This guest post is coming to you from Rachel in Ecuador. She used to live with me until she moved south...now she blogs at Watching for Wisdom.
Happy Halloween! In Ecuador, not very many people celebrate Halloween, and another minor holiday – something akin to flag day – also falls on October 31. Various indigenous populations do participate in the ritual surrounding the holiday most Americans know of as Day of the Dead, dia de los muertos, but this has nothing to do with Halloween celebrations, clearly. There were, however, numerous Halloween parties around the city at bars and clubs this weekend, since Halloween isn’t really a holiday that celebrates anything meaningful, and for adults if just a reason to dress up and drink. And so, in accord with that tradition, two of my colleagues hosted a party. Rather than bringing alcohol to the party, since I don’t drink, I decided to do a little baking – which is exponentially more labor intensive than buying beer, just for the record.
My baking adventure began with the brilliant vision of lemon cake balls, covered in white chocolate and decorated to look like eye balls – very Halloween-y. However, as with most of my visions here, it was spoiled by the reality at the supermarket among other things. The lemon cake I had planned to make called for sour cream, which is a rare imported commodity here in Ecuador and is only available at one of the major supermarket chains. Knowing this, I purchased some last week because I expected that I would go to the other non-sour-cream-selling store to buy the rest of the ingredients this weekend.
Keep in mind that going to the store here is not as simple as just getting in your car and driving half a mile. I don’t have a car, so the store is a 5 min walk down to the nearest big street and then a 15 min bus ride or a 30 min walk. And returning to the house requires that I climb back up the huge hill from the main street to my house, at 9,200 ft above sea level. I went to my friends’ house to bakeg, but forgot the sour cream, and so upon going the store, I had to change plans and buy boxed cake mix, orange instead of lemon. Thank you, Nestle.
The next setback my vision suffered was a problem of frosting. I had hoped to buy premade frosting at the store, thinking I had seen some there before. But, you guessed it, there was none to be found. So why not just make my own? After all, frosting is very simple, just butter and sugar. Well, it turns out that confectioner’s sugar is actually a mixture of powdered white cane sugar and cornstarch, and the cornstarch is the critical ingredient that makes good frosting. Here in Ecuador, one can find powdered sugar (azucar de polvo) but it is just that, powdered sugar… without cornstarch. And what happens when there is no cornstarch? The sugar dissolves into the butter/milk/cream cheese/whatever, and you get soupy frosting.
So, I couldn’t find or make my own frosting. However, I had a flash of inspiration standing there dejected looking at the shelving and decided I would use dulce de leche instead, which is very popular here. (Editor's note: did you know you can make your own dulce de leche???)
Finally, I was looking for white chocolate to coat my cake-eye balls, but all I could find was white chocolate bars with rice crispies so I had to buy milk chocolate instead. Honestly, that was a bit of a relief because I’ve learned in the past that melted white chocolate is rather difficult to work with. A little bit of internet research confirmed this and I learned that white chocolate contains more cocoa butter and butter fats than milk or dark chocolates, therefore melting takes more finesse because the fats melt at different temperatures.
One site recommended buying the best chocolate you can afford. There is only one kind here: Nestle (probably no the highest quality), so that might have been problematic. And so, by the end of my trip to the store, my white chocolate lemon cake ball vision was dashed, but I had a new plan: orange sponge cake with dulce de leche, coated in milk chocolate.
Cake balls are a relatively simple concept, but they require a lot of time. First you bake the cake, which as you know, takes longer at this elevation, 9,200 ft. Next, you break apart the cake and mix it with the frosting, or in my case, dulce de leche. Once you’ve achieved a sticky, but not too sticky consistency, you roll the mixture into balls and chill for about an hour. The final step is coating the balls in chocolate before chilling them for another hour until the chocolate is stiff.
Editor's note: I've made red velvet, spice cake, and funfetti cake balls. All insanely good. Click on this link if for more on the step by step process.
I underestimated the time all of this would take, and was late to my party. Fortunately, everything happens late in Latin America (Editor's note: Rachel has interesting theories on this - read here), so although my friends and I arrived at 9 pm for an 8 o’clock party, we joined the five other guests, including the hostesses’ boyfriends to wait for others to appear.
As for my baking, I was quite pleased with the result, given that no baking project here ever works out how it’s supposed to. The cake balls were delicious, if incredibly sweet and rich. And the accidental combination of flavors blended very nicely.
Happy Halloween from Ecuador!