Salvadoran Sweet Bread to Brighten Up Your Morning

June 5, 2024
Dining & Wine
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None of her relatives had ever made a quesadilla, because it was so easy to buy back home. Its variations are almost endless, including ones based on rice flour, yuca flour or masa harina, for different calibrations of density and loft. Vasquez chose all-purpose flour as “the most accessible starting point,” she says. In her recipe, she beats egg yolks with sugar, then grates in queso duro blando and mixes it with milk and crema Salvadoreña, the thick top skimmed off fresh cream and left to turn gently sour. It’s akin in tang to crème fraîche, which may be used instead; in a pinch, Vasquez has even improvised with diluted yogurt. (She notes that some recipes call for up to five different kinds of dairy, and in El Salvador, bakers who are also cheesemakers may skip the crema and just add whey.)

Ideally, she says, you whip up the quesadilla after lunch, carefully melding the cheese mixture with sifted flour in batches, then folding in peaks of egg whites, a bit of trapped cloud for tenderness. Bake it in a buttered pan to a mottled bronze with a little burnishing at the edges. Let it cool, and by 3 o’clock it’s yours for the taking, between sips of hot, dark coffee.

Vasquez was 3 months old when her family fled the Salvadoran civil war and settled in Los Angeles. Only after she grew up, married and became “queen of the castle, doña de mi casa” (she says with a laugh) did she realize that she didn’t know how to cook the foods of her heritage. In the kitchen, she was always intimidated by her mother, a tough, fearless woman who as a teenager had faced down assault rifles and felt the tremble of bombs in the streets of San Salvador. Her mother knew every dish by heart and sighed when her daughter asked questions. Vasquez remembers the chiding, “You don’t have to intellectualize.”

So she turned to her grandmother and in their cooking sessions found a way to ask deeper questions about their family’s past. “If you’re facing the sink, rinsing lettuce, I’m chopping onions, there’s sizzling — it kind of opens a portal and makes everybody feel safe,” she says. She began interviewing her friends’ mothers, before working up the courage to approach her own. With the idea of the cookbook taking form, the two learned how to trust each other in the kitchen. “We get swept away by the romance of ingredients,” Vasquez says. “We forget how important cooking is for our survival. You need someone who’s going to keep step with you.”

Now her mother counts on her for a good quesadilla, although she insists that Vasquez bring the ingredients to her house and make it there. Always there is Salvadoran cheese. Still, when Vasquez taught virtual cooking classes during the pandemic, she encouraged students not to get hung up on some notion of authenticity, and instead to look for ingredients that were local to them. “That’s what we do in the diaspora,” she says. If, in Los Angeles, Parmesan is less expensive than imported Salvadoran cheese, it makes sense for bakers to swap one for the other. “If they made it in a so-called authentic way, would it be accessible?” she wonders. “And then would it really be authentic?”

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