Bread of the Dead

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Mexico has a special relationship with the dead that we northerners can find disconcerting. We understand Halloween and all that goes with it, including skeleton costumes, excess candy  and scary cemeteries. We don’t always understand how families in Mexico can celebrate Day of the Dead at cemetery graves decorated with candles and marigold flowers, and favorite food and drink of the deceased enjoyed by all, including the departed. Children run around and play among the gravestones, while their parents and grandparents share special dishes, laugh and chat. One may see images of La Catrina, the elegantly attired female skeleton who laughs at death, and sugar candy skulls decorate the alters. At this time of year, death seems front and center, not tucked away behind social mores.

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Pan de Muerto, or Bread of the Dead, is the most iconic food for Días de los Muertos. This lightly sweet, rich bread, similar to brioche, can trace its origins to Spanish bakers who immigrated to Mexico in the last century. This makes sense, given that Mexico does not have its own tradition of baking, but rather adopted desserts and recipes brought to the New World by Spanish nuns and later by immigrants.

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In the few weeks leading up to Day of the Dead, Pan de Muerto is in all the panaderías and grocery store bakeries, even at Costco, where they were handing out generous slices the other day. I won’t go so far as to say we can make a lunch of Costco’s samples, but Russell and I can come pretty close, and Pan de Muerto made a perfect dessert after other bits and bites were sampled last week.

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Orange blossom water and anise seed are the two signature flavors of Pan de Muerto. Surprisingly, I found a bottle of orange blossom water on my shelf, purchased on a trip to the U.S. for a now forgotten recipe. This distillation is made from the blossoms of bitter orange, and has a strong floral aroma that mellows as it bakes. If you don’t have orange blossom water, use grated orange zest instead for a citrusy aroma. In Mexico, orange blossom water is known as agua de naranjo or agua de azahar.

Green anise seed was new to me. I’m familiar with star anise used in Asian cooking, but did not know that green anise seed is from a totally different plant. This is the anise used for making absinthe, the green colored liqueur.

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If you are familiar with my baking by now, you know that I generally use 50% whole wheat flour. To my taste, this adds much to the flavor — a nuttiness and sweetness found only in fresh whole wheat flour. Use all white flour if you prefer, which is in step with most Mexican baked goods.

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My breads and cakes always have a charming (or embarrassing) homemade look, though this loaf pushed the envelope in the homemade category. When Russell saw my loaf come out of the oven, he kindly said it looked muy rústico. After his first bite, he said it reminded him of his Polish grandma’s babka.


Pan de Muerto — Day of the Dead Bread 

  • 1/2 cup (4 fl. oz./118 ml.) whole milk
  • 3 oz. (85 g.) unsalted butter
  • 2 large strips orange zest, minus white pith
  • 1 tablespoon orange blossom water (or 2 tablespoons grated orange zest)
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1  1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 2 cups (8.5 oz./228 g.) white all purpose flour
  • 2 cups (9 oz./250 g.) sifted whole wheat flour, bran reserved for another use
  • 1/4 cup (1.75 oz./50 g.) sugar
  • 2 teaspoons anise seed (known as anis in Mexico)
  • 1  1/2 teaspoon salt
  • oil for bowl and pan
  • Topping: 1 oz. (28 g.) melted butter and 1 -2 tablespoons sugar
  1. In a small saucepan, warm milk,  butter and orange zest until butter melts. Remove from heat and discard zest. Whisk in orange blossom water and beaten eggs.
  2. Blend yeast, flour, sugar, anise seeds and salt in a large bowl. Gradually add milk mixture, stirring with a large wooden spoon. When the dough becomes too stiff to stir, knead by hand for about 10 minutes until smooth. If too sticky to handle, add flour a tablespoon at a time. If too dry, add water or milk by the tablespoon.
  3. Turn into an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rise until double in size. Punch down, cover, and refrigerate overnight.
  4. The next day, remove dough from refrigerator and bring to cool room temperature. Save aside a small amount of dough to form “bones” and “skull” (sometimes called a tear). Form ball of dough, slightly flattened. Roll 3 small balls of dough into ropes for the “bones”, and shape to form bony segments. Place “bones” across the loaf, with the “skull” or “tear” pressed into the center. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until almost double in size.
  5. Bake in a pre-heated 350 F./180 C. oven for 30-40 minutes, covering with foil in 15 minutes if top browns too quickly. When done, a tap on the bottom of the loaf will make a hollow sound. Or bake until interior temperature measures 190 F/88 C.
  6. Brush with  melted butter and sprinkle with  sugar.  Serve warm.

Notes

~ For my readers in Mexico, I have found Espuma de Chapala to be the best whole wheat flour brand in the grocery stores here. It comes in a plastic-lined bag for freshness, and is high in protein, which corresponds to its gluten content, making it great for bread baking. It needs to be kept refrigerated to discourage rancidity, as do all whole grain flours.

~ I used my KitchenAid stand mixer to knead the dough for about 8 minutes. Use your hands, a KitchenAid mixer, or a large enough food processor for mixing and kneading, following dough instructions for mixer or processor.

~ Like other rich egg breads, this bread is best the day it is made. If it lasts longer, toasted slices are almost as good as freshly baked.

~ Thank you to Rachel Laudan for the information about Spanish bakers in Mexico If you are interested in reading more on the history of Pan de Muerto, I recommend her blog, A Historian’s Take on Food and Food Politics.

~ This recipe was primarily adapted from a recipe in Fine Cooking, by Fany Gerson. Other recipes to check are at Pati’s Mexican Table and The Mija Chronicles.

Where in the world is the shrimp cocktail sauce?

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The temperature is staying hot — too hot — here on the west coast of Mexico. Some days, I would rather not eat at all than have to cook. An easy — and cool — solution has been to prepare shrimp cocktail, cóctel de camarón, in the morning, and then assemble everything at dinner time with a minimum of time spent in the kitchen.

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This shrimp cocktail recipe is an adaptation of cóctel de camarón as it is served at Ocho Tostadas in Puerto Vallarta. Theirs is served hot with catsup, but we prefer it cold and catsup-less.  Maybe, without catsup, it isn’t a cocktail at all. Whatever it is, we love it, and it is perfect for warm weather. If you are already having chilly days, try the warm or hot version of cóctel de camarón. If we ever have a chilly day, I will also, but I may have to wait until January.

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It is not necessary to devein shrimp (see notes below). I’m telling you this now just to save you a lot of time and work. After years of working in a restaurant, where I had to devein twenty pounds of shrimp at a time, I am so happy to come to the conclusion that my time is better spent on other things,  like taste testing tostadas.

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The La Cruz fish market sells farmed estuary shrimp from San Blas, a coastal town north of us. Their trucks drive right by our front gate, but I find it more interesting to walk down to the fish market and check out the fishing boats and their catch.

Farmed shrimp sounds like a good idea, since shrimp from the ocean are dredged, a practice which damages the ocean floor and brings up lots of by-catch, fish brought up in the nets that are not intended for the market, and often tossed back into the ocean dead. As you most likely know, our choices in food purchases have consequences.
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A recipe is almost not needed. Cook as much shrimp as you want. Peel, then refrigerate in the broth. When cold, add chopped tomato, avocado, onion, cucumber and cilantro to shrimp and broth. Serve with wedges of lime, tostadas and bottled hot sauce. This is how Ocho Tostadas serves cóctel de camarón, but there is room for innovation if you are so inclined. Radish slices, torn baby lettuce, grated carrot, whatever is in your fridge and sounds good. Think of this as a shrimp salad swimming in flavorful broth. Here is a recipe if you like to have things spelled out like I do when making something for the first time.

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Cóctel de Camarón — Mexican Shrimp  Cocktail     Serves 2

  • 1 lb. (1/2 kilo) unpeeled, headless shrimp
  • 2 cups (1/2 liter) cold water
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 large cucumber, peeled and diced
  • 1/4 cup red onion, diced
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • 1 avocado, diced
  • chopped cilantro
  1. Bring salted water to a boil and add shrimp. Cover and simmer for about 3 minutes, or until done. Drain, reserving broth, and peel shrimp. Refrigerate shrimp in broth until cold.
  2. To serve, divide shrimp and broth between two bowls, and top with diced vegetables.
  3. Serve with lime wedges, bottled hot sauce and tostadas.

Notes

~ Cooking the shrimp unpeeled gives a more flavorful broth, plus the peels remove more easily from cooked shrimp.

~ To devein or not to devein, that is the question. I don’t. After a bit of research, I came to the conclusion that removing the vein from shrimp is purely for aesthetic reasons. Basically, we don’t want to look at the little black line and think about what it represents. Eating the vein is not unhealthy, it is not dangerous, and because of this, many cultures do not devein shrimp. It just isn’t necessary unless you have a lot of time on your hands and have a squeamish bent.

~ For an authentic Mexican cóctel de camarón, serve warm or hot with a generous squeeze of catsup.

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Ocho Tostadas is Much More Than Eight Tostadas

Early October on the west coast of Mexico does not mean falling leaves and cooling temperatures. Venturing out of the cool of the house for an errand run to Puerto Vallarta is not an attractive prospect. Until Ocho Tostadas comes to mind. Lunch! We get to have lunch in Puerto Vallarta! Yes! I want to go to town today! I don’t care if it’s a humid 92 degrees. Now that shrimp cocktail is fixed in our thinking for today’s lunch, 92 farenheit, (“feels like 101”, says weatherdotcom) is no deterrent. Cool camarones, here we come.

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Shrimp cocktail took some getting used to when we first came to Mexico. Brothy. Warm. With catsup instead of horseradish sauce.  Some things you just have to accept as a difference in culture, and cóctel de camarón is one of them. Peeled shrimp are served in their cooking liquid, with a healthy topping of chopped tomato, onion, cucumber, avocado and squeezed lime juice. But for us, hold the catsup. And order it cold.

We sought shade in Ocho Tostadas and began with a starter of fresh, delicious ceviche on crisp tostadas, totally blanketed with perfectly ripe, sliced avocado.

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Our favorite hot sauce, Salsa Huichol, added heat and color. Ocho Tostadas, like many restaurants in Mexico, does not skimp in the bottled hot sauce department. And among the table offerings, there is invariably Maggi, a hydrolysed vegetable protein based sauce used to impart a meat flavor. Its ubiquitous presence is one cultural anomaly I haven’t got my head around yet. Nor have I ever tried it.

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As fluent as mi esposo is, when he asked for the fresh veggies on the side, our waiter thought he meant broth on the side also. So Russ was served this beautiful dish of brothless shrimp, which was nothing to complain about; we knew it would become so much more.

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A quick word to our waiter set things right for my order. Next came generous servings of cool broth for Russ, and cut-up vegetables and excellent tostadas for both of us. They will always bring more veggies, for — what has become for us — a liquidy, cool shrimp salad, full of good things. Perfect for a hot Fall day.

Cócteles can also be ordered with octopus, snail or scallops, or any combination of these, including shrimp. We have tried all the combinations, and have settled on shrimp cocktail as the favorite. But don’t let our tastes stop you from trying something new.

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Tostadas always accompany cóctel de camarón and Ocho Tostadas prides themselves in their proprietary tostadas, a new concept for us. They were so good — corny, crisp, with a light taste of salt on the surface. Russ tried, but our waiter would not divulge the maker. He did send us home with a bag full, much to mi esposo’s delight. The rest of the menu looks inviting, but so far we can’t get past the cocktails and ceviche tostadas.

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If you go to Ocho Tostadas, or have a Mexican shrimp cocktail anywhere else, I suggest you order it cold, not hot. And ask them to hold the catsup.

Mariscos 8 Tostadas (its proper name) has three locations in the Puerto Vallarta area, and has recently opened in Guadalajara. We ate at the marina location on the corner of Calle Quilla and Calle Proa. They are also at 344 Calle Niza in Colonia Versalles, and in Nuevo Vallarta at Junto al Antiguo Delfines. In Guadalajara, you can find Mariscos 8 Tostadas at 1053 Avenida Terranova. Check Trip Advisor for map locations. Open 11 am to 6 pm, seven days a week.

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Enchiladas Suizas, with a Side of Trepidation

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I could start off as though the last time you heard from me was last week, or even last month. I could ignore the issue altogether. But I’ll face it head-on and take the consequences. (Deep breath.) Here goes, my version of Truth or Dare: I haven’t posted anything new since October, 2011.

Still with me?

Since my laptop went kaput, I’m now working on a 7″ Samsung tablet, typing with my thumbs, and taking photos with the tablet. If I can get through this post on Enchiladas Suizas without wearing out my thumbs, get halfway decent photos and place them where they belong, maybe this will work. But it does have a Lilliputian quality to it, with a small screen and smaller keyboard.

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Several weeks ago,  I made a tasty dish of Enchiladas Suizas — Swiss Enchiladas for you non-Spanish speakers — and the first thing that crossed my mind was, “Gee, this would be a great recipe to share on the blog. If I were still blogging.” A few days later, while replying to a reader’s comment (yes, the comments still kept coming, and readership stayed surprisingly high during my overly long sabbatical), I read over some past comments. One reader wrote. “Thank you so much for all the information! It has fueled my passion for Mexican cooking and culture. I wish you were still writing.” That was the tipping point. I had a decent recipe, and someone wanted to hear from me again. So to Sydney, and all the others (mostly biased family members) who asked me to continue, I’m back. And here for you is a recipe added only recently to Mexican cookbooks.

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Enchiladas Suizas originated at Sanborns, a well-known department store chain in Mexico’s larger cities and towns, and known for their restaurants’ consistently good, traditional Mexican fare. The story goes that a chef at Sanborns created this recipe in 1950 when he added cream to salsa verde. His dairy-heavy enchiladas took on the name “suiza” (Swiss) as homage to the country of Alps and cows.

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I researched my cookbook shelves and could only find a recipe in a booklet by El Universal, a national newspaper in Mexico which published over a dozen recipe booklets specializing in recipes of the states of Mexico. The booklet for the state of Mexico and Distrito Federal (aka Mexico City) included Enchiladas Suizas, which is fitting, as the Sanborns in Mexico City is this dish’s birthplace. There are a number of online recipes, and Saveur’s recipe looked most appealing. Plus, I love their magazines. This is mostly Saveur’s recipe, influenced by El Universal. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

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A trip to the local tienda was first, to buy fresh crema from a rancho south of Puerto Vallarta, freshly made queso añejo — used to garnish the frijoles refritos which you may or may not choose to serve on the side, tomatillos, cilantro, and corn tortillas hot off the press. We had already brought a roasted chicken home from Costco. How we ever managed without Costco in Puerto Vallarta is hard to imagine. Did you know that the roasted chicken at Costco in the US is organic and is about as cheap as you can buy an organic chicken anywhere? Sadly, the chickens here at Mexico’s Costcos are not organic, but I am ever hopeful, as new organic items show up on their shelves almost every week.

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Enchiladas Suizas, with a filling of shredded chicken breast, encased in tender corn tortillas and smothered in creamy green sauce and melted cheese, may not go back hundreds of years in Mexico, but it is showing up on more and more menus in Mexico. I think it is worthy of my comeback recipe.


Enchiladas Suizas (Swiss Enchiladas)        Serves 4

Adapted from Saveur, July 16, 2012 issue, and El Universal recipe booklet, Cocina Estado por Estado, issue No. 10

  • 1 1/2 lbs. (680 grams) husked tomatillos
  • 2 serrano chiles
  • 1/2 medium onion, cut in half
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 2 large poblano chiles
  • 1 cup (1.38 oz./38 g.) chopped cilantro, including tender stems
  • 1 cup (240 g.) sour cream (or crème fraîche,  or, if in Mexico, crema)
  • Salt to taste
  • Vegetable oil as needed for skillet
  • 3 cups (12 oz./375 g.) cooked, shredded chicken
  • 1 1/2 cups (6 oz./170 g.) grated cheese (Manchego, Swiss, or mozzarella)
  • 8 corn tortillas 
  • Chopped red onion, additional sour cream and cilantro leaves for garnish 
  1. In a hot skillet, under a broiler, or on a hot grill, toast tomatillos, serrano chiles, halved onion, garlic and poblano chiles until blistered black spots start to appear. Blacken most of the poblanos.  Don’t overcook the tomatillos or they will burst and lose their juice.
  2. To make sauce, cut serrano and poblano chiles in half lengthwise and scrape out seeds with a spoon. Lay poblano and serrano halves on a cutting board skin side up and scrape off blistered skin with a serrated knife, spearing the chiles with a fork to protect your fingers from chile burn. Don’t worry if some skin doesn’t come off. Texture is good. Coarsely chop chiles, onion and garlic. Process in a blender with cilantro and sour cream until smooth. Salt to taste. Set aside.
  3. Moisten shredded chicken with one cup of sauce. Set aside.
  4. Lightly oil a hot skillet and heat tortillas, two at a time, until soft, about one minute per side. Don’t allow to become crisp. As you soften tortillas, spoon 1/4 cup of hot chicken filling down the center of each, roll up, and place in a dish. Repeat with two more tortillas, oiling skillet as necessary, until all are filled.
  5. Cover the bottom of a 9″x9″ oven-proof dish with a generous layer of sauce. Arrange enchiladas over sauce, cover with more sauce and sprinkle with grated cheese. Heat in a 350 F. (180 C.) oven until hot and the cheese has melted.
  6. Garnish with thinned sour cream (or crème fraîche or crema) and top with finely chopped red onion and a few cilantro leaves. Any remaining sauce can be served in a separate dish if more sauce is desired.

Notes

~ Tomatillos, pictured in the center of the second photo, are a member of the ground cherry family. They add a distinctive tang and tartness to dishes, and are indispensable in salsa verde. The husks are inedible.

~ When assembling, I used very hot sauce and chicken filling. This way, the enchiladas only needed to be in the oven long enough to melt the cheese. The longer the dish is in the oven, the more sauce is absorbed, which is not a bad thing.

~ Another option is to heat individual servings of two enchiladas per person on a heat-proof plate, following the same instructions above.

~ I think the best chicken enchiladas are made with breast meat.

~Left over sauce is great on potatoes, pasta, eggs and grilled meat.


Corn tortillas, old world and new

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We were in the state of San Luis Potosí some years back, in the very small town of La Plazuela, when we came across the tortilleria — the shop that makes fresh corn tortillas. Every Mexican town has at least one tortilleria, but this one was special. The tortillas were being made from freshly ground, dried corn, instead of packaged Maseca, the corn flour usually used. We watched the grinding process, and waited around for the hot tortillas. Ay caramba, were they good! I don’t think we have had tortillas made from corn kernels ground on site since.

Amadeo, a resident of La Plazuela, ate egg tacos every morning made with these tortillas. He was a poor man, and when I saw his breakfast, I realized there wasn’t more than a small smear of cooked egg in each taco, essentially tortillas flavored with a bit of egg. His large meal of the day was tortillas with beans, and he told us that he was lucky he liked beans and tortillas so much, since that was the food God gave the poor of Mexico.

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Corn tortillas date back to pre-Columbian times, and still figure prominently in traditional Mexican cuisine. Then as now, the corn kernels are first soaked in an alkaline solution of lime (known as cal in Mexico) and water. This softens the outer skin, which is then rubbed off by hand. This process is known as nixtamalization. If you buy a bag of Maseca in Mexico, that is what the word nixtamalizado on the package means.

Despite the growing popularity of spongy Bimbo bread, tortillas are everywhere. They are the basis of quesadillas, enchiladas, tacos, enfrijoladas and much more. These days, they are more likely to be made from the dry masa mix, rather then freshly ground, dried corn. There is no comparison between the flavor of the two, but a corn grinder is not a usual household applicance, even in Mexico. So we all eat tortillas made from Maseca, though today’s modern Mexican youngsters probably do not even know what tortillas made from freshly ground corn taste like. No doubt, in the remote villages of Mexico, the real tortillas are all they know.

For some reason, my dear chief taster has had this fantasy that his esposa will some day slap masa between her hands and make corn tortillas for him regulary. Maybe this has something to do with a wish to return to simpler times. With a tortilleria only a block away, this is one fantasy that is not going to happen. Or so I thought until he gave me a beautiful, wooden tortilla press as a gift. What else could I do, but make tortillas for him. This one time.


Do you have a tortilla press and a mate who thinks you are going to slap together fresh tortillas for breakfast? If so, buy a bag of Maseca, or better yet, go to your local tortilleria and buy some fresh masa. That’s what I did. A half kilo of fresh masa cost six pesos, the same as a half kilo of tortillas. In other words, it cost the same for an equal weight of freshly cooked, steaming tortillas as it does for the masa, leaving me to go home, press the tortillas, then stand over a very hot griddle. But if making corn tortillas will make your day, here’s how to do it.

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If you live in a town with a tortilleria, buy fresh masa. One pound (one-half kilo) will make twelve to fifteen tortillas. If you are not lucky enough to live near a tortilleria, buy a bag of Maseca or Quaker Masa Hariana de Maiz and follow the instructions on the package. Their instructions call for 2 cups of masa mix, 1 1/4 cups of water, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Stir together, adding water in small increments if the dough is too dry and cracks when a test tortilla is pressed, or adding more masa if it is too wet and sticks to the plastic bags in the press.

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Whether your masa is fresh from a tortilleria, or mixed at home, pinch off enough dough to roll a ball in your hands that is slightly larger than a walnut. Keep the balls covered with a towel or plastic bag so they don’t dry before they get to the griddle or comal.

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Lay a plastic bag on your tortilla press, set a ball of dough in the center, cover that with another plastic bag, and bring down the upper part of the press with moderate pressure. That’s it — remove the tortilla from the bags and place on a very hot, unoiled griddle. After a few minutes, when brown spots start to appear on the under-side, turn it over. It will start to puff a little. Cook another minute or two, until small brown spots again appear underneath. Don’t overcook or it will be crispy. We are after soft tortillas.

Once you can stand back and survey your handiwork, you are ready to make quesadillas, Baja fish tacos or enchiladas rojas. The side of the tortilla that puffed up is called the “face” and experts say it goes inside a taco or quesadilla, because it may peel off. Once I have the tortillas cooked and off the griddle, I can’t tell which side is which. But, I’m no expert.

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The two illustrations at the top are from the Florentine Codex and the Mendoza Codex, repectively.