Just four ingredients that you may already have at home make for one of the tastiest treats in the Mexican pan dulce repertoire: campechanas.
Not all panaderías in Mexico have campechanas though. And not all the panaderías that do carry them have fabulous campechanas. In fact, I have found that campechanas sold on the streets tend to be the very best ones.
Campechanas are one of the things I look for the moment I touch Valle de Bravo, a small town about a 2-hour drive from Mexico City. I grew up vacationing there with my family, and I still go as often as I can. It is a town whose campechanas are of the finest sort. Very puffy and dry with the perfectly crisp caramelized top, they are sold in thin plastic bags by the dozen in so many street corners.
It is practically impossible to keep them whole once you hold one up, or even as you try to take one out of the bag. The moment you take a bite, forget about it: it has crumbled all over the place into pieces that make for delirious bites. Once you have one, you can’t stop until there are no more.
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1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups pecans (you may use other nuts or peanuts as well)
In a medium saucepan, set over medium heat, add the sugar, water, vanilla and pecans. Stir with a wooden spoon or spatula, occasionally, as it heats. It will come to a simmer, continue to cook for about 6 to 8 minutes. The pecans will be entirely covered by the transparent liquid and there will be a strong simmer.
Suddenly, the mixture will appear as if completely covered in sand: grainy and you will think you have messed it up! You have not. Continue to cook, and that clumped up sugar will begin to melt and caramelize around the already hardened and covered pecans. Stir continuously and don’t let the pecans burn. Adjust the heat if need be. You should continue until you see no more white sugar, and it is all melted and caramel covered, about 10 minutes more.
Pour the mixture onto parchment paper. Separate the pecans as you do, using a wooden spoon, or help yourself with another wooden spoon, using them as extensions of your hands. The caramel dries fast, and you will want to have the individual hardened pecans, not many clumped up. Tough, nothing happens if a few clump up...
Once they have completely cooled and dried, you can store them at room temperature in a tight container.
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For years, I’ve managed to turn every Mexican vacation into a working trip. As soon as I touch Mexican soil, I set up interviews, plan research tours, library searches, cooking adventures, all the while trying to tweet and instagram. And facebook, pinterest and blog too… My appetite expands outrageously as if giving me a chance to try all that my eyes can see and my mind can gather. Even with the best of intentions to relax and disconnect, they only last so long.
My family had been enthusiastic about it until recently: my husband announced last summer he’s had it. He won’t travel with me to Mexico when he wants us to vacation, together.
So when I suggested we go visit for the December holidays, he said “no, no, no Pati, you can’t control yourself there.” I kept pursuing Mexico because I missed it so bad, seeking out a place where I wouldn’t be tempted to work. San Miguel de Allende sounded like just the spot.
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I do love the change of seasons in the Eastern United States. The fall leaves change to different shades and make fluffy mountains where the boys jump a thousand times in a single day. I also like the smell of winter winds waiting around the corner as our home heating starts to warm up. And I have so much fun getting all of us coats and hats and gloves, something I never did growing up.
But I do miss my piece of beachside coconut flan. The one I used to have in Acapulco, many Decembers ago, growing up. My favorite was from Pipo’s, a restaurant in “la Costera”, an old neighborhood along the beach. It has a creamy and smooth layer on top that blends into a bottom layer of softened and nicely chewy coconut. I have tried a couple versions and the best one is also the simplest one.
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