Yup. Long before Schweddy Balls, there were my mom’s Christmas Cookie Balls…with nuts. It made us laugh every year, the pun and the cookies. You might know these little buttery delights as Russian Tea Cookies or Mexican Wedding Cookies. And although they were definitely present (and given as presents/favors) at my wedding – hugged by clear cellophane treat bags and closed with bride and groom clothespins – these will always be known as Christmas Balls. But, when you don’t live near your support system, sometimes the things that were once reserved for those special times of the year, become one of the greatest hits on regular rotation. I even remotely taught my mother how to use her new smartphone to take a photo of the recipe and send it to me; that’s a whole other homicidal story unto itself.
As you can see from the piece of paper and the recipe here, there were some things that got lost in translation. Like, the fact that my mother lists a “cube” of butter, (which I would interpret as a tablespoon) which actually turns out to be a stick of butter. She lists her margarine on the paper as room temp, then on the phone she told me “it has to be cold cold cold.” And she did not list the directions on how to incorporate the ingredients, she basically went from the table of contents straight to the conclusion; what the hell happened to the first chapter?! This is a straight forward recipe that only has five ingredients, I added salt, so six. But, there is one technique that can make it seem laborious; fraisage.
Fraisage is French for: mash the hell out of fat and flour until they have been merged into submission with the heel of your hand.
Christmas Cookie Balls Recipe
- 2 cups AP Flour
- 2 sticks Margarine, cold and cut into little chunks
- 1/4 cup Confectioner's Sugar
- 1 tsp Vanilla
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 cup walnuts, chopped
- 1 - 16oz box/bag confectioner's sugar
- Preheat oven to 350
- In a large bowl, combine flour, salt, sugar, vanilla and butter pieces. Run your fingers through the mixture to ensure all is well combined. Within the bowl, mash ingredients with the heel of your hand - this technique is known as fraisage - ensuring butter pieces are getting smashed into the flour. This can take a while. Once all of the ingredients start to form a paste, you can fold in your walnut pieces. If you don't have a large enough bowl, you can dump contents onto your bench and fraisage that way.
- With your hands, roll dough into individual 1'' balls. Place on an ungreased sheet tray, about 1'' away from each other. These cookies don't spread.
- Fill a large bowl with half box/bag of confectioner's sugar.
- Bake cookies 13-15 minutes, or until golden brown. A little dark around the edges is fine, brings an extra nutty flavor.
- Immediately place hot cookies into bowl of confectioner's sugar and top with remaining box/bag of sugar. You want to make sure all cookies are coated with confectioner's sugar. You may have to do this in steps.
- Remove hot cookies from sugar and set aside to cool. After they have cooled, 10-15 minutes, roll cookies in confectioner's sugar again. Place in serving vessel and enjoy!
In my mom's handwritten recipe, she only adds 3TB of confectioner's sugar. However, on the phone she told me, "I add an extra TB for love."
Which is why my recipe calls for 1/4 cup.
Mom’s Original Handwritten Recipe
It’s Sacramento’s first Puerto Rican popup! Come spend an afternoon with others as we enjoy spit roasted pig (lechon), arroz con gandules, codfish fritters, tacos and other delicious tidbits! Your ticket includes appetizers, a fantastic lunch with an assortment of sides, alcoholic & non-alcoholic drinks and dessert!
There are only 15 spots available.
Must be 21 and over. Event takes place outdoors.
THE ADDRESS WILL BE REVEALED AFTER TICKETS HAVE BEEN PURCHASED. If you do not receive the address immediately after, please email me.
Tickets are only $20 per person and can be purchased by clicking here!
Much like myself, aesthetically, this cake was a flop. But, there’s no denying the power of its flavor. This cake is a combination of my grandma’s pineapple upside down cake and my compulsion for different textures and flavors. Maybe this is what my therapist meant when she said, “You’ll have to learn to give yourself whatever it was you felt like you got from your grandma.”
After slicing the pineapple, baking the layers, softening and spreading the dulce de leche, whipping the heavy cream…the last layer was just too much. The whole cake comes smashing down, making that ever comical farting sound; “pbbt.” The cake was too heavy for the delicate and straightforward whipped cream filling and as a result, caved in on itself and shrunk from a four layer cake to a three layer. It was a raggedy cake, but it sure tasted delicious.
My mom remembers a pineapple upside down cake my grandma made for her seven children on their birthdays. Of course, there was no recipe. I set out to recreate this cake and failed time after time. Creating the batter from scratch, obscene amounts of butter, aerating. Nothing would create a tender and sticky crumb. I found myself sitting on the floor of the local library, thumbing through vintage 1950s recipes, the 1969 Betty Crocker cookbook (the only cookbook my mother has) and Duncan Hines article snippets. Lightbulb moment. I had to go basic on this recipe. And so I settled on a combination of several factors, some straight out of the 1960s and some straight from my own imagination.
When I made this cake for my mom, I just made the plain pineapple upside down cake. I hit the nail on the head. She would not have liked this cocoa nib + Jacobsen sea salt version.
Nana’s Kinda Pineapple Upside Down Cake
The prep time is around 2 hours, but one hour of that is dedicating to the cooling of the cake. The other hour is dedicated to the slicing of the pineapple, caramel, whipping cream and assembly of the cake.
- 1 small fresh pineapple, sliced into thin pieces
- 4 tb butter
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1 yellow cake mix
- 4 eggs
- 3/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1 (3oz) box pineapple instant Jello pudding
- 1 cup of 7 up
- 2 (13.4oz) cans of dulce de leche
- chocolate covered cocoa nibs
- 1 pint heavy cream
- large flaked sea salt
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Add 2TB into each of your two 9'' cake pans and melt in the oven.
- Pour your cake mix, pudding mix, eggs, oil and soda into a large mixing bowl and mix for about 1 minute.
- You should hear your butter sizzling, take the pans out of the oven and sprinkle 2TB of brown sugar in one pan and 2TB in the other; with a fork combine the sugar and butter.
- Line the thinly sliced pineapple pieces onto the caramel, ensuring the entire bottom of the pan is covered.
- Pour equal parts batter into each pan, over the pineapple, and bake for about 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.
- Set on cooling racks until fully cooled.
- Whip your cream until it's a thick (but not curdled looking) viscosity; should be able to stand on its own.
- Place cake layer on cake stand and cut one layer in half. Repeat for other layer. Now, you'll have four layers.
- In a microwave safe container, warm dulce de leche in the microwave for about 10-20 seconds.
- Place one bottom layer (without pineapple) on cake stand, spread dulce de leche onto cake layer. Sprinkle course sea salt and cocoa nibs over dulce de leche. Pipe whipped cream over dulce de leche and nibs. Place a top layer with pineapple on to the whipped cream. Dulce de leche. Salt and nibs. Pipe cream. Layer without pineapple. Dulce de leche. Salt and nibs. Pipe cream. Should finish with the last layer with pineapple.
You could turn this into a two-day task. Bake the cakes and then assemble the next day.
I tried using canned pineapple in 100% pineapple juice. It was awful. The pineapple was just too pale and saturated. It wouldn't caramelize at all. Spring an extra couple of bucks and purchase a fresh pineapple.
If you cannot find pineapple insant pudding, use vanilla.
First you should know, this recipe is for beans made from scratch (from dry beans). Second you should know, Puerto Ricans don’t call beans frijoles, we call them habichuelas. Pink beans stewed with tomato sauce, sofrito and sometimes some form of smoky meats (hock or bacon). Much to my chagrin, dried pink beans are incredibly difficult to find. Perhaps this is the reason why so many online habichuela recipes start with “use one-14oz can of beans…” I don’t think so, homie. This isn’t the only shortcut Puerto Ricans have come to utilize as I found out during a recent discussion with The Noshery’s Meseidy Rivera, when she mentioned that using fresh sofrito and achiote oil was “old school.” How can it be old school when I still apply these methods to my cooking and I’m only in my early thirties? My grandparents came here in the 50s, maybe because we’ve only been here for three generations – virtually isolated from other Puerto Ricans – we haven’t adapted the shortcuts that many people develop through acculturation. But, I surely didn’t know that my cooking was “old school,” I just thought it was “grandma’s.”
Beans are so important to my family. When I was a teenager, I was at my grandma’s (as per usual) and she started cooking beans. I sat on the couch in the living room of her two-story townhouse, she gave me instructions to “watch the beans” as she sat on her porch to gossip with her neighbor. I did not watch the beans. In fact, I totally spaced out and proceeded to be enthralled by Tom and his shenanigans with Jerry. All of a sudden, my uncle burst through the door and said, “The beans are burning,” and leaped over my legs towards the kitchen and turned the fire down. Luckily, they didn’t burn…but it was a close call. My grandma and my uncle were pretty damn upset with me. My second memory is of my nina in Stockton. She makes beans at least once a week. She maniacally shuffles through her dim and archaic kitchen, the floor groaning under her feet, the power of the gas range heating up the entire room. She fusses and curses everyone, her unique and unplaceable accent shrilly bouncing off her Bauer bowls and pouring out of the doorway. Then, she slowly adds water, onion and sometimes garlic to her pot. When her beans come to a boil, she turns it down to a simmer and starts to work on her tortillas. And they are the most delicious and soul satisfying beans and tortillas I have had. When I found out about Rancho Gordo, I knew I had to purchase a bag for my nina.
Rancho Gordo beans are not designer, they’re heirloom. People put care into producing a quality product that cannot be matched by the dust ladened bag that sits on the shelves of your supermarket. When my nina found out that her beloved Pinto bean – that I brought her a bag of – was grown in Stockton, it was nothing short of a miracle. “A full circle.” My nina’s ex-husband, Tom, was Indian. Tom believed the symbolism of circles equaled wholeness…totality. She ate the beans and said, “these taste like the beans we used to have as a kid. Beans don’t taste like this anymore.” I drove home and made my own pot of beans, using Ojo de Cabra, and they sure as hell didn’t taste like the beans I had used in the past. These were plump, meaty and buttery; and no butter (or any other fat) was added during the cooking process. But, they sure were buttery.
Habichuelas Recipe (Puerto Rican Beans)
This recipe seems long, but it's 8-10 hours of inactive bean soaking. And 3 hours of bean simmering.
- 16oz dried Ojo de Cabra beans
- 2 medium yukon golds, diced into quarters.
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed
- 2TB sofrito
- Rustle through the beans; you’re looking for pebbles or shriveled looking beans to discard.
- Soak 16oz of beans in 3-4 qt. cold water, overnight.
- Drain the beans and discard the bean soaking water.
- In a large pot, cover the beans in 3 qt of cold water with 2 cloves of garlic and one small onion and bring to a boil. Bring down to med-low heat and let beans simmer; 2 hours.
- Keep an eye on the pot, ensuring it has just enough water that the bottom isn’t stuck to the pan. But, you do want the water to reduce significantly. Skim off and discard any scum.
- Add 2TB sofrito. Cook 40 mins.
- Add potatoes and salt to taste. Cook another 20 mins.
You can freeze the extra sofrito in an ice cube tray (for up to 6 months) and use it in stir-fry, chili and curries.
I don’t really care for pasta prepared in an Italian style. One of my first restaurant jobs was hostess then waitress then line cook at Old Spaghetti Factory circa 1999; I was 18-years-old. They always offered us free shift meals and it was always pasta. When I went to culinary school, it seemed staff meal was always pasta. Over the years, I think I’ve accumulated pasta fatigue. In this recipe I normally use rice noodles, but the pantry was running low and all that I had was spaghetti. This can sometimes happen when you’ve just pulled a double shift on the line that feels like Ironman and then you no doubt launched several booze missiles into your mouth. You’ll probably want to eat something and you might be too damn busy to keep your pantry stocked. Assuming you have a pantry. Hell, even if you’re just a lazy person who doesn’t want to spend more than 30-minutes on a dish, Midnight Asian Noodles are for you.
The amount of bok choy in this recipe could definitely be amped up. I used two medium size stalks and even with adding the leafy tops right at the end, it didn’t amount of much. I’d go full thrust mode and add five medium stalks/8 baby bok choy stalks and some cabbage. In the end you have something quick and yet comforting; slightly spicy at the end, sweet, salty, funky and verdant from the fresh herbs. More importantly, this dish is so much better the next day after it has had time to sit in the pan sauce.
- 1 small onion, thinly sliced
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 TB ginger, minced
- 5-8 baby bokchoy, bottoms thinly sliced // tops chopped chunky
- 1 handful of cilantro
- 1 handful of basil
- 1 LB 31/40 shrimp, cleaned
- 1/2 cup chicken stock
- 1 tsp brown sugar
- 1 TB soy sauce
- 2 tsp fish sauce
- 1 TB Huy Fong Vietnamese Chili Garlic Sauce
- 2 limes
- 2 TB of tamarind paste, soaked in hot water
- 1/2 LB Barilla spaghetti
- Boil your pasta water.
- In a bowl, combine chicken stock, brown sugar, soy sauce, chili garlic paste, tamarind water.
- Slice onion in half, peel, keep core intact, slice into crescents. This way most of the onion disintegrates. Mince garlic and ginger.
- Separate your bokchoy stems and tops.
- Plunk your pasta into your boiling water.
- Over medium heat, slowly cook your onions, ginger and garlic. Yes, you want some browness in your onions, 3-5 mins. Keep an eye on this mixture, add some chicken stock to the mixture. Add your bokchoy stems to the mixture, continue cooking 2 mins. Add a pinch of brown sugar and your fish sauce to the mixture. Let bubble and reduce. Add 1/4 of your stock and tamarind water to the mixture, let bubble and reduce.
- Add the rest of your tamarind water sauce.
- Add your shrimp. Flip them over after 1 minute, ensuring they're coated in the sauce, 2 mins.
- With tongs, pull out your pasta and plunge it directly into your shrimp mixture. Coat in sauce. Add your herbs and bokchoy tops. Coat in sauce. Turn the heat off and let pasta sit in sauce for as long as you can stand. The longer it sits and absorbs the sauce, the more delicious it'll be.
Puerto Rican food is not spicy. And growing up, I don’t remember there being a bottle of this Carolina BBQesque pique sauce on my grandma’s table. But, when I asked my grandma if she wanted me to bring her back anything from my first trip as an adult to Puerto Rico, “bring me back a bottle of pique.” In Puerto Rico, these bottles were everywhere. They dangled from strings from every awning and column, like stain-glass with the sun shinning through the bottles emphasizing aromatics within repurposed liquor bottles.
While I was in Sacramento, I was shopping at a tiny international mom-and-pop that my family has patronized for twenty-years. They had culantro. The infamous herb that grows with wild abandon alongside houses and between cracks in the concrete in PR. And yet, not so easily found in Northern California. A few days later, I unintentionally bought a tiny pineapple for $2 (because I was on a cottage cheese + pineapple breakfast kick). As I started to trim away the pineapple skin, I looked upon the culantro. Two essential ingredients to pique.
The idea was just as easy to conjure as this recipe is to create.
Pique Recipe: Puerto Rican Vinegary Hot Sauce
Use this on salty tostones or a base for BBQ sauce!
- The peel of one whole pineapple (I also use some of the flesh)
- 3/4 cup white vinegar
- 3/4 cup Bragg apple cider vinegar
- 2 whole jalapeño, including seeds
- 4 cloves garlic
- 2 culantro leaves
- 1 TB olive oil
- Combine three cups of water and the pineapple peel, bring to a boil. Set aside for ten-minutes. Pour through a strainer into a bowl. Pour strained liquid into a funnel set into the neck of a clean and sterilized bottle large enough to contain 3 cups (24oz) of liquid; could be a mason jar, but I repurpose Barcadi bottles.
- Pour in the vinegar, garlic, jalapeno, culantro, salt and pineapple liquid. Top the whole mixture off with a tablespoon of olive oil. Close the bottle off, refrigerate and use for up to one week.