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Empanadas are one of Ecuador’s most ubiquitous, and of course popular, foods. You can find them in small shops along most streets, on street corners, and in almost any Ecuadorian restaurant both high and low-budget. Occasionally baked but usually fried-made even better by the use of fresh lard-they come in a variety of flavors.

Sunday we stopped at this little empanada-only shop in San Rafael, a suburban but bustling town just outside of Quito. My mother-in-law had recommended this place; they have two locations, the other is a few miles away in another part of town.  All they sell here are empanadas, sodas, and beer. They come in several flavors, but the most common types here are made of plantain dough, which is made with fresh plantains and flour, or with a type of white corn called morocho, filled with just a bit of ground pork and peas.

“Old Country” Empanadas

Ecuadorian Hot Sauce AKA Ají in Spanish.

White empanada on left made of morocho or corn, on right, Chilean style empanada.

Our son Sebastian enjoying his cheese and plantain empanada and a Fanta.

Daily empanada list-corn, chilean style with meat, chicken, napolitan (cheese, tomato, oregano, and salami), cheese, plantain, and mejid-cheese and sugar in plantain dough, a sweet/salty mix.

Inside the shop.

See and download the full gallery on posterous

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I’ve been trying to make pound cakes and things like it for months. I never had the discipline to keep copious, detailed notes until just recently. All my poundcakes were a flop. The looked like this:

High Altitude Lemon Cake Disaster

I tried adjusting recipes, tried different recipes, different oven temps, starting off in a warm, but not fully-preheated oven (my mother-in-law swears by it for her orange cake), but nothing seemed to work. The work went in fits and starts, I’d try for a day here, a day there, but kept giving up. I finally decided it was time, time to just go at it, do a marathon of baking if that’s what it took, to get something, anything, resembling a pound cake, baked here at Quito’s altitude of 9,000 feet.

After five attempts, we finally got something that works! The key points, who I must credit to user davidtmori of South Lake Tahoe, CA on egullet, were these:

“…cakes and cookies are the two items affected most by altitude. In cookies, the leavening needs to be reduced, by as much as 50%. Flour and eggs need to be increased by 8% and 13% respectively. Sugar, a tenderizer, needs to be decreased by 8%. Fat, such as butter, needs to be decreased by 7%, And liquid, such as water or milk, needs to be increased by 20%.
Of course, every recipe is different, and the best results are obtained by some experimentation and tweaking. These across the board percentages may need to be adjusted from one recipe to the next. Good luck.

I had made several different adjustments similar to these in one way or another, but still wasn’t getting results. But after applying these percentage adjustments to a scientific degree I finally got it right. The one adjustment that was even bigger than what’s recommended here was leavening, which I reduce by about 75%. Also, I did not increase the eggs from the original recipe.

I began initially with Joy the Baker’s Lemon Drenched Lemon Cakes recipe. The photo above is the first flop. After converting the entire recipe to grams, it was a lot easier to start making percentage adjustments here and there.

What finally brought success was the following:

195 g butter
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
190 g cream
515 g sugar
325 g flour
6 eggs
vanilla extract, powder or bean
2 Meyer Lemons
Juice of 2 lemons

Making the cakes:
Preheat a convection oven to 350 degrees F or a conventional oven to 375 degrees F. Butter and flour two 8 1/2-4 1/2-inch loaf pans. Place the pans on an insulated baking sheet.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.

Put the sugar and the lemon zest in a large bowl, working with your fingers, rub them together until the sugar is moist and the zest has released its oil and smell in the sugar. Add the vanilla bean seeds or vanilla powder and work them into the sugar. If you are using vanilla extract, add it later, after you have added the eggs.

Add the eggs and whisk them into the sugar, beating until they are thoroughly incorporated. Whisk in the extract (if using), then whisk in the cream. Continuing with the whisk, or switching to a large rubber spatula, gently stir in the dry ingredients in 3 or 4 additions; the batter will be smooth and thick. Finish by folding in the melted butter in 2 or 3 additions. Pour the batter into the pans, smoothing with a rubber spatula.

Bake for 55 to 60 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean. As soon as the cake goes into the oven, make the syrup. After about 30 minutes in the oven, check the cakes for color- if they are browning too quickly, cover them lightly with tin foil.

Making the syrup:

Stir the water and sugar together in a medium saucepan over medium heat until the sugar melts, then bring to a boil Remove the pan from heat and stir in the lemon juice. Pour the syrup into a heatproof bowl and let cool.

When the cakes test done, transfer them to a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes before unmolding them and turning them right side up on the rack. Place the rack over a baking sheet lined with wax paper and, using a thin skewer, cake tester or thin-bladed sharp knife, poke holes all over the cakes. Brush the cakes all over with the syrup, working slowly so that the cakes sop it up. Leave the cakes on the rack to cool to room temperature.

I skipped the syrup, it’s up to you. Thanks to and Dorie Greenspan, from which this recipe has been adapted for altitude.

In no more than a few weeks, I´ve gained fame baking chocolate chip cookies from the NY Times recipe back from July ´08. It first caught my eye after reading about it on Chez Pim´s. Before I was able to actually sell the cookies, I had to make the recipe several times over and make the proper adjustments for altitude. My first cookies came out flat as pancakes. The second batch too. They were crispy all the way through and not bad, but not what I was looking for. I like them crispy and brown on the edges and chewy as you work your way towards, the middle, don’t you?

I tried extra an extra egg yolk for texture, that didn’t work. The brown sugar here is different than what you can get in the states-there is no “light” or “dark” brown sugar, just plain brown sugar. Tried varying the rations of brown to white, made little or no difference. I let a Venezuelan friend of mine, who owns a restaurant, try them and they didn’t like the “panela” flavor. Panela is the term for what is raw, unprocessed brown sugar, which usually comes in a solid block and has to be broken up before it can be used. But to me, the absence of brown sugar…well, you couldn’t call it a chocolate chip cookie, really, if it didn’t have brown sugar.

You can’t find bread flour here in Ecuador either, so I use all AP flour in the recipe. Worked fine for me here.

I found the key to getting cookies that did not spread too much was to use chilled dough. 50g portions were just right. A hot oven is also key. Success came using our convection oven preheated to 375F.

Finally, I realized the less I changed the original recipe, the better. Because of the altitude, I find that most muffin and cookie recipes can use up to 80% less leavening than at sea level. So, let me leave you with the recipe adjusted for high-altitude baking, 9,000 feet to be more or less exact. (BTW, if you have any tips, I’m still having trouble with high altitude pound cake). Adapted from

Time: 45 minutes (for 1 6-cookie batch), plus at least 24 hours’ chilling

475 g AP Flour
1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
280g unsalted butter
560g light brown sugar
225 g granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
500g bittersweet chocolate disks or fèves (I use 55% bars broken up in chunks)
Sea salt.

1. Sift flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.

2. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Drop chocolate pieces in and incorporate them without breaking them. Press plastic wrap against dough and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. Dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.

3. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. Set aside.

4. Scoop 50g balls of chilled dough (the size of generous golf balls) onto baking sheet, making sure to turn horizontally any chocolate pieces that are poking up; it will make for a more attractive cookie. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and bake until golden brown but still soft, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then slip cookies onto another rack to cool a bit more. Repeat with remaining dough, or reserve dough, refrigerated, for baking remaining batches the next day.

Yield: Approx 3 dozen cookies.

Selling our products is a fine way to meet people and find other great products. There are a number of small artisan food producers in Quito and in other parts of Ecuador, and we have the good fortune of working with many of them. I’m going to try and profile some of the great people, and especially their products, during the next couple of months. We have met many of them during holiday bazars and at the mini “farmer’s market”,  held at the house of a German family every Saturday from 9-2 in Tumbaco, just outside Quito.

Local food in Ecuador is not an oxymoronic term as it so often is in the US. This is one aspect of food in Ecuador that is taken for granted. Nearly everything fresh can be considered “local.” From Ipiales in the northernmost part of Ecuador at the Colombian border, to Huaquillas in the South at the Peruvian border, its 346.1 miles. If you’re in Quito, then your about 250 miles from Huaquillas and little more than 150 or so from Ipiales. So all your fresh produce is never more then 100-200 miles away, but in all likelihood it’s from a lot closer in, under 100 miles most of the time. The geographical variation makes it easy to get guanabana, passion fruit, and bananas from the coast or the Amazon, and highland staples like potatoes and carrots. But on to our foodie friends.

Farmer's Market Tumbaco

Greens and Reds at the Tumbaco Market

Regina Schimmele is one of the great people we’ve met, and she makes a number of fantastic goat cheeses. She’s German but has lived in Ecuador over ten years, and learned her cheese-making skills during a one-week course in Austria. She must have learned a lot in that one week, because her cheeses are spectacular.

The cheese are sold in several small stores in Quito and she is a regular, always at the Tumbaco Biormercado. She sells it under the “Black Forest” brand. Too bad it’s not for export because it would be a hot item.

Regina has her own flock of goats, but also buys milk from another local goat herder, and makes all the cheeses at her house. She also sells fresh oyster mushrooms from the amazon, a number or quinoa and amaranth products, hearts of palm from the family farm, and a few baked goods.

You can find all kinds of fresh produce and goodies you won’t find elsewhere; fennel, carrots, potatoes, a variety of lettuces, and herbs, rhubarb and rhubarb pie, fresh sauerkraut and breads, german bratwurst and other sausages, smoked salmon and trout, passion fruit preserves, and other good stuff.

There are no regulations to follow here, no standards to adhere to, but since it’s a private market and everything is fresh and homemade, it’s of the best quality. But let’s cover the cheeses for now.

The chevre with herbs, the 2 month or 3 month aged hard cheese, the goat cheese ricotta, or the brie, I can never decide which one to pick they are all so delicious. Whenever I can, I am over at Regina’s table munching on samples. I usually end up going home with at least two different kinds, and Regina likes to barter with me for our chocolate covered almonds. The chevre is a tangy, smooth cream cheese, best served when it’s soft and spreadable. It’s got chives, parsley, dill and a few other herbs mixed in, and some fresh garlic. My five year old son devours crack after cracker covered with it. The hard cheese is slighly sharp, nicely tangy. The ricotta is one of our favorites; I often get it half price because I don’t think a lot of people here know what to do with it so it’s not a big mover. We like to serve it mixed with a tomato and mushroom sauce over pasta. As it breaks up it clings nicely to the noodles and adds a farm-fresh cream flavor, heightening the tomatoes and accenting the mushrooms. Are you hungry yet?


Condiments, preserves and other items

Regina and Her Cheeses

Cheeses and Oyster Mushrooms

Assorted Cheese, Hearts of Palm, and Rye Flour

Most of the year goes by without having to deal with too much corruption, but permit renewal is one period when I sometimes ask myself just why I put up with it. Every year around this time, we have to renew our health permit. It doesn’t matter that we already run a clean shop, abide by higher than normal hygiene, and do our best to make sure our products are safe and clean. The authorities are willing to recognize that. What they’re not willing to do is let anyone get away with being law abiding without paying a hefty fee, which is really all that matters to them.

This year, as usual, things have changed since last year. Instead of simply getting our health permit renewed, we now needed an inspection from the Fire Department. Last year we were supposed to have a fire department inspection, but in spite of contacting the fire department and setting up an appointment, they never showed up and never issued a permit.

But our “expediter” who is actually the same guy who issues the health permit from the Ministry of Healthy, insisted it was necessary that the inspection be carried out. He needed the inspection report from the FD before he could issue the permit.

After waiting several weeks, a man from the Fire Department showed up when we were out of town. This he made clear to us on his second visit; his motive for making this clear was cash. Since most government agencies don’t have budgets for things like transportation, it had cost him to come once and cost him again to come twice, and he insinuated that some kind of “compensation” should be given for having had to make two trips, since had to pay cab fare, or bus fare, to arrive.

During his inspection, he noted that we needed a 10 pound chemical powder fire extinguisher, in addition to the five pound one we already had, properly situated emergency evacuation lights, and smoke detectors in all four rooms of our workshop. He sat slowly making his notes and purposely forging an uncomfortable silence, obviously waiting for some offer of cash which would just make this all easily go away.

What he got was acceptance on our part to comply with the request, and no cash. He wasn’t happy about it. The form he left us noted what was needed; once we had put in place the requested items, then he or someone else would be back to re-inspect and have the form signed off on by the head of the fire department. But he didn’t really want to come back-he wanted the cash so he wouldn’t have the onerous burden of actually having to do his job.

We called our “expediter” at the Ministry and told him we had the inspection report. He told us straight-out we really didn’t need to actually comply with the requested items on the report. A copy of it sent over to him would suffice; my guess is he knows the fire department chief and would get it signed off on, probably sharing with the Chief a portion of the “fee” we pay him to get the permit issued.

At the same time, he sent us a form to sign off on stating that we would comply with the request in the Fire Department’s report within 90 days, and if we did not do so the Health Ministry had the right to revoke our permit. But of course, he is the Health Ministry, or at least he is the official in charge of enforcing the Health Ministry’s issuing of permits-so this form will probably just end up buried deep in some rusty file cabinet in some shadowy and dusty half-abandoned file storage closet in the Ministry. Ah, such is corruption!

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Welcome to Destination Ecuador!

Welcome to Destination Ecuador! My family and I have been living in Ecuador for the last four and a half years. We’ve dealt with the worst kinds of red-tape, searched out or ended up making hard-to-find ingredients ourselves, imported equipment for making chocolate confections, learned the import-export business...Continue >>


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