PATI'S MEXICAN TABLE

December 21, 2011 11:50 AM
Buñuelos: High Maintenance, But So Worth It!

When I was about 10 years old, my parents developed a habit of traveling during the December holidays without my sisters and I. Don't ask me why they thought it was a good idea.

It was an awful, terrible, horrible idea. 

The sweet highlight was that our babysitter Sari, whom we call Nana Tochito and who came from the mountainous regions of Oaxaca, prepared a full blown Christmas style meal to spoil and help us celebrate the holidays. No, we didn't have the tree like our friends in school. But, thanks to my Nana we couldn't care less. We exchanged gifts, ate lots of gelt, had the traditional big roasted turkey, drank ponche, and what we loved the most, ate buñuelos.

Mostly found around Christmas and New Year's, buñuelos speak of nothing but celebration. And truly, what one has to celebrate is being lucky enough to find buñuelos at markets, fairs and street stands or having the time, patience and a reliable recipe to make them at home. 

Buñuelos may be one of the most high maintenance treats one can make: but to cut to the chase, they are completely worth it. 

Now with that said, you can skip to the end where I give you my most reliable recipe or read a bit more about why I - and everyone in Mexico- love them so, including their demanding and time consuming nature... 

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They are immense with a stunning deep caramel color. Light, thin, crisp yet sturdy. It is a mystery why they don't break piled high in the stalls or baskets where they wait to be sold, defying gravity and their own weight. 

They are irresistible, especially drenched in sweet piloncillo syrup and eaten bite by bite in their entirety or broken into large pieces. Once in your mouth, they feel crunchy and delicate, with a combination of mellow yet distinct flavors. So one large buñuelo is usually just the way to get started...


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Though the most popular version of the buñuelo is this large, extended and thin one so common in Oaxaca - others being tubed, twisted or with pinwheel looking shapes- there are many spins as to what goes in its dough. 

I like to make it with flour, butter -rather than lard or vegetable shortening-, eggs, fresh squeezed orange juice, a bit of sugar and a pinch of salt. 

Some old recipes call for Tequesquite- saltpeter- water or water made from simmering tomatillo husks to help ferment the dough and help it have volume, and make it fluffier and crisper as it fries. Since both ingredients sound hard to come by, you may shy away from making them. But don't! These days most cooks don't use either, as one can get the same effect from using baking powder and good dough kneading.


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If you look closely behind the oranges, you will also find anise liquor, and in my photo Sambuca. If you can't find it, you can use orange liquor. You can skip the liquor altogether, but it does give it a nice ethereal quality.

So no, this is not just a plain flour dough...


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After the ingredients are mixed, the demanding part of making buñuelos begins. The dough needs to be kneaded for a long, long, time.

It starts looking like the photo above, but it really needs to end up looking like the photo below. Smooth, homogeneous and elastic.
 

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Because we live in the 21st and not the 19th century, you can choose to knead it by hand for a half hour or just drop all the ingredients in the mixer, and let the mixer do its thing for 10 minutes.


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Then, after that whole lot of massaging in the mixer, the dough calls for a bit of rest.

It really does. If you don't let it unwind in a greased bowl for at least 20 to 30 minutes, preferably covered with a clean cloth, the dough will not be malleable and easy to work with.

It will be sticky, capricious and unmanageable.


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But after the rest, it is delightful to work with it. Look at it above, it is fluffy and soft.

Divide the dough into 12 to 15 balls. You can keep them covered if you want as you work through them.


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One by one, with a floured surface and a floured rolling pin, roll the balls out into about 4" to 6" disks. It may seem as if when you are rolling them, the dough wants to get back together into a ball. Just gently and softly, roll out, flip and roll out again. Take your time and add more flour if needed.


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Then you give it a second go. Starting with the first disks you rolled out, flour the surface and try to make them as thin as possible. As thin as paper is the best.


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Here, below I am showing you how thin, can you see my face behind the thin buñuelo?

There are many methods to get them as thin as paper. I opt for rolling them in two rounds. Many cooks in Mexico used to stretch them out with clean cloths on their knees; hence the name buñuelos "de rodilla." But some cooks stretch them out in upside down bowls covered in cloth.


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Manuel and his sister Rosa, who have been part of my cooking team for almost 4 years now stretch them out by hand on the second round. For the last event at the Mexican Cultural Institute this year, I asked Manual to show us all. He is a master at it!


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We made 120 buñuelos the night before the class. Though the Director of the Institute thought we were nuts making them for so many people, we couldn't think of an event themed Holiday Foods without them. Just like there had to be a Piñata -the ones we found had dinosaurs on them!- there had to be buñuelos.


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After the buñuelos are stretched or rolled out as thin as they can be, they need to "air" and dry anywhere from a half hour to a couple of hours. You can't leave them over night or the will dry too much and crumble when you hold them. They are demanding, see?

Finally, they go quickly deep fried in a generous batch of festive hot oil.

The moment you lay each buñuelo in the oil, they float and bubble. If the oil is very hot, as it should, there will be happy active bubbles all over the place crisping the fritter without it absorbing the oil.


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And as charming as those buñuelos are, they need charming company too.

The tastiest syrup is made with piloncillo simmered with a bit of water and cinnamon until it is nice and thick.


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I think it is gorgeous looking.


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Here we go... pouring it on top.


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And it really calls for a lot more...


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So much for 5 minute meals and 3 ingredient recipes. Some foods are worth the hassle. Especially around the holidays, when we have that extra bit of time, and we want to spoil the people we love.

I think this is the most time consuming post I have written in my blog so far, just as time consuming as making the buñuelos. But, if you ask me, it was worth it!


BUÑUELOS
Makes about 12 to 15 buñuelos and about 1 1/2 cups syrup

INGREDIENTS
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon anise or orange liquor
3/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, vegetable shortening or lard, plus more for buttering the bowl

1 pound piloncillo, chopped or shredded (about 2 cups packed) or dark brown sugar
1 cup water
1 true or Ceylon cinnamon stick
Vegetable oil, for frying

TO PREPARE
To make the piloncillo syrup, in a medium sauce pan add the piloncillo, and pour the boiling water over along with the cinnamon. If the piloncillo is not chopped or shredded, let it come undone for a few minutes under the hot water.  Bring to a simmer and cook over medium heat until it achieves a syrupy consistency, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat. Remove the cinnamon, if it broke into pieces, strain the syrup into a container.

To make the buñuelos, in the bowl of a mixer set with the hook attachment, add the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Make room in the middle and add the egg, anis liquor and orange juice. Begin beating, at low speed, for a1 minutes. Add the butter and continue beating for another 10 to 12 minutes. The dough should be very smooth and elastic.

Butter a large mixing bowl. Place the dough in the bowl and cover with a kitchen towel. Let the dough rest for anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes. Divide the dough into 12 to 15 balls, of about 1½ inches, and place them in a baking sheet. Cover with a kitchen towel.

Sprinkle your countertop and a rolling pin with flour. One by one, roll each ball into rounds of about 4 to 6 inches wide. Place each circle on top of a table or countertop. Beginning with the ones you rolled out first, continue rolling them, making sure that before each one the countertop is dusted with flour as well as the rolling pin. Roll each one as thin as you can go, without them tearing. Traditionally, cooks stretch them out with their hands as if it were pizza dough, and sometimes using bowls covered with towels and gently stretching them out. I find it is easier to continue with the rolling pin!

Place each finished piece on the table or countertop and move on with the rest. Let all of the pieces "air" and dry for at least 30 minutes. They should be as thin as paper (or construction paper!), and feel dry to the touch.

In a deep and large 12- inch skillet heat enough oil to ½ inch over medium-high heat. Once the oil is very hot but not smoking, fry one buñuelo at a time. They will start bubbling up. Fry for about 20 seconds per side, until browned, then slip to the other side with a pair of tongs until it has browned and crisped on the other side. Transfer to a plate or baking sheet covered with paper towels.

When ready to serve, you may sprinkle them with sugar and ground cinnamon or powdered sugar, or drizzle with honey or the piloncillo syrup included in this recipe.