Originally published April 13, 2014
By Providence Cicero, contributor to Taste
Palm Sunday opens Holy Week, the culmination of Lent for Christians around the world. Few countries celebrate the week leading up to Easter Sunday with more fervor than Spain, particularly in the southern region of Andalusia.
During Semana Santa (Spain’s Holy Week), processions of penitents, accompanied by song, dance and fireworks, fill the winding streets of every town. Brotherhoods of colorfully hooded and robed men march while their muscular brothers hoist huge chariots bearing lifelike depictions of Jesus’ suffering and the sorrows of his mother, Mary.
Chef Jason Stratton who owned this [new-in-2014] Spanish inspired restaurant Aragona in downtown Seattle [Aragona since has shuttered, and Stratton is now the chef at Mezzanotte in Georgetown]He witnessed firsthand the captivating spectacle in Granada and recalls being struck by the mixture of religious rapture and festive excitement: “As much as they celebrate the death of Christ, they celebrate communion, a coming together.”
The traditional foods of Semana Santa reflect the duality of the celebration. Strict Catholics avoid meat this week, so menus emphasize fish, particularly cod (bacalao), which is often cooked with chickpeas.
But Semana Santa isn’t just about denial. Sweets play a prominent role. Torrija (tor-EE-ha) is particularly popular. The custard-soaked fried bread is similar to pain perdu, or what we would call French toast. “I fell in love with her in Granada,” says Stratton. “Whenever we were invited to someone’s house, they served it. Every time I taste it, it pulls me back.”
For Stratton, the dish seems particularly suited to Easter, as it’s usually made with stale bread. “You bring something inedible to life and transform it, give it a new life.”
His version of torrija on the dessert menu at Aragona was served with a sherry caramel sauce. He says it’s the only dish anyone applying for a job as a chef has to prepare. Here’s the recipe if you want to try it yourself.
1 loaf finely crumbly white bread (Aragona uses challah)
1½ cups milk
½ cup cream
¼ cup sugar
1 tablespoon of anise
pinch of salt
1½ ounces anise liqueur
Extra virgin olive oil for frying
Powdered sugar, optional
1. How to prepare the bread: Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Cut bread into 4 x 1-inch chunks. Toast in a single layer on a baking sheet until the cut surfaces are slightly dried but not colored. Let cool down. (Or slice bread and let it air dry on a wire rack for several hours.)
2. To make the pudding: Combine milk, cream, sugar, anise and salt in a heavy saucepan. Scald over low heat until bubbles form around the edges and a skin forms on the surface. Not cook. In a separate bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Slowly pour about a third of the brewed milk mixture into the eggs to temper them, whisking constantly to avoid boiling the eggs. Slowly whisk the tempered egg mixture back into the saucepan with the remaining milk. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until pudding is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon (about 10 minutes). Pour the thickened cream into a shallow casserole dish to cool. Add the anise when the pudding has cooled.
3. How to bake the bread: Place pieces of dried bread in the cream in a single layer. Let soak for 3 to 5 minutes, turning halfway through, until bread is saturated. If necessary, work in batches. Drain bread on a wire rack for a few minutes. Heat several tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Fry the pieces of bread in batches on all sides. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Sherry caramel sauce
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon of honey
½ cup dry amontillado sherry
1 ounce butter
1. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the sugar, just enough water to wet it, and honey. Stir with a wooden spoon to dissolve. Cook over medium-high heat, tossing occasionally but not stirring, until thickened and turning a dark caramel color.
2. Remove from stove. Gently add sherry to stop the caramel from cooking, then beat in butter and salt to taste.