I secretly scowl at the sight of the figures that are slowly morphing into hideous creatures bathing in the hot bubbling oil in front of me. A scene from my childhood suddenly flashes before my eyes. The family arbularyo (herb doctor) was called one day to figure out what caused my sudden high temperature. Tiyo Nato, carefully lighted a candle, tilted it and let the melted wax drip into a bowl of water. It slowly formed into a shape only him could decipher. Did we see an old man carrying a sack that afternoon while playing in the rice field? The “arbularyo” asked. Did we mock him when he passed by? My brother and I nodded sheepishly. My high fever was immediately blamed on the man carrying a sack. The arbularyo closed his eyes and said another round of prayers to counter the power of the bad forces.
The bad forces, err, the badly shaped and still unidentified objects are slowly coming to life. Today, my Catalan friend Gloria is teaching me to make my own Buñuelos de Cuaresma, one of Catalonia´s famous Easter desserts. Ten minutes into our cooking, we find ourselves wondering what has gone wrong like a couple of surgeons examining an operation gone bad.
Staring at the pan with a batch of disfigured “buñuelos”, I try to trace back what happened ten minutes ago. Gloria brought 110 grams of butter sliced into cubes mixed with 250 cc of water and beer to a boil. We waited for the butter to dissolve. Once dissolved, we added 125 grams of flour, 8 grams of salt and two eggs into the melted butter. I remember her asking me to beat the flour making sure they thicken up.
“¡Dale más fuerza! More force!” Gloria gently ordered me when she saw how slow I was in my beating. I increased the speed but my arm was getting tired. I was careful not to spill some on the floor. Five minutes later, the mix hadn’t thickened yet. Gloria´s face looked worried. I kept beating. But the more I beat the less thicker the mix got. Suddenly, I saw Gloria looking around the kitchen. She opened the cupboard, took out a ladder and climbed up to get a small box. A handheld electric beater. “Venga, use this. We are not going anywhere if we don’t use this.” Deadpanned Gloria.
I just released some hearty giggles. Obviously, with the rate of my beating the mix would never thicken. I held the electric beater and it started to growl. I was a bit intimidated by its speed. It was like holding a slippery fish raring to get back into the water. Needless to say, I had never baked before. It was my first time to hold a “live” beater. Gloria was laughing at my intimidated look.
“We exactly did what is written in the recipe!” Gloria´s voice takes me out of my deep thought. Trying to rescue the remaining batter and hoping against hope to transform them into beautiful and delicious buñuelos, Gloria cracks two more eggs and adds them to the flour. Once again the sound of the roaring electric beater resonates around the kitchen. After a while, she signals me to check if the mix has already thickened.
Not quite. We scratch our head. Why? I look at the buñuelos made by Gloria yesterday. Truth of the matter, she herself hadn’t made buñuelos before. Until yesterday. But her buñuelos look good and right. Perhaps, there is a ghost in her kitchen. Maybe the man carrying a sack is trying to play some tricks on us. Without saying a word, Gloria adds more flour. And then more. And some more.
“Just add flour if it doesn’t get thicker. My mother used to say that.” Off roars the electric beater once again. After several minutes, the mixture thickens. We exchange satisfactory smiles. We are ready to deep fry the second batch. One by one, I start to drop a spoonful of batter into the oil. But just the same, the batter doesn’t stick and form into a beautiful ball. Instead, moving in slow-mo, it turns into an unsightly figure just like the first batch. Then, I drop some more and again, I am giving birth to weird-alien-looking baby creatures: a disfigured bird, a headless dragon, a one-legged rat and a two-headed hen.
After four minutes, I take them out of the pan and Gloria sprinkles sugar and cinnamon on each horrid-looking buñuelo drained on paper towel. She grabs one, takes a bite and breaks into a smile. “Not bad eh. Taste it. It is actually good!” I take one. A one-winged dragon. I brace for my first bite. I carefully feel my teeth touching the first layer of the buñuelo. Flour. I immediately taste the sweet roughness of sugar as my teeth sink deeper into something soft. My tongue instantly recognizes the familiar smooth hint of butter and a bit of beer. Surprisingly, although a bit flour-y, it has a pleasant taste.
When it is time to take my leave, Gloria carefully places all the dauntingly-shaped sugary-floury figures inside a big plastic tub. “Here, your first Buñuelo de Cuaresma! Always remember, the important thing is the taste. It doesn’t matter how it looks! ¡Salga lo que salga, da igual!“
Appearance aside, I am a bit pleased by how my first attempt at making Catalonian doughnuts turned out. I gladly share my buñuelos to my Spanish friend Esther to get a third opinion. She bursts into laughter the moment she sees my mutant Easter doughnuts.
“Not bad! It´s tasty! But your buñuelo reminds me of Paparajota!” Esther excitedly exclaims as she swallows the last piece of her buñuelo that originially looked like a headless bird. Paparajota is typical Andalucian doughnut her mom used to make for her. “All we need is condensed milk and it will be perfect for dessert after meal.” She licks her finger and picks another buñuelo. This time, a legless rat.