Sunday, November 30, 2008

El Horno de Los Suenos

El Horno de Los Sueños

(From the My Mexican Kitchen archives of 2006.)

MORELIA, Michoacán, México — In a working-class, commercial colonia of Morelia, México, the bakery artisans of the Horno de Los Ortiz would seem to have fairy tale ovens. Great lumps of dough are transformed daily into edible fantasies. Apples are lovingly prepared and wrapped in puff pastry, and sweet dough is filled and made into gargantuan bear claws. To the delight of children and their parents, pastry mice line up in ranks in the shop windows, later to be boxed in their “Swiss cheese wedge” cartons. The shop windows are fairytale scenes, with the mice scurrying amidst woodland shelf fungi, all crafted from bread dough. Inside the showroom, there are Brobdingnagian “guangoches,” rustic “seed sacks” of Danish pastry tied with binder twine and filled with a rich blend of sweetened cheeses, fresh apple slices and apple marmalade.

But it is at the holiday times that the Familia Los Ortiz truly realizes its craft. The spacious and lofty hall of the bakery building helps to liberate the creative minds and adept hands of the Ortizes, unconfined by convention, yet still guided by tradition. They are listening to selected music as they work, as they always do. Hugo Ortiz says that instead of timers, the bakers sing songs to calculate the baking time. At the approach of El Día de Los Muertos, they design and cut murals of papel picado in themes of dancing calacas y Catrinas. Mexican Día de los Muertos tradition celebrates the return of the spirits of loved ones; but here it is done on a scale bigger than Death. The specialty is the “Pan de Muertos,” a round, sweet bread with subtle aromas of anise and orange and adorned with ropes of dough to resemble a skull with crossed bones.

La Reina de las Roscas

At the advent of La Navidad, the area in front of the massive dome of the horno de leña (wood-fired oven) is the stage for the elaborate nacimiento, or nativity scene. Hundreds of figures populate the scene, again, exquisitely hand made from bread dough.

When we first arrived at the bakery, on the last day of 2006, the bakers were busy producing Roscas de Reyes, the traditional Three Kings' Cakes served as the finale of the Christmas festivities. We had seen other roscas before, but these were dazzling. Judith Martínez, la dueña of the bakery, and her helper deftly cut the preserved fruits, whole figs and candied fruit peels into flowers and clusters of grapes that cover the entire surface of these very special cakes. These are not the common roscas adorned with colored sugar and sweet pastes alone. The popular rings of yeast-raised sweet dough of course have the traditional muñecos, or doll babies nestled inside, representing the infant Jesus.

Judith, the articulate spokeswoman for the business, explained that earlier bakeries were often dark, dirty, poorly ventilated, cellar workplaces. In fact, los conquistadores in Nueva España impressed prisoners to work in these dreary places as a special punishment. The Ortizes determined from the beginning that the working conditions in their taller would be the opposite. The origins of the panadería Horno Los Ortiz is rooted in three generations of panaderos, but it was only in 1989 that Sr. Hugo Ortiz and his wife, Judith, made their creative vision a reality. They first rented a small location in a gritty colonia on Morelia's south side. Two years of hard work and meager sales were their lot. They took their products to the street to give samples to passersby, who were not used to the Ortizes' generous style of baking. It was difficult for neighborhood clientele to accustom their shopping habits to purchasing bread in the day, instead of early morning. The Ortizes made large units of pan dulces rather than the smaller, more common ones. Hugo Ortiz told us that the larger pieces keep better, but are more expensive.

Today there is nothing corriente or ordinary in Horno Los Ortiz. All the breads are made from their own well-memorized recipes and baked daily. Gradually, as their local custom grew, a reputation for fine baking followed. Within two years, they were able to develop their dream of a large, airy, well-lit and artistic space. An architect friend worked with them to draw up the plans to fit their aesthetic concepts. They have woven the varied strands of bakery artesanía, music and tradition into a new experience for their clientele and for their workers. It isn't, of course, a dream without much hard work. The small, charming apartment they added above the shop is really a place for short rests in the busiest months, November through January.

For many years the Ortizes displayed their attractive products on plain, functional wooden tables. Within the last two years, they were able to remodel the interior into a more aesthetically pleasing space. The displays and customer service desk are made of handsome woods, ironwork and tile that complement the bakery products.

Hugo was born into a family of third generation bakers in Ciudad Hidalgo, in eastern Michoacán, not far from the famed Santuarios de Las Mariposas Monarcas. Judith comes from a family of La Tierra Caliente farmers who baked at home. Their food preparations were based on an economy of scarcity. They did without refrigeration, electricity and piped-in water. The daily food preparation employed many methods of preserving foods. Containers in which to hang cheeses were made of woven bamboo strips. From her childhood, Judith worked to satisfy her curiosity of the harvesting, preparation and preservation of foods by natural means. The couple’s desire to keep to the natural processes learned in childhood is part of what drives the Ortizes’ métier today. You won't find the magnificent Roscas de Reyes available on the shelves for immediate purchase. They must be ordered in advance of your holiday fiestas. Judith and her staff make no extras for walk-in sales. This past Christmas season, the large, richly adorned rings sold for $220 MN each. (About $20 USD each).

For the occasion of the bakery’s 20th anniversary, the Ortizes commissioned an audio CD with 11 tracks of original songs by noted local and international artists. It is packaged in a handsome slipcover with a booklet explaining the songs and a brief history of the Horno Los Ortiz dream. Hugo modestly describes their work as “artesanía,” not “art.” He tried to find the words to explain the distinction. “Art ... is ... something greater,” he said. I don't know if either of us can separate the two. At la Panadería Horno Los Ortiz, they are indistinguishable.

Go to the Panadería Horno de Los Ortiz in the late afternoon, when the shelves are being loaded with still-warm goods from the ovens. Besides the Alice-in-Wonderland menagerie of pastry mice, lagartitos or pastry lizards, and coiled snakes, you will be enticed by rich cinnamon rolls the size of salad plates. You will also be tempted by a large selection of fruit-filled coffee cakes, giant bear claws and the more traditional conchas and molletes. But here are the coveted baked apples wrapped in hojaldre. They are simple but delicious and irresistible to the customers who crowd the store late in the day, vying for the remaining manzanas.

Location and Contact information:
El Horno Los Ortiz (matriz)
Avenida Vicente Santamaría 1077
Colonia Ventura Puente
Morelia, Michoacán, México
Tel: (433) 312-3317
Hours: 12 noon to 11 PM daily, 365 days a year.

El Horno Los Ortiz (sucursal)
Calzada Madero 1196,
Centro Histórico, Morelia, Michoacán, México

Getting There:
If you are staying in the Historic Center, or perhaps at one of the fine hotels on the Santa María ridge, I suggest taking a taxi, particularly at night.

There's a more recent and very well done blog on this topic by Deb Hall at Zocalo de Mexico Folk Art, with emphasis on Día de los Muertos at Horno Los Ortiz. That inspired me to publish this.
Photos from 2004

Photos by Geni Certain. Click to see larger.

Music of the Spheres by Music of the Spheres

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Comfort Food for Expats: Meatloaf

There are few dishes easier to make and as satisfying to eat as a good meat loaf. It is not hard to make it in a kitchen in Mexico. You'll need a reliable oven.

(Photo from Internet)

For the meat loaf itself, I like a combination of 2/3rds lean ground beef and 1/3 ground pork. Speak with your butcher. Get the meat freshly ground to order. Ask him for some additional fat, "para que el pastel de carne salga jugoso."

For filler, I prefer dry breadcrumbs. Seasoning varies according to my mood, but I always use minced onion, garlic, s&p, Worcester Sauce, and at least one dried herb.
Today I used oregano, because that's what I had.

A couple of eggs to bind it together and some milk to moisten the breadcrumbs*. Topping: I really like it with a brown gravy, but that's hard to generate from meatloaf pan drippings. You could cleverly improvise a brown gravy with those Costilla Jugosa cubes made by Knorr-Suiza and sold in better supermercados. Last time I made it, I went the second best way, and coated the top with Heinz ketchup and three strips of good, hickory smoked bacon. While the not-crisp bacon detracts somewhat from the meatloaf flavor, it is mighty good to nibble on just before scarfing the meat loaf itself.

Baking container: I don't like the results when it's cooked in a loaf pan, so I always cook it in a baking tray with sides. It browns on all sides this way. If I'd only remembered to lay down some parchment paper first, it would have been an easier clean up. Typical baking time to doneness averages 1 hour at 350º F.

The above meat loaf had been pre-tested by a panel of one; a small slice nestled into a warm, freshly baked potato roll, and a squirt of ketchup more. I immodestly give the combination 4 stars out of a possible 5. Brown gravy would have probably gotten it a 5.

*Once, long ago, while a Cook Specialist 6 in the Missouri Army National Guard, we made a huge batch of meat loaves using sweetened colored cereals, such as Froot Loops and Cap'n Crunch. The results were well-received by the men in our unit. But that was before my tastes had matured. ;-)

With meatloaf, some real mashed potatoes, enriched with butter and half and half or even evaporated milk is traditional. A touch of freshly grated nutmeg is nice. (nuez de moscada) Fresh green beans (ejotes) are a nice contrast if cooked crisp-tender.

Have some fresh, sliced white or whole wheat bread, or better, some potato rolls on hand so you can make sandwiches later on.

Maybe I'll give a recipe for potato rolls next.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Apopos Blancos; Limones Amarillos

I've been pretty consumed lately by the U.S. election, the growing violence in México, and the collapse of the U.S. and world economy. Not that there's much I could do about them. But I still can write about foods we've encountered, eaten and cooked.

Today I have only a few short, food-related comments to make here.

On Tuesday, I stopped in to say hello to our friends at the Mesón de San Antonio Hotel in Pátzcuaro. La Señora, Lupe, gave me a generous gift of limones from their trees and a huge bag of chayotes blancos, which I soon learned are locally called apopos. These are the more delicate cousins of the pale green chayotes and the infamous spiny chayotes verdes. (Below)

I washed 4 to 6 of the apopos, cut them in quarters, and added them to a Sopa de Verduras I was simmering. The end result is very delicate, with the nut-like seed relished by conocedores.

I realized that there was no way we were going to be able to consume so many apopos ourselves, so when an opportunity arose, I gave them away. Our landlady, Sra. Chucha, was coming up the street to her house with her sister, also Lupe, and another friend. Sra. Chucha was very glad to receive the apopos, for not only would she cook some, she planned to plant a few so that she could add this fruit to next year's food crops.

After the sister and friend left, she and Mateo continued sorting the huge costales, (gunny sacks) woven of coarse but handsome cloth, full of this year's harvest of recently dried frijoles. This task was done while kneeling or squatting on the concrete patio floor
Their family friend Casimiro (and probably a relative) had presorted them, but they did not meet Chucha's strict standards. Thus, they sorted them over again, atop a guangoche, a coarsely woven square of cloth with cloth "handles" at each corner, in order to let the dirt sift out, while they laboriously picked out small stones and twigs. As the pile of cleaned frijoles grew, Mateo scooped them up into a well made wooden box with interlocking dadoed (? I am not a woodworker) corners. Twenty boxes full and the new costal was filled.
There's a special term for a costal de veinte medidas, but unfortunately, no lo entendí.

As they worked, I was thinking of my camera, sitting in the house 200 feet away, but I thought it somewhat discourteous to run home to get it. Besides, I was tired.

Our neighbors broke out about a kilo of the colorful, mixed frijoles to give us. I'm cooking some today with salt, a little garlic, and chopped onion. They smell great.

We made a brief trip today to the Patzcúaro mercado, where we found an older and a younger man, selling teleras rolls. The younger man had the task of wearing the massive woven straw basket on his head, while the older man, ignoring the tongs, would fill the plastic bags for the customers with his hands. I filled my own. These rolls, 4 pesos each, are nicely formed, well browned, with a decent crust; not like the sloppy work that passes for teleras in a nearby, well-known and popular bakery. The older man told me the name of his panadería twice, but I didn't understand it. I did understand that it's located near the Central bus station, that the bread is hearth-baked (with no intervening baking sheet between the bread and the hearth); and the oven is wood-fired. I'd never seen these folks before, but I will be looking for them again.*

We will heat up some albóndigas al chipotle from our freezer, make tortas de albóndigas; have some frijoles, possibly some (green chard), and that's our comida para hoy.

The last item for today was the surprising discovery of a stand in the mercado that had yellow lemons available. These are rare in Mexico. Because we'd just received a kilo or two of regular limones verdes, I only bought 4 limones amarillos. When we got home, I cut one open. The flesh is pale green, and the aroma is a bit different from the yellow lemons to which we're accustomed, but these are very close.

Buen provecho.

*Follow up on those rolls: although they looked good, and had a nice toasted exterior, the crumb was as bland as any. Most of all, they lacked salt. They served well with a big bowl of Caldo de Res y Verduras, but I won't be looking for them again.