Cooking Like A Mexican

BY: ALE BORBOLLA

Alegria, by translation, means joy and I am pretty sure this is no coincidence.

Alegrías is a Mexican dessert that is a mixture of amaranth (a whole grain), maguey honey, nuts and dried fruits. Mexicas, the civilization that was based in Xochimilco, around Mexico City, used to make figurines from this mixture during their religious rituals. Huitzilopochtli, the left-handed hummingbird, was the god they celebrated with alegrias, sharing a piece of the candy at the end of the ritual. This did not make Cortez very happy and he had the amaranth fields burned down, thinking this would keep the Mexicans from making alegrias. He was wrong; amaranth kept on growing, like a stubborn Mexican. 

Amaranth, the main component of alegrias, is a whole grain that was a key part of the diet of the pre-Columbian Aztecs. It was also used as part of their religious ceremonies. It’s estimated that amaranth was first domesticated 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, which means we’ve been eating it for a very long time.

This tiny grain could be the future of world nutrition, but it is highly underestimated. The crop cleanses the soil, making rotation of crops easy, and purifies the subsoil water. Amaranth is a beautiful yellow or deep burgundy plant, and its purple leaves were used as dye in ancient Mexico too. The seed itself can be used for salty snacks, flour, sweets cookies, breads and so on. Fun fact: NASA has used amaranth to make astronaut food!

Amaranth is gluten free, and amaranth flour can be used to thicken soups, sauces, and more. It can also be used with other gluten free flours and thickeners in baking.

But back to alegrias, the focus of our cooking today. Alegrias are made in an almost religious way, in large quantities all around the small towns of central Mexico. First, the raw and dry grain is placed in a shallow clay comal (a smooth, flat griddle commonly used in Mexico), and the baker moves it around with a thin broom-like tool. It’s a very strong but flexible stick.

Amaranth can’t be toasted for longer than a minute, so properly toasting it is a skill that requires a lot of dedication when making large quantities. It makes a sound like super tiny corn kennels popping, and it does actually look like the smallest popcorn you’ve ever seen.

The baker then moves the popped amaranth to a wicker container and adds the honey – either maguey honey or regular bee honey, depending on his or her particular recipe – and nuts and dried fruits, mixing it all together with a wooden spatula. The mixture is worked until the perfect consistency is achieved. Then, the baker molds it into logs, waiting for the mixture to harden enough to slice into hockey puck shapes.

Ingredients

1 cup toasted amaranth seeds

½ cup pumpkin seeds

1 cup halved walnuts

½ cup raisins

½ cup peanuts (can be omitted if you’re allergic)

15 oz piloncillo (This is unrefined whole cane sugar and you can find it in any store. It can be substituted with brown sugar.)

 ½ cup honey or agave

1 spoonful lime juice

Preparation:

1. Toast amaranth in a dry pan. Move constantly; the seeds will start popping and turn from a bright yellow to white. Keep a cover handy, these things jump!

2. Toast the pumpkin seeds, nuts, peanuts and raisins and keep in a bowl.

3. Place piloncillo and honey in a saucepan over low heat, cook and stir for about 15 minutes, letting boil slightly. Remove from heat, add lime juice, stir again and leave to cool for approximately 10 minutes or until it can be handled without burning your hands.

4. Cover a tray with parchment paper. Add the toasted amaranth, seeds and nuts to the syrup and stir to incorporate all the ingredients evenly. Transfer to the tray lined with parchment paper. With your hands, spread to about one and half inch thickness.

5. Let cool and break apart or cut with cookie cutters and enjoy.

Now, a little bonus recipe: amaranth water. It’s a very refreshing beverage!

Ingredients

2 cups raw amaranth

Sugar to taste (or any other sweetener you prefer)

½ cup of milk (optional)

Ground cinnamon to taste

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1. Place the amaranth in a bowl and cover with water, letting soak until the seeds pouf up.  

2. Blend with the sugar, milk (if using) and vanilla.

3. Add the blended mixture to a jug and top with water if needed.

4. Serve over ice and sprinkle cinnamon on top. ,