Recipe : Alegrias de Amaranto : Amaranth Joys.

Amaranth was an important grain in Mesoamerica. Known to the Aztecs as huauhtli they are believed to have dedicated more than 5000 hectares of land to its growth and produced between 15 and 20 tons of grain per year (1). This is just the Aztecs. Amaranth was in high demand as a tribute and annually 20 provinces supplied amaranth to Tenochtitlan as part of their annual obligations (2).

  1. at the height of its production just prior to the arrival of the Spanish.
  2. http://www.amaranto.com.mx/elamaranto/historia/historia.htm

Southeast of Mexico City…..

…sandwiched between…

…..Xochimilco and…..

…Tlahuac, lies the delegacion of Santiago Tulyehualco (you can see it in the map above – just below dead centre).

Tulyehualco is one of the original chinampa (1) towns (2) which was able to grow huge amounts of food through the highly productive chinampa farming practices. Amaranth was grown in this area during the time of the Aztecs and the practice has continued through to this day. The people in this area are the heirs of a traditional knowledge of the cultivation of amaranth and they have dedicated their lives to the cultivation, transformation and commercialization of amaranth in Mexico. These manufacturers of alegria are known as alegrilleros (aligrilleras)

  1. chinampas are an intensive agriculture method of farming. See Post Xochimilco and the Axolotl for more information on chinampas.
  2. along with Xochimilco, Nativitas, Acalpixca, Atlapulco, Tlaxialtemalco, Tláhuac, Tetelco, Tezompa and Mixquic

The plant is still very popular and is regularly celebrated in many regions. Tulyehualco celebrates amaranth (1) with an annual fair and is trying to get it listed as part of the cultural patrimony of Mexico.

  1. and olives – which the area is also well known for

The seeds (as well as the leaves) are highly nutritious (1) and the different varieties of amaranth also have medicinal utility (2) but it was neither of these things that drew the attention of the Spanish. It was the religious use of the seed that drew their ire. The seeds (3) of the amaranth plant were toasted and puffed (similar to poppin corn) and made into various figures that were used as part of religious festivities. These figures were known as tzoalli and are the forerunner to the modern day alegrias (4). These figures were also instrumental in the near destruction of the use of amaranth. The Spanish thought the use of tzoalli mirrored their use of the eucharist in holy communion and as such could only truly be the work of the devil (5). According to the oral tradition of the town of Tulyehualco (6) the Franciscan evangelizer Fray Martín de Valencia invented a food prepared with the popped grain of amaranth mixed with honey, and that when tasting it, the natives danced with joy, which is why it was given the name alegria (7)

  1. See Post Nutritional Profile of Amaranth
  2. See Post Medicinal Qualities of Amaranth
  3. technically speaking they are seeds and not grains
  4. the word alegria means happiness or joy
  5. See Post Amaranth and the Tzoalli Heresy for more detailed information on tzoalli
  6. Tulyehualco (in Nahuatl: place around the tules), is a town located in the east of Mexico City in the Xochimilco Delegation
  7. this explanation sounds a little sus to me. I find it difficult to believe that the Aztecs had not already produced such a dish. The Mesoamericans were capable food scientists and had access to all the appropriate ingredients needed before the arrival of the Spaniards.

Alfeñique is a type of sweet originating in Spain. It was a typical sweet of Islamic Spain, known as “Al-Fanid” originally made of sugar, water, honey and almond oil. The alfeñique came to México with the Spanish. At this time the Mesoamericans made figurines with amaranth for their altars known as tzoalli. The two traditions were soon blended and these figures were soon known as the first alfeñiques in the New World. In colonial times, the nuns related the “alfeñique” as a traditional figurine for the months of October and November to celebrate Día de Muertos. Sculptures made of sugar (azúcar) are an important part of Day of the Dead celebrations. This sugar art often takes the form of colourfully decorated skulls (calaveras de azúcar – sugar skulls), but skeletons, coffins, crosses and animals are also popular.

Amaranth skulls are becoming more popular for Dia de Muertos

A niche market for these skulls exists for these modern day tzoalli and a producer supplying these artisanal amaranth delicacies in Mexico City and the surrounding areas is Herencia Amaranto Artesanal. Check out their catalogue here http://amarantoenmexico.com/catalogo-amaranto-en-mexico/catalogo-amaranto-en-mexico.pdf

They follow the same basic recipe as alegria.

Ingredients

  • 5 cups of amaranth seed – or use popped (puffed) amaranth grain
  • 450 grams of Piloncillo
  • ½ cup of honey
  • 1 tablespoon (limon) lime juice

Optional

  • 1 Cup of Walnut in halves
  • ½ cup pumpkin seed (pepitas)
  • ½ cup raisins
  • ½ cup peanuts, raw, peeled

Method

In an unoiled pan, over medium heat, toast the amaranth seed until golden. Most of the seeds will pop like popcorn (depending on how fresh it is). Stir constantly so that it does not burn. Remove from the heat and place in a large heat proof bowl (this will matter when we pour in the sugar syrup later). For this recipe I used pre puffed amaranth.

Optional step : if adding seeds/nuts/fruit to your alegrias then follow the nest step. Alegrias at their most basic can be made from the sugar syrup and the amaranth alone. In the same pan, separately toast the peanuts, walnuts, pepitas and raisins. Each has different cooking times so don’t toast them all at once.

Once golden brown, mix the peanuts, seeds and walnuts with the amaranth. Tip: You can also add pine nuts, almonds, pecans etc.

Break the piloncillo into small pieces and place into a saucepan with the honey and lime juice.

Piloncillo is an unrefined sugar that might also be known as chancaca (Peru) or panela (lots of places) and it is rock hard. To break it up I left it wrapped in the plastic it came in, then wrapped in a tea towel and belted the crap out of it with a rolling pin.

This recipe called for 1/2 cup of honey. The general consensus was that this was too much. Honey was the predominant flavour. It reminded me of a sweet I know as Honey Joys. These are a cornflake based product similar to alegrias (in spirit). Next time I will use only 2 Tablespoons of honey in the recipe. I have read that the honey is required so as to stop the alegrias from falling apart. I don’t think this true as the sugar syrup creates a toffee that would easily hold the seeds together even without the addition of honey.

Honey Joys. Go to bottom of Post for the recipe.

There was very little liquid in this recipe. Care needs to be taken when making a toffee in this manner as it is very easy to burn the sugar (you can make a toffee by using just sugar and no liquid at all but it requires constant supervision and careful regulation of heat). Panela (or piloncillo) sugar is an unrefined sugar. Essentially it is just reduced sugar cane liquid. It is brick hard. I stopped using a spoon to break it up and transitioned to a potato masher. The sugar is very gritty but will soon melt into a smooth liquid though.

Cook the piloncillo over medium heat while constantly stirring. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and allow it to cook for (about) another fifteen minutes.

The sugar syrup as shown in the pic below is lava hot. DO NOT put your finger in it. DO NOT taste it from a spoon. You will burn yourself. This liquid is hotter than boiling water.

Remove the sugar syrup from the heat and let it sit for ten minutes to cool slightly. Add the raisins to the sugar syrup (if using them) and allow them to rehydrate a little

You want to bring your syrup to the firm-ball stage (120C – 250F). I took it off the heat a little early. In the pic below you can see the drips of toffee have turned into small balls after being dropped into cold water. The tops of the balls have flattened. This tells me my toffee still has a little way to go. It takes practise to determine how far along a toffee is without using a sugar thermometer.

A sugar (or Candy) thermometer.

The toffee produce was a beautiful golden hue. This was from the colour of the sugar and not because of the cooking time. White sugar will go this colour if cooked long enough but care needs to be taken as (for white sugar) this colour also indicates that the syrup is not far from being burned.

Pour this mix (which will still be hot) into your amaranth mix and stir until well combined

Pour the mixture into a tray that has been lined with baking paper or aluminium foil. Press the mix into the tray with your hands so that it is compact and even. Dampen your hands with cold water so that the mixture does not stick to your skin and you do not burn, you may have to re-wet your hands several times.

Allow to sit until firm. Using a very sharp knife cut the amaranth into squares (wetting your knife between cuts – this should prevent it sticking)

This knife was a pain to use.

Much better.

Note the uniformity of my portion control (heh heh – this should bother my Chef mate Tim more than a little)

I left the pepita variety of my joys as they were but I had different plans for the ones made from the plain seed.

Lets get some chocolate ready for piping onto the sliced amaranth. Set up a double boiler. This is a bowl which sits on top of a pot of simmering water. The water doesn’t need to be at a full boil. The pic above shows how active the water needs to be. The bowl must not be touching the water in the pan. You only need steam.

When melting chocolate like this it is vitally important that no liquid, no steam gets into the chocolate. This will cause the chocolate to “seize”. This will make the chocolate solid, grainy and totally impossible to pipe. You could melt your chocolate in the microwave (in a non metal bowl of course) by giving it 30 second bursts and mixing between.

“Seized” chocolate

When mixing your melting chocolate use a metal spoon. You do not want to use a wooden spoon as a well loved and used wooden spoon (even when dry) may actually still retain enough water to cause the chocolate to seize.

Now we get ready to pipe the chocolate. There is not enough chocolate to warrant using a piping bag so today we will be using a sandwich bag. Fill the bag as you would normally fill a piping bag.

Squoosh all of the chocolate into one corner of the bag. Snip a small bit off the corner of the bag. You only want a thin line of chocolate so don’t chop off too much. The pic below shows the tiny amount I want removed. Not the whole bit I have squished the choccy out of but the tiny portion you can see on the blade of the knife.

Pipey, pipey, pipey. There was too much chocolate in my piping bag so the few portions on the right of the picture got an extra helping. These did not make it out of the kitchen alive.

Mi alegria ready for the FOMEX picnic.

The recipe without all the distractions.

Alegrias

Ingredients

  • 5 cups of amaranth seed – or use popped (puffed) amaranth grain
  • 450 grams of Piloncillo
  • ½ cup of honey
  • 1 tablespoon (limon) lime juice

Optional

  • 1 Cup of Walnut in halves
  • ½ cup pumpkin seed (pepitas)
  • ½ cup raisins
  • ½ cup peanuts, raw, peeled

Method

  1. In an unoiled pan, over medium heat, toast the amaranth seed until golden. Most of the seeds will pop like popcorn (depending on how fresh it is). Stir constantly so that it does not burn. Remove from the heat and place in a large heat proof bowl (this will matter when we pour in the sugar syrup later)
  2. Optional step : if adding seeds/nuts/fruit to your alegrias then follow the nest step. Alegrias at their most basic can be made from the sugar syrup and the amaranth alone. In the same pan, separately toast the peanuts, walnuts, pepitas and raisins. Each has different cooking times so don’t toast them all at once.
  3. Once golden brown, mix the peanuts, seeds and walnuts with the amaranth. Tip: You can also add pine nuts, almonds, pecans etc.
  4. Break the piloncillo into small pieces and place into a saucepan with the honey and lime juice.
  5. Cook the piloncillo over medium heat while constantly stirring. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and allow it to cook for (about) another fifteen minutes. You want to bring it to the firm-ball stage (120C – 250F)
  • Remove the sugar syrup from the heat and let it sit for ten minutes to cool slightly. Add the raisins to the sugar syrup (if using them) and allow them to rehydrate a little
  • Pour this mix (which will still be hot) into your amaranth mix and stir until well combined
  • Pour the mixture into a tray that has been lined with baking paper or aluminium foil. Press the mix into the tray with your hands so that it is compact and even. Dampen your hands with cold water so that the mixture does not stick to your skin and you do not burn, you may have to re-wet your hands several times.
  • Allow to sit until firm. Using a very sharp knife cut the amaranth into squares (wetting your knife between cuts – this should prevent it sticking)

Cornflake Honey Joys

Ingredients              

  • 90g butter or margarine
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 4 cups Corn Flakes

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 150°C. (300°F)
  2. Line 24 hole patty pan with paper cases.
  3. Melt butter, sugar and honey together in a saucepan and heat until frothy/foamy.
  4. Add Corn Flakes and mix well.
  5. Working quickly, spoon into paper patty cases.
  6. Bake in a slow oven 150°C for 10 minutes.
  7. Cool.
  8. Devour

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