Sunday, December 26, 2010

Even though Venezuela is a really young country (and in many things immature nation), its people has come with very strong traditions when it comes to Christmas. Families come together, friends share a drink or two (or more) and acquaintances become mates... to celebrate baby Jesus birthday, upcoming presents and being in family.

But you might be asking to yourself... What the bloody hell relates the Christmas bread with Venezuela? What is that Christmas bread?

Did someone said something about Christmas and tasty bread?
Image taken from BlastOButter

A short explanation is: fermented bread containing ham, raisings or sultanas, olives and capers, cooked to perfection till is soft inside and out which is present in every Christmas disk in Venezuela... Does not matter if you are poor, worker, professional or rich; the Christmas bread or ham bread (just like the hallaca... pronounced as ‘Aajaakaa’) will make it into your plate with all its flavour and damned good carbs... ha ha ha.

You might say that I wanted to share this with my mates (Aussies and Venezuelans... and anyone) to keep my traditions but without coupling Aussie traditions into my own... But the way I see it is a bit different. We have come to this country to make it grow: economically, culturally, and gastronomically, but more importantly including good things in our new home. This is one of my gifts for this amazing country.

What do I need to cook Christmas bread?

Yup, at the end my first batch... getting fat as I took the picture.

  • Yeast (3 tea spoons)
  • Sugar (1 cup and 1 table spoon)
  • Salt (1 tea spoon)
  • Cooking oil (5 table spoon)
  • Eggs (5 eggs plus another one to be used at the end)
  • Milk (1 cup and a little bit... almost 1 and ¼ cup)
  • Plain flour (1 kilogram and some other 200 grams for knead)
  • Butter (100 grams, melted)
  • Water (1 cup)
  • Sliced smoked ham (250 to 300 grams per bread... If you are Jewish change it to turkey or chicken breast ham)
  • Sliced bacon (200 grams... again if you want to remove the pork change it to turkey bacon)
  • Raisins or sultanas (180 grams)
  • Green olives without seeds (1 cup)
  • Chopped capers (2 table spoons)
  • Beers (six-pack... that’s for you... you need to be entertained while cooking...)

  • Measuring cup
  • Measuring spoons
  • Bowl big enough to mix up everything
  • Rolling pin
  • Trays

How to prepare the dough?

Take the cup of water and boil it up (I recommend two cups at this stage because the water might evaporate if you are not careful)... Standard warming process not microwaved!

When the water is hot, take one cup of water and mix it with one spoon of sugar in a bowl, then wait a little bit till the water is warm enough (keep reading the entire paragraph) to put in the yeast... How do you know when is warm enough? Easy, take your pinkie, put it in the water and count to 10 ‘Mississippi’. If you could count more than 10 then is too cold. If you could not hold it in up to ten it means that is too hot. So warm enough means hot yet not burning; keep this in mind... Yes is probable that you will get burn the first time... my advice is don’t put in the entire pinkie... just the tip.

Stir a little bit (four or five stirs is more than enough) and let it rest for 20 minutes with a piece of cloth covering the container.

After 20 minutes, take out the cloth (you will smell something that resembles beer... not your breath) and add the eggs (5 of them, lightly scrambled), sugar, salt, cooking oil, butter and knead it up till is homogenous (ish).

With everything mixed, start adding the flour in steps... handful at a time and keep kneading the entire mixture until you are done with the flour. Let it rest of one hour... again with the cloth.

This will give you enough dough for two big breads (2 kilograms), three standard size breads (about 1 kilo and 800 grams) or 4 short breads (about 1 kilo). If you want to make just one, save half of the dough in plastic wrap in the fridge up to one week. Don’t scale it down to ‘one portion’... the recipe is not scalable and you might compromise the flavour.

What we do is to prepare both breads at once and then give one of them as a gift to another family (if none is coming over to eat).

The yeast is a living thing and need a warm place to keep growing... The cloth will prevent the mix from dropping its internal heat and will allow the yeast to breath. That adds flavour... don’t use plastic wrap or let it in a cold environment. Some people have told me an urban legend saying that yeast can’t receive sunshine... That’s not true... In fact, if the sun is strong and hot enough you might want to put your bowl outside to receive some sun till is ready.

One hour later...
You are ready to prepare the bread! Before to start, cut the dough in half (or as I specified before for different sizes) and save one portion in plastic wrap (or if you are going to cook it, leave it in the cloth).

Take the dough and spreading a handful of flour on the table, knead the dough until is soft and malleable.

With the rolling pin flatten the dough and fold it on itself at least 3 times. Remember to add small quantities of flour every now and then, to avoid the dough sticking to the table; THIS IS IMPORTANT, you don’t want you bread to stick to the table because you will want to roll the dough on itself once all the ingredients are in place but don’t let the dough to suck too much flour, otherwise is going to get harder.

Using the rolling pin spread the dough as much as you can until you have something rectangular of two millimetres thick... Measurements aren’t important but it will give you an idea.
Note!Let's create a reference point. I have my rectangle in front of me, being long from left to right.
As I am describing it.

Place uniformly each slice of ham on the dough, leaving 1 centimetre as border. Do the same with the bacon. 
If you want the bacon to be well spaced, chop it into little pieces and spread it.

Spread the raisins and the capers on top of the ham. Then put in the olives in rows on my most right (Remember note on third step... and should be 5 centimetres away from the border).

Roll the bread starting from my right (remember the note in third step) to my left. To close the end, dip your fingers in water and then apply it gently to the bread ends, sealing it.

With the exceeding bits of the dough (residues from the third step) you could do some decorations to your bread.

Take the bread and put it in a greased tray to be ready for cooking it.

How to cooking it?
The bread isn’t ready for oven at this stage... you will need to varnish with one scramble egg by brushing it to the surface of the bread. Check any spot because once in the oven the egg will turn into a nice gold colour. Then take at least 20 to 30 toothpicks and stick it deep into the bread; isn’t important to stick it all the way in, but try to put in as deep as possible to ensure each layer was touched by the toothpicks.

The toothpicks aren't that important for the cooking process, but will allow cooking the bread completely while maintaining the shape (because it will try to expand a lot). The toothpicks will give you as well an indication of how well cooked the inside is... The picture shows the bread is well cook inside because it was no gooey bits.

With toothpicks and varnish in place, heat up the oven at 170 Celsius for 10 minutes with the bottom burner alone. Then slide the tray in for 45 minutes. Check after 30 minutes removing one (just one) toothpick (or poking the bread) checking if is gooey to then put it back. If you find no gooey bits is done.

As shown, is gooey...

That's good!

Understanding how your oven works is crucial; in my case my oven is a piece of junk... well, it works but I couldn’t cook my breads at 170 degrees unless I wanted charcoal as outcome, so as result I had to cook it at 120 for 45 minutes.

This bread should be moist inside, soft and dry outside.

Mmmmmmmmm... looks nice!

Let me know how it was for you.


Snap said...

Rod, the bread looks delicious, thanks for sharing your recipe. Australia is lucky to have so many different gastronomical contributions, from so many countries. When I get back home, to my oven, I'll try making it.

Merry Christmas for yesterday!

Rod said...

Oi Snap & Stray :)

Thanks for you comment... you should try it. I know you are going to like it :)

Merry Christmas for you too and wish you the best for the upcoming year.

Furio said...

Hey Rod! What about the AAjaakaa recipe?

Rod said...

Furio, every Venezuelan has their own recipe... This year I did mine which everyone seems to like it... but some of it is family secret! ha ha ha

Sadly I didn't take as many pictures as I expected (I was focused on cooking) and some of the explanations are really complex if you don't have references to point to.

Another thing in this topic is related to how I cook and how I was taught... My mom is a great chef/cook, and as such I always expect perfection in my own food (because I am used to good meals). And because of that my Hallaca recipe contain lots of steps to be followed.

That is why I haven't post it... yet.