I just returned from an idyllic week in Puerto Rico where I met my older sister, Cynthia, for a much-needed visit with our two elderly aunts. Our aunts, one 93 years old and the other maybe 85, welcomed us with soft and gentle open arms, sweet kisses and many, MANY blessings. The younger of the two worked for many years in the Chemistry Department of the University of Puerto Rico, her husband was the head of the department and together had done cancer research at Fordham University back in the ’50’s. We affectionately named her “Maita” years ago, an informal name for godmother. An analytical academician, her intellectual brilliance is surpassed by her goodness, her tender-heartedness and charity. I’ve always said, “Maita, when I die I’m going to grab onto your ankles and sneak into heaven right behind you!” As she has always had this saint-like, beatific stature I, on the other hand, started to gain the reputation of a some what naughty little girl from a young age.
I was constantly being compared to Cynthia and one my better-behaved cousins in Puerto Rico who is close to my age. I’ll just refer to her as “M”. The three of us, Cynthia, “M” and I played constantly. Fairies, dollies, coloring, tea parties or in her playhouse, the envy of my childhood. But as we grew older our tastes changed and we moved away from dollies and tea sets and were more intrigued with tween fashion and, of course, boys…but only from afar. Decades before even portable phones, this was a time of letter writing. Long distance was hideously expensive so those calls were arranged for twice a month at best. Cynthia, naturally, was an excellent, well-disciplined writer. I was lazy, had messy, illegible penmanship and would do anything to get out of writing…including lie. My mother insisted that each and every letter we received be answer immediately and well-written. None of this 3-line nonsense. Oh, no, ma’am. Not my mama. She proof read every letter we wrote until we came of a certain age, maybe pre-teen. And that’s when the trouble started. She felt we were old enough to write informative, loving letters, all grammatically and punctually correct. We had eight aunts and uncles, their children plus a complete set of grandparents in Puerto Rico all more than happy to write to the one family which was stateside, namely us. Regrettably, by the time I reached 11 or 12 years old I could not sit make the effort to do homework, practice my music lessons, clean my room or return letters. I loved receiving them, especially when a pale blue check came fluttering out, but I did not have the thoughtfulness or moral fibre to sit down and pen not even a “thank you”. It all came to a head one summer when I had received numerous letters from cousin “M”, the final one imploring me to please, please write back. I loved her, I did! But did I write her back? No. No, I did not. I probably shoved that letter under my bed where I threw everything including dirty cups and sandwich plates, napkins and trash. At length my grandmother called and though she only spoke with my mother I knew I was in trouble when I saw the fire coming out of Mama’s eyes. She was incensed, “Oh, yes!”, she castigated me, “You can go swim and play at “M’s” country club, play tennis and go out to dinner but you can’t write her a simple letter? Hmmm???” She was boiling; I had embarrassed and shamed her, she was disappointed in me. I remember Mama taking me by the arm, unceremoniously sitting me down at the dinner table set with paper and pen and informing me in no uncertain terms, “You are NOT to get up from this table until you write your cousin! Is that understood?” Well! If she was fuming, I was enraged. How dare my cousin rat on me? How dare she? You want a letter? I’ll give you a letter! All afternoon I wrote, every few minutes Mama would glance at me pleased that I was responding, putting out the fire of family scandal and enriching our cousinhood. I sealed the letter, addressed it and tossed it on the dining room table to be stamped and mailed while I snapped at my mother, “There! There’s your letter. Hope your happy!” and off I went, free as a bird, never giving it another thought. Weeks, maybe months, went by and off we went on summer vacation. We spent two or three weeks in Jamaica as a family then split up as Dad had to return home to work and we flew on to Puerto Rico to spend the rest of summer. I was excited and looked forward to the time at our grandparent’s house. We were positively smothered with love, sugary treats, outings and adventures and oodles of quarters pulled out from the bottom of our uncles pockets then singles as we grew older. We counted our loot often. “I have $12.00! How much do you have?” “Aww. I only have $9.75”. Well, one of those hot mornings, nothing different about it, Mama came to me and said, “How would you like to walk to Maita’s house? Just you and me.”, I was incredulous. “Nobody else?”, I asked, “I don’t have to share you?”. “No, cielo, change your clothes, brush your hair and we’ll go.” And so we did. I was too old and sophisticated to skip but my heart was bursting with happiness that I had my mother’s undivided time and attentions. It was a short walk to my aunt’s condominium plus a great ride in the elevator as it was an incredibly tall building. The doors to the elevator opened, we walked down the hall and knocked on her door. I thought of the hard, spicy sausage she often served with thick, crunchy Goya crackers and hoped I would be seeing them brought out that day. The door swung open and my aunt swept me up with hugs and kisses. There was a flurry of greetings between her and my mother when suddenly I found myself in her living room alone. I turned and there, legs crossed and sitting in an enormous, dark-wood monster of a club chair sat my uncle…the father of “M”. Terror set in. It gripped my 11-year old heart. I knew what was coming; I knew what I had done and now so did he. I had been summoned, tricked, fooled and now I was going to get it. It would seem that the letter I had written my cousin, “M”, had hurt her deeply. It had evoked a flood of tears, especially the part where I called her an “ass”, so he said. I hastily back pedaled and reassured him, “I didn’t call her an “ass”. I said ‘Don’t BE an ass.’ I didn’t call her an “ass”!” Let me remind you, Gentle Reader, this was over 45 years ago. A true lady would never, EVER use that kind of language. And he was heartbroken, crestfallen…desolate. This darling, generous, loving man who gave me, and my brother and sisters, everything. Treats, adventures, nickles and quarters. I felt horrible. I felt cheap and horrible. He forgave me; of course he forgave me. I was a still child. But it caused a huge divide between my cousin and me. It was never the same between the two of us…even to this day. Maybe I called her a dirty word but she did worse. She told on me. Tattletale. She knew what she was doing when she ran to her father, our grandmother and our aunts. She knew full well that the entire family on the island would learn what I had done and that I would be judged accordingly. I had sullied our name. At all of 11 years old. Oh, the shame of it all! So foolish and wasteful is the loss of a tender friendship. We adored “M’s” father as one of our favorite uncles.
My uncle would, time and again, bring us sweet indulgences, one of them being Pan de Mallorca; a smooth, ambrosial yeast bread heavily dusted with an abundant and generous dusting of confectioner’s sugar.
To gild the lily, take it over the top, it can be split and stuffed with thin slices of sweet ham and extra sharp cheddar cheese.
The bread is then buttered on the outside and grilled with a weight on top. When the cheese has melted and is hot and gooey the sandwich is again dusted with confectioner’s sugar, sliced and served.
Sweet and salty has never been better! Just like life.
This bread is truly special. Soft and fluffy due to slow risings, Pan de Mallorca begs for time and patience. This isn’t the recipe you want to start at 3:00 in the afternoon. But if you wake up early one dark morning in the mood to rattle around in the kitchen all the day then this is the bread for you. You just can’t rush the risings. It keeps well for a little less than a week, well wrapped in the refrigerator as do the sandwiches. It’s the best with a hot cup of cafe con leche.
Pan de Mallorca or Puerto Rican beignets
- 1 cup water, warm, between 110° and 115°
- 1 cup milk, warm, between 110° and 115°
- 2 1/4 teaspoons yeast, (one standard envelope)
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 6 large egg yolks, room temperature
- 1 stick, (8 tablespoons) butter, melted and cooled, plus 4 tablespoons, melted and cooled
- 5 cups all-purpose flour plus more to dust counter when rolling out dough
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup confectioner’s sugar for powdering baked rolls, more if desired
- In the bowl of a stand-up mixer combine water, milk, yeast, granulated sugar and 1 cup of flour.
- Mix well and allow yeast to bloom 30-45 minutes.
- Whisk in egg yolks and 1 stick melted butter to yeast mixture.
- Add salt, mix well, and add remaining 4 cups of flour in one cup increments.
- When well combined cover with plastic wrap, cover and let rise until double in size. This can take anywhere from 1 hour to 3 hours. Last week it took forever!
- When risen, generously flour counter or work surface. Transfer the dough to the floured counter, flour the dough and knead until no longer sticky using as little flour as you can.
- Roll dough out into a rectangle, flouring and turning when needed to avoid sticking to the counter.
- Divide into 12 equal pieces.
- Roll out each portion into a long strip, and roll each strip into a coil, tucking the outside end under the coil.
- Place each bun on a parchment paper lined baking sheet, 6 per baking sheet.
- Brush each roll with the remaining 4 tablespoons of melted butter and let rise another 20-30 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 375°.
- Bake, one sheet at a time, in the middle of the oven for 13-16 minutes. Check the bottom of bread at the 13 minute mark to avoid over-baking.
- Remove from oven and let each roll cool directly on cooling rack for 5 minutes then generously dust with powdered sugar.