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Todos Santos

Making Bread Up Close

Volunteering in Bolivia at the non-profit, Up Close Bolivia has introduced us to so many great things, and our first Todos Santos celebration was a definite highlight.  With a bread recipe from a high-altitude baking book, a massive sack of flour and 10 pairs of hands to knead the dough, Doug and I were introduced to our first session of baking T’antawawas for Todos Santos at the Casa Mendoza-Donlan.  Doug and I spent the night baking, reminiscing and having a million laughs with the founders of Up Close Bolivia, Emma Donlan and Rolanda Mendoza and their children, our volunteer comrades, Paula and Jeremy, and a neighbourhood family. 

Emma and Rolando prepared the baking table and traditional foods to eat while we mixed our dough.   Choclo– Andean large-kerneled white corn was steamed and served drizzled with oil, Crema Zapata- pumpkin soup was served with Irish Scones, in memory of Emma’s ancestors. And, of course a typical Bolivian cocktail made with a grape-based liquor similar to grappa.  We didn’t really have any traditional foods to offer, but Doug and I shared some carrots we had smuggled into Bolivia with us from our garden! Mum’s the word on that one!  I made my first-ever batch of high-altitude bread using a recipe called “Peter’s Favourite Bread” from a high-altitude cookbook produced in La Paz.  Coincidentally, it was the exact same recipe I was given by a friend years ago, but that one was called “Best Ever Bread.”  Not sure why this particular recipe is considered “high-altitude?”  It did take quite a lot longer to rise, but made beautiful bread in the end, thankfully!  Being a chef, the pressure was definitely on!

Making Bread Together

Forming Bread

Todos Santos or All Saint’s Day is celebrated in Bolivia on November 1 and 2, but most of the festivities take place on November 2, which is also known as All Soul’s Day.  To celebrate departed friends and family, Bolivians create an apxata or mesa difuntos , an offering table, laden with the favourite foods and drinks of the dead.  Included in the table are tall sugar canes and flowering onions, which are believed to draw water from the earth to the almas, or spirits above. Emma laid her table with traditional foods, which included tequila, in memory of her dear friend who loved tequila and a dish of dog treats for their much- loved and missed faithful dog.   It is believed that the almas visit the homes of their relatives from noon on November 1 to noon on November 2 to feast on the offerings.

Emma and Zoe Making Bread

Todos Santos Table Up Close 2a

Mesa Difuntos en la Casa de Mendoza Dolan

Featured on the table are the colourful t’antawawas- breads with clay faces- sold at markets throughout Bolivia prior to Todos Santos and shaped like lost friends and loved ones.  The baking of the breads is very fun and not at all maudlin.  So different from the way in which North Americans deal with loss.  We all took turns kneading and shaping the dough and telling stories about those we have lost in Spanish, English and “Spanglish!”

Todos Santo Table, El Alto Museun of Culture

Todos Santos Mesa Difuntos, El Alto Museum of Culture

On November 2, Bolivians visit neighbours and share the special foods and drinks from their tables.  They also visit cemeteries, where they have picnics, dance and play music.  All around La Paz, there was the sound of music with small bands of men playing Andean flutes and drums and women in traditional dress travelling towards the cemetery.  The men seen here played for passers-by, before hopping on the bus to the nearest cemetery.

Todos Santos Band

I am now on a mission to search the Mercado in La Paz for the little clay faces, so that we can make t’antawawas  next year on Todos Santos!

Our visit to the Museum of Indigenous Art, El Alto, Bolivia.

t’antawawas at the Museum of Indigenous Art, El Alto, Bolivia.

Food for Thought- How We Eat

Well, it’s January. Or, should we call it, Repentuary- the month we repent for all of our so called food sins of the previous weeks, months, years?

Around the world, people have turned over a new leaf. Whatever you want to call it…a regime…a cleanse…a detox…a new kick… it always goes the same way; rid the shelves of junk and fill them with healthier alternatives. Yesterday I chucked the cheezies and added hemp hearts and organic cacao for an Avocado Chocolate Breakfast Trifle recommended by Jamie Oliver in Saturday’s Globe. Sounds like dessert to me but, hey,  Jamie says it will provide a healthy start to the day and who am I to doubt?  And, all you do is throw everything in a food processor!


This new hemp heart/cacao approach to eating is not to say that the cheezies won’t make another appearance in my pantry, of course. Just, not for now. We all know that most “new kicks” don’t last long and being a chef for the last thirty-odd years, I have seen lots of food trends come and go.

I teach cooking students that food is like the fashion industry. Certain foods are in style this year, while others become passé. When I started cooking for a living, quiche was the new thing. Then there was a movement fiercely opposed to the quiche. There was even a book entitled “Real men Don’t Eat Quiche.”  Kiwis were all the rage, then kiwis were soooo yesterday. And, so it goes. But, in my early cooking days, I don’t remember there being the dogmatic approach to food choices, or what has now become the good/bad dichotomy, that is such a big part of eating these days.

We are fickle. Jumping from one food trend to another. Demonizing this food and lauding the next. And the vast array of cookbooks! Who can keep track? Which one is the best? Impossible to answer, really. You have to trust the reviews or ask a friend or just take a chance and try out some of the recipes. I have my favourites and they tend to be no-nonsense guides to real food. All food.

This year, I bought myself a Christmas present from one of my favourite cookbook authors, Nigel Slater: The Kitchen Diaries volume iii: A Year of Good Eating.

Nigel Slater describes himself as a cook who writes. He doesn’t get caught up in the chef side of things.  I love his writing, especially his memoir, Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger, that was also made into a wonderful movie. I love his recipes, his columns in The Observer Magazine, his cooking series for the BBC, but most of all, I love his approach to food. In Nigel’s words:

“I am concerned about the current victimisation of food. The apparent need to divide the contents of our plates into heroes and villains. The current villains are sugar and gluten, though it used to be fat, and before that it was salt ( and before that it was carbs and …oh, I’ve lost track). It is worth remembering that today’s devil will probably be tomorrow’s angel and vice versa.  We risk having the life sucked out of our eating by allowing ourselves to be shamed over our food choices. If this escalates, historians may look back on this generation as one in which society’s decision about what to eat was driven by guilt and shame rather than by good taste or pleasure.”  from The Kitchen Diaries volume iii: A Year of Good Eating- by Nigel Slater

So, in this month of new beginnings and life changes, I offer you some Food for Thought with some interesting reads that may or may not fuel your current thoughts about healthy diets.

In no particular order…

and, a very interesting read and the documentation of a personal journey from a young friend of mine:

And, if you want a sensible read, have a read of

Happy New Year!

PS- the Avocado Chocolate Breakfast Trifle is, as Jamie would say,  “cracking good!”

How I spent my Costa Rican Vacation

If you hadn’t already figured this out about me, food and cooking have been the dominant theme most of my life. For example, when the other girls were outside playing hopscotch or baseball, I was at the kitchen table creating recipe cards, pouring over the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook– completely engrossed in the double-paged spread in the Family BBQ section- or trying to figure out how to make cream puffs from scratch. It was like that when I was a kid. It’s like that now.

So, as you can imagine, when I was a kid, lounging on the couch after school watching one of my favourite TV shows about a ship-wreck on a desert isle, I was more interested in solving a culinary puzzle than in the romantic storyline of that particular episode of Gilligan’s Island.  And, unlike all the other kids who were willingly suspending their disbelief when Maryann appeared in her gingham dress with a dreamy coconut cream pie for the Professor, I sat trying to solve the puzzle, crack the culinary code, unravel the threads, as it were, of the big question; how the heck did she pull it off?

Where did she get the equipment? That cute apron? Those ingredients? I mean, I could figure out the coconut part, that was easy, but the sugar, the flour, the butter? Who takes all that on a “three-hour tour?”

As I said, food has always been a central focus for me, so you will understand my need to pull a “Maryann” on our recent trip to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. Staying in a pretty little casita beside the Caribbean surrounded by coconut palms, was just too much of a temptation. So, one afternoon I made my way into town, past the white sandy beaches filled with the normal tourists who were soaking up the sun, to buy my ingredients.


First stop, a fresh coconut, which I actually purchased at a butcher’s shop underneath a vegan restaurant, run by a Costa Rican who had lived in Canada for 18 years, but that’s another story. Luckily, I had the foresight to ask the butcher to crack it in half for me. Next stop, the little grocers down the street to slightly torture a young shop clerk with my endless requests for help in finding the various “ingredientes.” After a near-disaster buying sour cream instead of whipping cream, I lugged everything back to the hottest kitchen on earth to bake my first-ever-from-scratch-with-a-fresh-coconut, coconut cream pie. Did I mention that the temperature was 38 degrees Celsius and 100% humidity?

Step one- the pastry. Well, the pastry was a breeze, but baking the pastry blind posed a bit of a problem seeing as I had neither parchment paper nor dried beans. Luckily, the casita had an inordinately large fridge/freezer, so I just threw the unbaked crust in the freezer to chill for a little while and then popped it into the counter-top oven, which I had moved onto the back deck of the casita as the temperature in the kitchen had begun to hover around 50, give or take.


Step two- the filling. The custard was really no problem at all, but I have to tell you, there is a bit of a knack to getting the coconut meat out of the shell. After struggling for what seemed like an hour, I finally pulled up a Youtube video and things moved along very nicely. Rule Number One- if you can’t figure it out, somebody has probably made a video!


Once out of the shell, the coconut meat required a little more work than the sharpest, that is to say not sharp in the slightest, knife in the kitchen could muster and so I bunged everything into the blender. In went the coconut meat, coconut milk, flour and cream, a few blasts of the motor later and out poured a beautiful coconut emulsion.  Heated on the hotplate, then whisked into the egg yolks and voila; a perfect coconut custard.   Pouring the custard into the cooled pie shell I made sure to leave a little in the bottom of the pot and while the custard set, I sat on the back stoop savouring every last drop. I am sure that Maryann would have approved.


After topping my pie with whipped cream and toasted coconut, I proudly carried it over to our Spanish teacher’s house where we were having a casual Spanish lesson while cooking dinner and drinking some very nice Chilean Chardonnay. Luis, our Chilean teacher and Almut, his German wife, who run a hotel and language school in Puerto Viejo had also invited a Costa Rican carpenter friend to join us. Before serving the pie, I, of course, had to tell them the whole Maryann/coconut cream pie/Gilligan’s Island story. You want to talk “lost in translation!” The more I tried to explain in my pidgin Spanish, the worse it got.  Nobody had a clue what I was talking about, except Doug, who was doing his best to salvage the story, but more importantly, to move things along so we could get to cutting that pie.   All of a sudden, a lightbulb went off and Elias, the Costa Rican, turned to me and with a glint in his eye and a little smirk, said quietly, “Meester Howell?” “Meesus Howell?” Giiillllleeegan?” and in that moment, a stranger became a friend. Which just goes to show, lounging on the couch watching sitcoms isn’t the worst thing a kid could do.  Thanks, Maryann… thanks, Gilligan!