Empanadas de Cabello de Ángel – Spanish spiced spaghetti squash pies
Chances are that if you mention pumpkin pie or pumpkin spice to a Spaniard, his or her taste buds will conjure up a memory that is a very different delicacy than what you have in mind. And that would be Cabello de Angel or Angel Hair. This elegant preserve is without question one of Spain’s favorite treats. Reminiscent of moorish flavors and it features Cidra*, a very special type of pumpkin-like squash, only know in Spain, but that can subbed for the mush less less finicky spaghetti squash, and nobody will know the difference. Cabello de Angel almost represents Spanish history as a whole, a Roman-like sweet, made with an American product and moorish flavors, but still 100% Spanish.
This delicious preserve is used to stuff all sorts of lovely pastries, pies, and breads. It can be enjoyed by the spoonful or spread on buttered toast. Its made at home, bought at convents or the supermarket, and I can assure you this humble sweet is nothing short of spectacular.
I have to admit though that when I was growing up I I wasn’t really much of a fan of Cabello de Angel. I used to find it too sweet and “common”, although it was only common in my house, or my grandmother’s house. As a kid I was surrounded by Spanish and French desserts, but what I really craved for was American candy, caramel apples, and moist chocolate cake.
Trust me if I could kick my eleven-year-old self I would, not that I wouldn’t kill for a Snickers or a Kraft caramel wrapped apple, but if I could go back and enjoy all the lovely sweets my grandmother would make I would be there in a heartbeat!
Fast forward to many years later, my mom, my now 28-year-old “baby” brother; yes, he will always be my baby brother, and I had a busy bakery and catering company. On occasion, following my mother’s suggestions and hoping to infuse my bakery with a tiny bit of my grandparents, we would make classic Spanish desserts.
We had this one particular client who always kept a watchful eye for any time we pumped out something Spanish. Her husband is from Catalonia, Spain (just like my family) and she was determined to keep Catalan and Spanish traditions alive as much a living in tropical Colombia would allow. Funnily enough her husband used to be really close during his youth with my uncles before they moved back to Spain. He had even convinced my great uncle to part with some of his treasured family recipes (think Turrón, Romesco sauce, etc). Some of which had been long lost in our household, but he was kind enough to share them with me.
Side note aside, this lovely couple would place large orders for all sorts of pastries stuffed with Cabello de Angel, Joan’s favorite. And said pastries “generously” stuffed for that matter, as they regarded few things as offensive as a mere smear of Cabello de Angel in a pastry. And so by making and testing loads of this preserve it came about that I soon fell in love with it. In fact When ever I get my hands on some (either bought or home made) I spread it on toast, bake into breads, stuff it in empanadas, you name it, an by that I mean eat it with a spoon out of the jar. In fact that is exactly what I am doing now as I right this post. Don’t judge.
And on that note, I want to tell you about one of the most traditional pastries with Cabello de Angel; Empanadillas. Or basically Spanish pumpkin spice hand pies. Unfortunately I couldn’t find the origin of Empanadillas de Cabello de Angel, unlike my other posts. It’s like finding the history of of the first hard boiled egg. They have been around for so long and everybody makes them that it is impossible to trace their history.
That being said I can still say a thing or two about them.
The Almost Sinful Heavenly Sweet
Every time I land in a Spanish –or Latin American– city, one of the first stops in my itinerary is invariably a convent or nunnery. At this point you might be wondering how religious I am in order for me to exhibit such a fervent religious behavior. I have to admit its not motivated by pious devotion, rather my motivations are more of the gastronomical type. Convents are well know in Spain to make and sell the best traditional baked goods.
Truth be told I’m the least fussy buyer. I get whatever it is they are selling, which usually means I get one box of each variety of sweets, and let me tell you the whole experience from buying from a convent is absolutely MAGICAL. There’s something that is just so wonderful about ringing that bell and waiting for one of the sisters to bless you from the other side of that wooden revolving window and then ask you what you would like to buy. It’s like Christmas morning waiting to open presents (or Epiphany morning if you’re Spanish 😉). I feel like a kid in a candy store EVERY. SINGLE. TIME!
By the way chances are that the treats they are selling have been made in the kitchen for at least well over a century. They know their recipes by rote, and that sort of mastery yields only “godly” perfection each and every time. In fact nunneries are so well know that one of the most coveted ecclesiastical posts a man of God could hope for is that of Convent Chaplain.
It states that he would be willing fill the post of Chaplain in exchange for this “frugal” request of: “14 pounds of bread per week, 8 liters of good quality wine per week, 1 pound of meet and one and a half pounds of cold cuts per day, 2 eggs every night, including fasting days, 132 kg of bacon, 6 kg of rendered lard, 36 pounds of chocolate, 24 kg of apples, 6 pounds of raisins per year, 6 boxes of jam for Christmas and Lent, and as many fruits and vegetables as the garden can allow.
* Sadly the last nun of Azkoitia left the convent and the Order has decided to donate the Cloister and it’s lands to the town of Azkoitia culminating over 4 centuries of their history. Read the story here (in Spanish)
This can give a bit of glimpse into how even through their frugal living, nuns manage to make the most out of very little. Many of the scrumptious treats that were created behind their secluded walls were in fact ways to use the by products of different industries which were unloaded to the convent as a way to get rid of them. A clear example was the excess egg yolks that the wine industry did not how to dispose of –I bet you didn’t know that wine was originally clarified with egg whites, in fact the practice was so wide spread in Spain that the latin word for egg white, albuminus was subbed for “clara” that came from “clarificar” (to clarify) and hence “clara de huevo” (egg white). That’s how “Tocinillos de Cielo” were born. A type of very thick custardy flan baked in tiny molds sprinkled with sugar and then caramelized. It’s like a bite size crème brûlée, but infinitely better.
And with that I’m going to skid slightly off topic a bit and point out the HUGE influence that Spanish convents and monasteries had over “traditional” French cuisine. You see during the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, when the French hoard started systematically looting the country, nothing and no one was spared, not even the monasteries. These expropriation orders came from Napoleon himself, who was a great connoisseur of the arts and considered that only the French could truly appreciate the treasures he found both in Spain and Italy. This is why the Italian and Spanish painting wings of the Louvre are so grand.
The French rule over Spain was short lived yet but incredibly violent and left profound scars in Spanish history and while I’m not really going to get into it right now (as this post would go on FOREVER) lets just say that it was one of the determining factors of Latin American independence.
One of Napoleon’s generals who went by the name of Junot quickly began a little collection of his own while in Spain. He decided to amass conventual recipe books as a present for his wife, Laura, who he was certain would surely appreciate them.
Mrs Junot was so impressed by these “modern” and impressive ways of cooking, she found only fitting to compile them and print them in a book along side her own notations. Soon recipes for pasta de hígado (liver paste) would be renamed like paté and consumado would be rebaptized as consommé. Her cookbook spread like wide fire and the French couldn’t get enough.
As Auguste Escoffier, one of the masters of Traditional French cooking, wrote in 1935, Madame Junot’s cookbook was “the greatest trophy, and the only advantageous thing that France accomplished in that war”.
But back to our cloisters.
Closure nuns and convent life are quite fascinating. There’s something about the whole “ora et labora” (pray and work) mindset just creates such a peaceful and relaxed environment, I mean have you ever seen or heard of a “stressed-out” nun?
My point exactly.
Conventual life states that work is actually a gift from God and necessary to find balance and elevate oneself spiritually. Nuns (and monks for that matter) view labor as a way to purify and sanctify themselves. Pouring love and devotion into their work, is actually a very spiritual activity which brings them closer to God.
Idleness is then by definition, enemy of the soul and happiness. I don’t know about you, but I can absolutely relate. I am happiest when I am at my most productive, and feel miserable when I’m idle. That’s not to say that relaxing and resting isn’t important too, but a lifetime of rest and relax would drive me up the walls.
But before I go off topic and get all philosophical, I want to go back monastical sweet concoctions and why you should support the nearest convent.
Nuns are incredibly sweet people who live a very austere life and manage to sustain themselves from their hard work, and trust me if you think selling a product is hard enough, imagine doing it from the seclusion of convent. Nuns tend to their vegetable gardens and fruit orchards, mend clothes, iron those incredibly complicated lace and embroidered items (ie table cloths, wedding dresses, first communion or baptism robes), and sell their baked goods to who ever comes knocking on their convent door.
Thanks to those efforts, and the “thirteen-egg dozens” they receive, not only do yet they manage to make enough to feed all the sister in the community but every needy soul who also come a knockin’ on that same door.
You must be wondering what a “thirteen-egg dozen” is. Well it turns out that nuns also pray for whatever and whoever you ask them too. It is very traditional in Spain to go to a convent bearing gifts like a basket of thirteen eggs and ask the sisters to pray for good weather.
It is safe to say that any celebration in Spain usually starts with a visit to the closest convent. Think weddings, first communions and baptisms. I have however heard that it is more and more common for football fans to deliver many 13-dozen eggs to have the pious women to ensure not only good weather but a favorable outcome for their team. I guess that is one of the reasons the Spanish Football league is the best in the world (and no I’m not being biased but extremely objective). Who knows how many hens are working for Barça or el Real Madrid.
I found this video from The Kitchen on how to cook spaghetti squash, I hope it makes the process a bit easier!