I just got back from a “whirlwind vacation” to the East Coast of the United States, which featured an unwelcomed visit from Hurricane Sandy. I saw family, coworkers, old friends, new friends, and even got to visit the house I grew up in!
What always surprises me when I visit home is how much everything there reminds me of Nicaragua, even in the most sophisticated places in the USA.
I found physical traces of Nicaragua in the most unlikely of places. In Charleston, South Carolina, which Mateo calls the “Granada of the American South” for its hip, mellow, touristy and colonial feel, The Bull Street Gourmet showcased a Nicaraguan blend coffee, while the Hominy Grill had a Flor de Caña Planter’s Punch. Both were delicious.
While sampling the Nicaraguan products in Charleston, I cruised the farmers’ market, stopping to appease my sweet tooth at Root’s Ice Cream Stand, where, believe it or not, they were offering a Nicaraguan Cacao flavor that day! It turns out the owner had visited an old flame in Nicaragua over the summer and picked up some goodies before returning to Chucktown, premiering his cacao flavor the week I happened to be visiting.
In Manhattan, I went to eat a fancy lunch at Eric Ripert’s seafood spot. Le Bernadin not only offers Flor de Caña 18-year for a hefty price per shot, they also have a fermented chicha broth for their crispy sea bass, poured over a squash “ceviche.”
Other daily occurrences in the U.S. also reminded me of Nicaragua. For example, to get a guest gym membership in the East Village of New York City, it took two days and then I was given a yellow Post-it note with my name on it. This was my free pass for the week. I thought nothing of it, as I’ve seen Nicaraguan official documents written in a similar fashion. It was only when my friends teased me that I realized that this was an oddity in a more technologically advanced society.
On the East Coast I saw people drinking terrible coffee and eating enormous, starchy bananas, and I scoffed with pride, knowing we have the best quality of each here in Nicaragua. That said, I did gorge on a variety of apples and beers, and cooked with lots of mushrooms and grains—all of which are lacking in variety in Nicaragua.
I happened to be finishing up my trip to New York City when we had to batten down the hatches for Sandy. After the storm passed, I had another weird experience that reminded me of Nicaragua. The power went out and every day conveniences of living in the big city became exhausting and difficult chores. Every day we had to walk about 40 blocks to find an area with cell phone service or to get news.
I immediately employed my Nicaraguan survival skills. In my friend’s darkened apartment, I tried to teach others the Nicaraguan trick of how to shower in cold water: a vigorous round of jumping jacks before hopping into the water, then using friction from a washcloth to warm up under the cold stream of water. My temporary flatmates never really got the hang of it.
The feeling of being tired and inconvenienced, while at the same time aware that many people have it worse than me, was a familiar reminded of what it’s like to live in Nicaragua.
But now I am back on the beach in Nicaragua, it’s time to be nostalgic about my other life in the U.S. And what better way to honor that nostalgia than with some holiday comfort food.
Soft and Salted Chocolate Shortbread Cookies
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
22 Tbs unsalted butter (3 sticks minus 2 Tablespoons)
1 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 ounces of finely shaved dark chocolate
extra coarse salt or fleur de sel for sprinkling
1. In a medium bowl, mix flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. set aside.
2. In a large bowl, whip butter with an electric hand mixer until light and fluffy. Add in sugar and vanilla and mix for another 3 minutes, until sugar has dissolved. Slowly incorporate flour mixture. Finally, stir in chocolate with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon.
3. Portion dough into 4 equal parts. With one portion, roll into a log in a piece of parchment or wax paper, about 9 inches long. Repeat with remaining dough. Store in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes, or up to 2 days. Dough can also be wrapped in parchment and then plastic wrap for up to 2 weeks.
4. Remove log from refrigerator, and slice into 12-15 discs. Place cookies on a baking sheet lines with parchment or silicon mat, about 16 per sheet, spaced about 2 inches apart. Sprinkle a tiny pinch of coarse salt or fleur de sel on the top of each cookie.
5. Bake cookies in a preheated 325°F oven for 12 minutes. If baking more than one sheet at once, rotate cookies halfway through baking and bake for an additional 2 minutes. Cookies will look undercooked, but remove anyway. They will continue to cook and firm on the cookie sheet as the cool.
6. Serve once cool, with a tall glass of milk, a scoop of dulce de leche ice cream, or store in an airtight container for up to 4 days (if they aren’t eaten up by then!).
For the addition of shaved chocolate, I recommend a dark chocolate bar sold by Choco Museo (based in Granada). It is much smoother and less grainy than El Castillo chocolates. To mix it up, feel free to add a flavored chocolate, like chile or orange, to spice up these simple yet delicious cookies!
This recipe makes about 5 dozen cookies. Bake them all at once to stock up for the next superstorm, or save the uncooked dough in the freezer for an upcoming holiday party!
Calley Prezzano was classically trained in San Francisco, California. She has cooked in Michelin Star Restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area and was the founding Executive Chef of Jicaro Ecolodge in Granada, Nicaragua. She is the founding Executive Chef of La Finca y El Mar Restaurant in Rancho Santana in Tola, Nicaragua. (lafincayelmar.com)