Breads and Pastries


Like every Spanish city and town, Murcia has its own annual fiesta rooted in local traditions: the Bando de la Huerta. This day-long celebration pays homage to Murcia’s agrarian roots, its huerta, the cultivated lands within and surrounding the city once renowned as the huerta de Europa (the market garden of Europe).

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The Bando de la Huerta takes place every year on the Tuesday after Easter as part of the week-long Fiestas de Primavera, heralding spring’s arrival and offering a popular antidote to the (relatively) solemn activities of the Semana Santa, or Holy Week, before. On the day of the festival, the people of Murcia descend upon the city center by the thousands, most dressed in traditional clothing. The men are known as huertanos and the women huertanas.

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The centerpiece of the fiesta is a parade that brings Murcia’s past to life with period costumes and floats demonstrating time-honored huerta activities. On one float, ladies knead and shape dough, which they place in a working, dome-shaped adobe oven to produce Murcia’s signature round loaves. On another float, young girls dance a jota in a bin of grapes, celebrating the local wine-making tradition.

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The most anticipated floats come at the end: tractor-drawn, open-air replicas of the typical homes of the huerta, barracas, complete with thatched roofs and loops of sausage hanging from the rafters. All along the parade route, riders toss out products from the huerta, like lemons, the aforementioned sausages and even small bottles of wine.

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Sharing from the huerta is not only true of this annual parade, but remains a strong aspect of daily life in Murcia, where the idea of actually paying for local products like lemons is unthinkable to many locals. Despite the fact there isn’t nearly as much huerta as there used to be, the generous landscape that has fed families for centuries continues to give. This generosity is the heart of Murcia.

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Historical traditions aside, the Bando de la Huerta is first and foremost a party. An article on this year’s Bando in the local paper described the scene perfectly: “The people of Murcia celebrate the most ‘huertano’ day of the year eating and drinking in every corner of the city.”

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Instead of fighting the crowds in packed restaurants, many locals opt to bring their own provisions to the party. Since the streets are closed off to traffic, any place is good for a picnic.

We have set up shop with friends and family in the same spot for the last several years, so other friends know where to find us if they want to stop by for a beer and bite to eat. The sharing principal of the huerta extends to the partying, as well.

Typical foods at our potluck-style picnic include general Spanish favorites like marinated olives and tortilla de patatas as well as snacks with a huertano twist like Murcian longaniza (sausages cured with pimentón), potato chips drizzled with fresh lemon juice, and savory pastries like the empanada murciana, packed with tuna, eggs and tomato.

IMG_2006 Even Mateo is in on the fun, enjoying the rare chance to drink Fanta.

I usually bake American-style cookies for the picnic, which are much appreciated, but this year I decided to make an empanada murciana for the first time to share a taste of Murcia and its fiesta with family and friends on this blog. This nourishing savory pie pairs perfectly with ice-cold beer, and, an important consideration, keeps the effect of the beer in check. Spanish fiestas take stamina.

If you, too, choose to make an empanada murciana, in the spirit of the city, be sure to invite your friends. Cheers! ¡Salud!

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Empanada murciana

In her cookbook The Food of Spain, Claudia Roden writes, “Empanadas, large savory pies, are a symbol of Galicia, while empanadillas, small turnovers, are a specialty of the Balearic Islands and Valencia.” To which I ask, “Hey, what about Murcia?” Both empanadas and empanadillas are specialties here, too! Murcia often gets left out like this.

Yet the empanadas and empanadillas in Murcia are some of the best I have had anywhere, and they are among the foods I crave when I have been away for any length of time. The main ingredient that sets the empanada murciana apart from similar pastries in Spain is the sweet pimentón in the dough, lending it a more intriguing flavor and a deep golden hue. The traditional filling has just three simple ingredients that are pantry staples in Spain: eggs, olive oil-packed tuna and tomate frito, a sweet and jammy tomato sauce.

These are the basic building blocks, yet every empanada murciana is slightly different, depending on the cook’s preferences. The dough can be made with or without a leavening agent, and the proportions and textures of each ingredient in the filling vary. Some like their tomato sauce chunky, while others like it smooth. In some cases, the sauce oozes out, and in others, there is just enough tomato to hold the other ingredients together. My favorite empanada murciana has flaky shortcrust pastry and a balanced blend of fillings.

This is a recipe for the most basic, traditional version of the empanada murciana. Feel free to adapt the filling to your tastes. Some people add roasted red peppers and even peas to the mix, for example. I like to keep it simple.

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Make ahead: The tomate frito (recipe follows) and two hard-boiled eggs can be prepared up to several days in advance. The dough needs to rest for one hour before it can be rolled out.

Special equipment: parchment paper and an 11- by 15-inch cake pan

For the tomate frito:

In Spain we can buy good canned tomate frito, which makes assembly quick and easy.  My favorite brand is the Murcia-made Sandoval. I have not tried this recipe with jarred tomato sauces in the US. I have used canned whole tomatoes here because I like to control the size of the chunks, but you can also use diced or crushed tomatoes, as well. If you have good fresh tomatoes, by all means use them. You can make the tomate frito up to several days in advance and store it in the refrigerator. It also freezes well.

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 28-ounce cans of whole peeled tomatoes, drained and with any bits of skin and the core ends removed (about 4 pounds fresh tomatoes, peeled and diced)

1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1 tablespoon sugar, plus more to taste

Combine the olive oil, tomatoes and one tablespoon of sugar (plus 1 teaspoon of salt if using fresh tomatoes) in a deep saucepan (I use a Dutch oven – this sauce likes to spatter). Stir while you heat the sauce over medium heat until it bubbles.

Leave the pan uncovered and reduce the heat to low to maintain a gentle simmer for 45-50 minutes, stirring occasionally so that the sauce does not stick and burn. If you have used canned whole tomatoes, break them up with the spoon as you go. The final sauce should be reduced, jammy and sweet. Add more sugar and salt to taste.

Allow to cool and use immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to several days or in the freezer for up to several months. Makes about 1 1/2 cups. I use this amount for my empanada.

For the dough:

Empanada dough is relatively easy to make, based on a simple ratio: equal parts olive oil and white wine, a bit of salt and pimentón, and as much flour as you need for the dough to come together (“lo que admita,” as my friend Inma says, “as much as it takes”). The empanada murciana has two traditional shapes: rectangular and circular. My first attempt turned out somewhere between a rectangle and an oval, which wasn’t noticeable once we cut it up. Nevertheless, the aesthetics need some work. You can also make empanadillas, small pies, with the same dough and filling, which will be tackled in another post.

3/4 cup olive oil

3/4 cup dry white wine

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sweet pimentón (Spanish paprika)

About 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 egg for brushing on the dough before baking

Whisk together the olive oil, wine, salt and pimentón together in a large bowl until the seasonings have dissolved. Add the 2 1/2 cups of flour and mix well with a wooden spoon or your hands, being careful not to overmix. The dough should hold together easily and be smooth to the touch. If it seems too sticky, add more flour as needed a tablespoon at a time. Allow the dough to rest at room temperature for at least one hour in a bowl covered with a clean dish towel or plastic wrap.

For the filling:

1 5-ounce can of tuna packed in olive oil, drained

1-2 hard-boiled eggs, diced to your liking

tomate frito to taste (I used 1 1/2 cups)

There are different approaches to making the filling. You can either mix all the ingredients together in a bowl first or place each ingredient separately onto the dough. I take the first route for a more homogeneous texture, which is more to my two-year-old son’s liking. Big chunks of anything tend to get spit out. I break up the tuna, mix it with the tomate frito and then stir in small bits of egg.

Assembly and baking:

Line an 11- by 15-inch cake pan with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 350ºF. Divide the dough into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other, then roll out the larger piece of on a clean surface until it is 1/4 inch thick. The base should be nearly as large as your pan. You shouldn’t need to use flour as this is an oily dough that doesn’t tend to stick. Carefully transfer the dough by rolling it up onto your rolling pin and then unrolling it into the parchment-lined pan. Alternately, you can roll out the dough directly on the parchment paper on the counter and then transfer both carefully to the pan. Cover the base with the filling, leaving about a one-inch border.

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Roll out the second portion of dough to the same thickness, so that it is big enough to cover the filling. Transfer the dough using your rolling pin as above and carefully unroll it over the base. Fold the bottom edges of the dough over the top and crimp together. Pierce the top of the dough in various places with a fork to allow steam to escape.

Brush the surface of the dough with beaten egg, then bake for about 30 minutes until golden.

Cut into squares before serving hot or at room temperature with an ice-cold lager.

Yield: Serves a crowd.

 

[Murcia’s] unique Holy Week…is made up of little gestures and familiar movements, of the comings and goings of the nazarenos (penitents) dressed in red or purple (the nazareno colorao or the nazareno morado), who step out from under the floats they carry, momentarily passing the weight to their friends, to place a beautiful mona de pascua in the trembling hands of a child.

These words penned by Murcian author Juan García Abellan in his ode to the city and its food, Murcia, entre bocado y trago (1965), resonate for anyone who has been to a Holy Week procession in Murcia. Here, the pace and drumbeat of the daily marches leading up to Easter are as solemn as in other parts of Spain, yet a festive ambiance reigns at several of the city’s most celebrated processions. This is particularly true for children, who, like the child in the quote, gaze up in awe and expectation at the hooded nazarenos. Local children know – and have known for generations – that the striking robed figures, many with their faces covered, are not to be feared, for they come bearing gifts – candies, eggs, and for the lucky few, monas de pascua.

This penitent (a nazareno morado) is not as fat as he looks – most of that bulge hanging over his belt is in fact space for treats like candy and goody bags, often containing mini monas, to be handed out along the procession route.

The mona de pascua is an Easter pastry found in several regions of Spain, most notably in Cataluña, Valencia and Murcia. (In these areas, the mona is as typical as hot cross buns, hence the title of this post.) In its most traditional version, the kind typically found in Murcia, the mona de pascua is a sweet bread roll (not dissimilar from hot cross buns, in fact) topped with a hard-boiled egg, itself topped with a cross shaped from dough.

Traditionally, the mona de pascua was eaten on Easter Sunday or the following Monday, marking the end of Lent. In the past, eggs, considered akin to meat, were among the forbidden foods of this period of abstinence. Eggs – representative of fertility, birth and resurrection – are also, of course, a powerful symbol for this time of year. It’s no wonder that eggs (especially hard-boiled – a means to preserve the inevitable yields in the henhouse) play such an important role in many Easter customs around the world.

Certain communities in and around Murcia still refer to the Monday after Easter “el día de la mona,” Mona Day, and many families ritually take to the countryside on this day for a picnic starring monas de pascua. Yet the mona has become a common treat to be enjoyed throughout the entire week leading up to Easter. Monas – either full-size with a chicken egg or mini with a quail egg – are a favorite snack for the lengthy Holy Week processions, welcome fuel for spectators and marchers alike.

As is the case with many long-standing food traditions, the mona de pascua in and of itself has become an essential symbol of the season, and not just for religious reasons. It also represents the generosity of spring, reflected in Murcia’s giving Holy Week processions.

Monas de Pascua

This is my fourth Easter in Murcia, and I have begun to feel twinges of nostalgia for this seasonal pastry, meaning Semana Santa is just not complete without a mona de pascua. This is the first year I decided to make them myself, wanting to share with friends and family near and far the spirit of the season in Murcia.

Monas really do remind me of hot cross buns in flavor and texture, and the dough is actually quite similar, although monas in Murcia are typically made with a mild-flavored olive oil instead of butter and contain a hint of orange blossom water, like a southern breeze.

The resulting pastry is characteristically dry, perfect for dunking. The recipe writers on the Region of Murcia’s website offer the following solution: “As the dough is a little dry, some kind of liquid accompaniment is appropriate. This could be mistela (a sweet wine like muscat) for adults and milk for children. Adding a bit of chocolate makes the monas irresistible.”

I found many slightly different variations on this recipe, which invites tinkering in the search for a favorite texture and flavor. So far, I have tried two different versions, one with a blend of bread and all-purpose flours and one with bread flour only. Both were good, but I preferred the denser texture of the all-bread-flour mona.

Whether you make larger, oblong-shaped monas with hard-boiled chicken eggs, mini monas with quail eggs, or skip the egg altogether, the procedure is basically the same, although the baking time will of course vary slightly.

For the dough:

80 ml. (1/3 cup) warm milk

25 g (≈ 0.9 oz.) compressed (fresh) yeast

500 g (≈ 3 1/2 cups *SEE NOTE) bread flour

¼ teaspoon salt

140 g (1 cup plus 2 tablespoons) sugar

3 Eggs, plus one more, beaten, for glazing

80 ml. (1/3 cup) mild-flavored olive oil

Zest of one lemon

½ teaspoon orange blossom water

For the topping:

Quail eggs, hard-boiled, as many as you want (Optional)

Granulated sugar for sprinkling

Stir yeast into warm milk. Let stand for 5-10 minutes.

Sift together the flour and salt together in one bowl. In another bowl, mix the eggs with the sugar. Stir in the yeasted milk. Then add the olive oil, orange blossom water if using and the lemon zest, stirring just until well blended. Gradually stir in the flour until a dough is formed. Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead until dough is smooth and elastic, adding more flour by the tablespoonful as needed (the dough should be moist and slightly tacky, but not sticky). Transfer dough to a large oiled bowl and turn it to coat. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 ½ – 2 hours (it may take longer, depending on factors like ambient temperature).

Divide the dough into 12-14 equal pieces on a floured surface. Roll each piece into a ball, then flatten slightly with the palm of your hand. Arrange 1 ½ inches apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover loosely with plastic wrap for a second rise of about 45 minutes.

Towards the end of the second rise, preheat oven to 350ºF (180ºC).

Brush monas with egg glaze. If you are using hard-boiled eggs, make indents in the center of the monas with your fingers, creating a nest for the eggs. Sprinkle monas generously with sugar. Bake until golden, about 15-20 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool.

*NOTE: I measured out the cups, but have not tested this recipe with the standard American measurements, so have put an approximate amount here. If using cups, I suggest starting with this amount of flour and adding more by the tablespoon as needed to get the consistency indicated in the recipe.

  One a penny, two a penny… 

HAPPY EASTER!