on the bed. She’s just remade the bed that I made this morning (along with the dishes in the sink I’ve already washed and put away before her arrival). What will she think? Next to the bedroom, the bathroom holds a staircase that leads to a secret attic space. There’s a tiny alcove with a view of the lake, a living tree branch threads it’s body through wood and plaster. A window seat with pillows. I curl up like a cat, finding peace with a book.

Ines walks inside the bathroom. She opens a door that leads to the washing machine and dryer. At any second, if she looks straight up, she will see a head glued to a book; I freeze into a statue. The last garment is folded and she leaves the bathroom. I breathe again.

It’s starting to rain. The clouds are now gray and water begins to beat on thatched roof. It’s 3pm, where has the day gone?

Last time Ines was here, it rained and the taxi boats did not stop. It took almost an hour of her standing in the rain on the house dock… to realize finally she needed to walk to the village to the main dock to catch her boat home to San Pedro;  a yellow waterproof camping bag that the boy offers her is the only protection she accepts to cover her head.

Today, I’m worried that she’ll have to wait in the rain again, and then walk another 10 minutes in the rain to the village. I’m worried now and pray that the rain will stop. Please stop raining! Please taxi boats, please stop for Ines today. Please stop taxi boat! Each time I hear a faint boat engine, I visualize the captain, I make him turn his face toward the house. I’m a worried wreck. I’m worried for a woman whose action shows that I ignore her.

By now…something sounds unfamiliar. It’s silence. No creaking steps on wood or brooms beating dust and fur, no mops shuffling water, no mixing of bleach splashing in buckets. There’s stillness.

The boy finds me in my nest.

Ines is gone he tells me. He’d just tipped her and she walked to the village to catch the boat.

For the first time all day, I smile triumphant.

I feel like tea and cake. I’ll bake us a yogurt cake!

I make my way down the spiral staircase, catching a glimpse in the mirror.  Why so shy? So full of paradoxes missy? Before I start lecturing my reflection, I see the vase of freshly cut flowers her hands have arranged next to the toothbrush. There are calla lilies and wild flowers, hanging yellow and white buds. Thankful. My eyes feel wet.

In the bedroom, there are my clothes, except now neatly folded. The floor is now clean, no drifting clumps of Biela, dead dragonflies, or moths. The sneezing and coughing I’ve had for days disappears. The space has been cleansed and beautified.

All the vases have been replenished with new colors, a painter reloading her brush. Purple orchids and red roses on the kitchen table. Yellow and white blossoms in the bathroom. Bright pink lilies and birds of paradise next to the dogs’ water bowls.

My heart cracks open. What was I hiding from? What was it really?

In the kitchen, I look for a baking pan. I crawl into dark nooks and find a cake pan. I think of Ines… how foolish I was to hide. I collect the pan and stand upright, only to hit my head hard on the counter.

That’s what happens when you don’t receive god's gifts.

I remember my spiritual teacher once telling me, “when the universe gives what it is your heart truly asks and you don’t step forth to receive it…it’s as if you’ve just bitch slapped god.”

I’m rubbing my head, rubbing the imaginary bump that grows like Pinocchio's nose.

“I don’t want to bitch slap god anymore.” I mumble.


One summer, when I’m 8, my mother comes home from work for lunch. While kids are in summer camp or learning to float on the sea's salty body, I’m at home…alone…reading, day dreaming, watching tv, waiting. Over the phone, she tells me how to prepare the noodles to make vietnamese bun. You boil the water, cook the rice noodles, drain it. Then take a handful and place into a round mound, just like I showed you. I’m excited to have her come home. But she says she’s bringing a friend, Uche (years later I’m in her Ethiopian wedding…one of her 8 bridesmaids).

I make the noodles but then quickly run to my room and lock the door. Eventually, I hear my mother and Uche’s voice. I’m in my bedroom listening to their laughs and warm banter, periodically my mother knocks and pleads behind closed doors. When I am ready to come out, they’re already left.

My mother once told me that she worked so hard so I would have a better future. She works every day and even on weekends. On certain days, she’s in class, not appearing until I blame the moon high up in the sky. I don’t want her to work so much, not for me. Some how I take responsibility for all the things that takes my mother way from me.

She was doing it all for me …so I told myself then that I didn’t deserve it.

This love…your mom, these flowers, a kiss, you don’t deserve it.

I’m not 8 anymore. I know. I know how to give, but I don’t know how to receive. I’m working on that.

By Mai Brehaut

ines and me

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Emperor of Ice Cream

Miguel greets us early in the morning bearing bananas. It's guatemalan independence day, he explains before taking his day off. He's stopped by to make sure we're ok at the house. Todo bien? Miguel has been slowly repairing the collapsing steps (due to heavy rains) leading down to the house. Back breaking work. He's very kind and we like him and Mateo...the house crew. I enjoy these little exchanges; green limes, aloe vera, concern over Manly's paw, or chit chat about Maya and Pedro, the other dogs on the grounds and the daily doggie interactions, the rules of initiation into the extended pack.

We thank Miguel for the bananas and exchange some pastel de yogurt (yogurt cake). He tells us of the festivities in the village.

By 10am we find seats among the locals. Everyone in San Marcos seems to have already gathered around the basketball court, the makeshift town center. Children dressed in mayan and modern garb are ubiquitous, forming separate school circles. Parents and villagers crowd along the perimeter looking on...patient, prideful...bored. Speeches that sound more like sermons are followed by more sermons. Finally, everyone stands and mimes the national anthem. It's led by an american...190 years from spain folks! He sings with exaggerated fervor, his 15 mins of fame. Most people milli vanilli the words, hands on heart, unaffected by the baseball patriotism.

The first group of children line up in a rectangle and beat drums and marimbas. There's a harvest dance, what looks like a fertility dance with head dresses, a choreographed number to jennifer lopez mixed with spanish rap...everyone watches sipping free orange sodas. The performances are a pageantry with a dash of pomp...each group with their own element of flare, the toss of glitter, back flips, break dancing....everything you would expect on independence day, right?

Amidst the celebration, the real action is centered around the ice cream cart. Every minute, a child comes running, ready to recieve a cone. (View the entire emperor of ice cream set). Feliz dia de independencia Guatemala!


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