Friday, November 30, 2007

Cranberry Rum Cupcakes with Ginger Buttercream

Yes, I know, another food posting, but it IS the season!

It was a happy, warm evening when I received the floppy manilla envelope with dried cranberries from my mom in the mail (along with some other foods that now seem exotic!).

Gathering the ingredients for this project encompassed a day of running errands back and forth to Rivas on a motorcycle. I never mind now, with the wind and sun on my face as I balance packages of food on either side and my friend driving balances another shopping bag in front on the gas tank. On top of that, I was in luck. I am now the proud owner of seven pounds of powdered sugar, I believe it is the only bag in the entire country.

I think forward to that evening, when I know the cranberries will simmer on the stove with aromas of cinnamon and cloves, becoming beautiful rubies plumped with juice. A dash of an indiginous rum (Nicragua is fields of sugarcane, all being harvested now), adds touch of warmth so I can pretend I need it for snowy weather outside.

The cupcakes were shared all around, although I held off on the cranberry rum syrup for the kids. Honestly, though, I do have a small bag of cranberries still stashed away for when I crave something from home!

Cranberry Rum Syrup

½ cup water
4 tbsp granulated sugar
4 tbsp dark rum
1 cup dried cranberries
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp cloves

Simmer together for half an hour, or use your favorite cranberry sauce recipe. Either way, strain the sauce to remove cranberries.

Cranberry Cupcakes

2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 cups sugar
1 cups soft butter
4 large eggs
½ cup milk
Cranberries strained out from syrup

Beat butter and sugar until creamy. Beat in eggs 1 at a time. Mix in all dry ingredients at the same time. Mix in milk and cranberries. Fill cupcake pan slightly more than halfway. Cook for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. While hot, pour syrup over each cupcake. Frost with ginger buttercream.

Ginger Buttercream (from one of the queens of creative cupcakes)

Note: It’s best if the cupcakes are slightly lower so that the syrup is held in by the paper lining while soaking into the cake.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Carrot Custard (and an Erupting Volcano)

It’s fall, it’s Thanksgiving… Oh! Here comes Christmas!

Normally this time of year I’m thinking very domestic thoughts. Preserving apples, butternut soup, what knitting project will entertain me best through the rainy weekends.

And even though the dry season has begun and I see the sun more than clouds now, I’m still thinking those thoughts. I suppose it’s something basic, something instinctual.

And so while I steered away from imported miniature pumpkins in Managua and the fake Christmas trees at the local market, I wanted to indulge in something autumn-y feeling, without looking too far afield.

So here is my version of fall this year, carrot custard crisp (with lime-cilantro syrup).

While it turned out incredibly delicious for such an experiment, it wasn’t exactly a straightforward process. If you do decide to make it, give it some thought because I’m sure there are plenty of shortcuts you could make with a trip to a US grocery store.

By the way, there’s a short note about the volcano eruption yesterday after the recipe. And last, but certainly not least! This is for SHF #37 Beta-Carotine (both carrots AND cilantro!), hosted by definately not martha!

Carrot Custard

2 quarts of grated carrots (seriously, if you can, just buy carrot juice with nothing added)
4 cups milk
1 cup sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
4 oz cream cheese

Put the carrots and milk in a pot and stir over low heat until boiling. Set to simmer and stir until the milk is reduced by half. Take off heat, strain out carrots, stir in sugar, cinnamon and cream cheese. Chill.


1 stick butter
6 graham crackers

Crush graham crackers, mix with melted butter in a hot pan until slightly browned. Cool and sprinkle over custard.

Lime-Cilantro Syrup

¾ cup lime juice
1 cup chopped cilantro (the cilantro here looks more like basil, I’m not sure what the difference is, but you may need to adjust this amount with the standard US type of cilantro)
1 ½ cup cold water
1 cup sugar
2 tbsp cornstarch

Mix, boil, strain and cool, then drizzle onto the custard. It’s pretty strong, so use sparingly.

P.S. The volcano on the island of Ometepe erupted beginning yesterday and occasionally through last night. It’s the first time I’ve seen it happen from the mainland and it was incredible to watch how the huge ash cloud silently (from my perspective) raced hundreds of feet into the air in just a few minutes. I hurried to the beach to watch with others from the office, the sub-director on the phone the whole time with the orphanage on the island.

Everyone there is fine, the ash clouds even drifted in a direction away from the house, so they didn’t have to deal with a blanket of ash this time, but it certainly reminds all of us that we have work to do to provide a safe home for the kids away from the eruptions! We are currently scheduled to begin construction on the first house on December 10th. Given my previous experience with contractors here, the chances of us actually starting in earnest will take a little longer, but we are excited to be starting soon.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Lancha

The rules are a little different here, or I suppose just the lack thereof. If it seems like it might work, that’s what you try.

One of the passenger ferries we took to the island for the Quinceñera celebration last Friday was a little more rustic than I’m used to.

Guardrails? Who needs those?

I mostly felt sorry for the people sitting behind the smokestack for the hour long trip.

They did hand out life jackets to everyone before we got underway, but I was conflicted whether I should feel comforted or worried.

But it got us there, no problem! (Well, except for the poor little boy who was throwing up next to me the whole time!)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Thirteen Quinceñeras!

Thirteen girls swishing elegantly (mostly) side to side in their long pink dresses, happy that this day had finally come!

Turning fifteen is a momentous occasion in many Latin American cultures and Nicaragua is no exception. Since Casa Santiago isn’t your standard family (not even the biggest families in Nicaragua have nearly 300 kids), all the girls who turn 15 celebrate their Quinceñera together.

During the evening, the girls received the last gift of a toy from someone special to them to signify the end of childhood. One girl was presented a stuffed animal from her sister who told her through tears how special it was to be her best friend.

It was not lost on the audience that these girls couldn’t take growing up together for granted. Those children who happily celebrated this night only got to Casa Santiago by losing nearly everything (fortunately NPH has a policy to take in all siblings possible, and extends age limits in these situations, in order to keep them together).

And then on to more joyous moments, dinner, dancing and cake!

"ya queremos pastel" means "we want cake already!"

Seventy five pounds of sugar, seventy five pounds of flour, over six dozen eggs (all from the NPH farm!) and you’ve got more than enough cake for almost 300 kids and nearly 100 adults! By the end, they were handing out what were more like little logs of cake instead of pieces!

Since cake isn’t super common here, it can often go really wrong. But while this cake was dense and somewhat heavy, it was still moist and had a great flavor of vanilla with a pineapple filling. I’ll just have to remember to save more room next time; one piece was enough for me this night!

Even the sunset got the color palette right for the night, just outside the church during mass

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Feliz Cumpleanos a Mi!

The volunteer was weary from culture shock, a language change and the hot, hot weather. But, at least her birthday was coming up; she had that to look forward to at least. So she planned a small get together, nothing fancy. A little food and (she hoped) a lot of laughter with a few people she had grown close to. She had even found a box of cake mix in a local store and decided to try it out.

When the day finally rolled around, she anticipated everyone’s arrival and while the cake hadn’t turned out perfectly, her hopes hadn’t deflated with it. Soon everyone had arrived; there were greetings and chatter as everyone ate. But wait, the stream of people didn’t stop, people kept coming and coming, most of whom weren’t even invited!

While she normally worked hard to understand the culture she had been dropped into, why did they have to take advantage of her this day! So she decided to pamper herself this day, her birthday, so she had her local boyfriend do a very non-local thing and announce that everyone who wasn’t invited that they had to leave.

Slowly those who had invited themselves left and she was relieved, but frustrated and hot in this unending summer. She’d soon get over it, though, as much as she felt it was important that she was there, that she was working to better the community, weekly frustrations presented themselves in an unending variety of ways. She could always look forward to the next one!

That birthday of my sister in Cameroon, Africa has been good for a laugh (at least to us, her immediate family) ever since it happened about 8 years ago. I couldn’t relate before I came to Nicaragua, and I thank God I still can’t completely.

My birthday was a wonderful day from being woken up at 5:30 AM so the kids could sing happy birthday, to the greasy, cheesy, house front pupusas I ate for dinner that night to cut the sugar high.

I ate brownie cupcakes with peanut butter frosting AND tres leche cake (super sweet, super gooey, super good). And loved all the songs I got from friends and family who called me on Skype. Thank you! I won’t forget my Nicaraguan birthday with all of you!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Origin of Ometepe

Concepcion seen from Maderas with banana tree leaves in the foreground.

The island of Ometepe is about an hour ferry ride from where I live. It’s still incredible to me that I can stay on a tropical island for an overnight trip to celebrate my birthday.

The island is made of up two volcanoes, Concepcion (active) and Maderas (extinct or retired or something like that). I stayed at a hostel on the Maderas side this last weekend. I often forget about Maderas in my thrill of Concepcion. It isn’t as tall, or exciting, but the lush forests lap up its sides and the clouds catch at its peak.

Clockwise starting from top left: Sign on the main (dirt) road leading from the town of Belgue up to Finca Magdalena, local Nicaraguan women walking from the finca to town (yes, I do believe that's a log on her head), flower in the finca garden, looking up at Maderas from the finca.

There are many legends to the origin of Ometepe Island. And the artifacts and petroglyphs which are continually being found and studied (although funds for this research is sorely lacking) speak to the generations of ancient people that used the island’s resources.

One legend describes a king and queen of an ancient Nicaraguan city who have twins, a boy and girl. The twins transform themselves to become two volcanoes to protect the town of their parents. But their mother doesn’t know where they have gone and is desperate for her missing son and daughter. She turns herself into a bird so that she can fly long distances looking for her children, but doesn’t find them. Her tears are so abundant that they form a lake around the volcanoes, Lake Nicaragua.

Maderas from Concepcion

Geologically speaking, the volcanoes are part of a long chain that extends up through the northern portion of Nicaragua and into other central American countries. Both volcanoes were formed during the Holocene Epoch and Concepcion is considered the most perfect cone volcano in Central America. The volcanic ash (and lack of recent activity) makes Maderas an ideal place to farm and it is covered with coffee and banana plantations.

View of Concepcion as we leave on the ferry.

Friends recently (as in half an hour ago) told me that there was an article in the Seattle Times about Ometepe last weekend. If you don't have a copy, here's the link.

Friday, November 2, 2007


If there is one thing that transcends all cultures, it’s laughter. And if there is a better way to end the week, I don’t know what it is!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Globalization as War

Coke or Pepsi?

The war in Iraq gets the majority of war coverage in the media, and the people certainly aren’t in danger of being overeducated in what is going on over there. But there are other wars going on, much more quietly for the hearts, minds and money of people around the world.

Globalization is one word that can be used to describe this struggle between cultures and generations. It is a huge subject, much too daunting for one blog post, but while I am hesitant to tackle a responsible analysis of it, I can see its affects everywhere around me.

“We must ensure that the global market is embedded in broadly shared values and practices that reflect global social needs, and that all the world's people share the benefits of globalization.”
Kofi Annan

Here in Nicaragua, the signs of globalization are plenty. Aside from the standard fast food chains Burger King, Pizza Hut and MacDonald’s, we have Purina and Unilever industrial plants, Harley Motorcycle billboards and Pampers at the grocery store (in fact, all disposable diapers are called Pampers, kind of like Kleenex). Coca cola definitely has the larger presence, but Pepsi is in fighting form doing its best to attract a loyal following of younger drinkers.

For three pepsi bottle labels, we went to a concert in Managua where the Nicaraguan bands ranged from Nirvana-esque to Jewel-ish.

American movies are sold on several different street corners, and while the studios are making nothing from these pirated DVDs, due in part to the exposure of the lifestyle exemplified in movies, the expectation of consuming at the same level as Americans is becoming commonplace.

Nicaraguans learn how to buy in bulk at PriceSmart (and yes, you can get a hot dog or a slice of pizza there too).

This, of course, is impossible. And it’s not only because Nicaragua is one of the most impoverished nations in the world. But also because Americans consume one quarter of the world’s energy, while having only one twentieth of the world’s population. It is a physical impossibility for the world to come any where close to living as Americans traditionally do.

So what happens when the culture and values of one place are being replaced by another, without the hope of actual fulfillment? How do the importers make responsible decisions in these areas when they have next to no education? How do the exporters govern themselves responsibly when they don’t understand ramifications?

Yes, I really am going to just leave you with those questions. Because as part of the world, they are yours to answer. As for me, I'm still searching for my response.