Culture

One Daughter Attempts To Recreate Her Mother’s Recipes To Keep Her Memory Alive

Mama Tita was always in the kitchen; that was her happy place.

Family gatherings in her small Brooklyn apartment always felt warm and comforting with her presence. In true abuela fashion, Mama Tita made sure nobody went hungry in her home. She always cooked family-style, as everyone who entered her home would leave with leftovers. These fond memories will live with me forever.

As the matriarch of the family, she always had a way of bringing people together. Her cooking, in part, is a testament to that.

Born and raised in El Salvador, Mama Tita was a proud mother of six. Strong-willed and stern, her children remember her dedication to cooking traditional recipes. She never wrote her recipes down, adapting them all to memory, but she began teaching her daughters to cook at a very young age. Starting with the basics like tortillas, arroz con frijoles, chile relleno, and chilaquiles, the kids would rotate cooking family meals to build up their skills.

In the 1980s, the Salvadoran civil war broke out. Mama Tita immigrated to New York City in 1982 and her family followed suit four years later fleeing the turbulent time. Cooped up in a small one-bedroom apartment in Flatbush, she made sure to continue cooking food that reminded her family of home. However, this meant she needed to find alternative ingredients. As her family grew, so did her cooking portions as the younger generation became enthralled by abuela’s food.

In 2019, Mama Tita passed away. Sudden and unexpected. Her passing shook the family to the core as the weight of this loss felt immense. Our matriarch, the glue that held the family together, was now gone.

The following year stay-at-home orders were put in place as the coronavirus pandemic began. Still grieving her loss, the pandemic took away large family gatherings that made celebrating holidays, birthdays, and other events even harder. It started to feel like nothing would ever be the same.

Months into the pandemic, it seemed as though everyone had picked up the habit of baking bread. Social media flooded with recipes for sourdough bread among other sweet treats to cope with the lockdown stress. While making sourdough was on everyone’s baking list, one daughter saw an opportunity to recreate her mother’s dishes.

My mother’s journey to recreating my grandmother’s dishes started with sentiments of regret succumbed by grief. Thoughts of wishing she had learned some recipes sooner swirled as she began asking extended family for tips to begin her process. First on her list was to make Mama Tita’s quesadillas.

I remember Mama Tita coming over to my house with muffin-trays of quesadillas when she would visit, which was often. Like clockwork, she’d prepare more for her next visit because she knew that they’d be consumed. Her quesadillas were always soft, sweet, and buttery. So much so that you’d forget cheese was in the recipe.

She always visited with large bags of food, even stopping at the nearby grocery store to pick up more items. There were moments when our home would be overwhelmed by her bountiful cooking; moments when my mom would say it’s too much or that we wouldn’t be able to consume it all.

My mother often tells me that my grandmother would’ve hated having to live through the pandemic because she’d worry too much. The thought of her not being able to visit brings a silent pain and solace. Solace that she’ll never have to witness what it’s like to live through a pandemic. Pain because these would be the moments when her physical presence would bring the most comfort.

Recollecting the ingredients her mother used, my mother began buying baking products in bulk. The pandemic ignited her baking interests, but keeping her mother’s memory alive reinforced them.

She entered the trial and error phase of baking the quesadillas. She bought different cheeses, tried different measurements and flavors until she began to taste the quesadilla that felt most reminiscent of her mother’s.

My younger sister and I would help her on some occasions, having caught the baking bug also. The three of us would spend hours in the kitchen talking and cooking together. It was a bonding experience that brought us closer together.

My mother would wake up early in the morning to start preparing her ingredients. Some days I’d wake up to the cozy smell of quesadillas baking in the oven that’d pull me out of bed and into the kitchen like a cartoon character. Almost like my grandmother, my mother was baking every other weekend.

The more baking she did, the bigger her hankering for trying recipes got.

Next on her bucket list was tackling Mama Tita’s tamales de pollo. An extensive multi-step process, my mother was determined to learn it all. She knew the taste and texture from memory, though learning how to make them took time. Consulting with a cousin who often made tamales alongside my grandmother, my mother began to learn.

Eager to learn, my sister and I would observe her technique. We’d help mix and knead the masa for what felt like forever, and we even took our shot at forming the tamales themselves. If this time has taught me anything, it’s to always respect the people who make tamales because it is not easy. Practice makes perfect, but making tamales requires dedication to technique and craft.

After a few trials, my mother started to offer tamales to her siblings to taste. The feedback she got was positive, as many felt as if Mama Tita had cooked them herself. While her recipes are not exact to her mother’s, it closely mimics them. Continuing to perfect her process, my mother became a mini Mama Tita; a compliment that brings tears to her eyes.

As the pandemic accompanied sentiments of love and loss, it also brought closeness to those around us. Mama Tita’s physical presence may be gone, but her warm spirit continues to live on through her cooking. As she continues to pay homage to her mother, it almost feels like comforting fragmented memories of our beloved matriarch have returned.

In loving memory of Mama Tita, below are the adjacent family recipes made during the pandemic.

Please note: traditional recipe ingredients may vary.

Quesadillas Salvadoreñas (combined prep & cook time: approx. 60-90 minutes)

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cup of Bisquick flour (all-purpose flour can also be used)
  • 1/2 cup of rice flour
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 1 stick of salted butter, melted
  • 1 cup of milk
  • 1 1/2 cup of white sugar
  • 8oz. of queso fresco (parmesan cheese can also substitute)
  • 16oz. of sour cream
  • a pinch of salt (if needed)
  • 1 tablespoon of baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • a pinch of cinnamon
  • sesame seeds to decorate (optional)

To begin, make sure that all the ingredients are room temperature for easy prep.

First, sift the flour and baking powder in a bowl and set aside.

In another bowl put the 4 egg yolks, sugar, and melted butter to mix for 5 minutes until it forms a creamy texture. Next, add the sour cream and cheese and continue to mix for another 2 minutes. Then add milk and sporadically begin to add the flour and mix until the batter is smooth. Lastly, add the vanilla extract, pinch of cinnamon, and a pinch of salt. Mix it for another minute and set it aside.

In a separate bowl take the egg whites and begin to whisk them until it forms a meringue. Add the meringue to your batter and gently fold it until combined.

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees and grease the baking trays. After pouring the batter, sprinkle sesame seeds on top to your liking. Put in the oven to bake for about 35-45 minutes or until golden brown. Insert a toothpick into the quesadilla, if it comes out clean it’s ready. Allow quesadilla to rest for 20 minutes, cut to serve, and enjoy.

Tamales de Pollo (combined prep & cook time: approx. 4 hours)

Ingredients for tamale masa and chicken

  • 1 whole chicken
    • The chicken will be cooked soup-style. Ingredients used for the broth include:
      • 4 cloves of garlic
      • 1 white onion
      • cilantro
      • 2 celery stalks
      • a pinch of oregano
      • 4 bay leaves
      • approx. 5-7 chicken cubes to taste
      • add salt to taste
  • 5 cups of white corn flour (makes approx. 22 tamales)
  • 2 cups of olive oil
  • 1 stick of salted butter
  • 1 white onion

Ingredients for recaudo

  • 1/2 cup of olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon of relajo – see separate recipe here.
  • 5 Roma or Plum tomatoes
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 1/2 white onion
  • 1/2 green bell pepper
  • 1/2 red bell pepper

Additional items needed: 3 Idaho potatoes, 1 16oz. can of chickpeas (optional), banana leaves, and aluminum foil

To begin, start by making a chicken soup with mentioned ingredients. Cook for up to 1 hour to allow the chicken to become tender. Once cooked, remove the chicken from the broth and set it aside to be shredded. Next, strain the broth and set it aside. Using the vegetables, blend together with a bit of the broth until combined and set aside. Be sure to also separately cook your potatoes and cut them to your liking.

The next step is to make the recaudo. Begin by grilling the vegetables until they have a nice char. Then put it to blend with 2 cups of the broth and pour it into a pot to set aside for now. Take the tablespoon of relajo and dilute it with a quarter cup of the broth. Strain mixture into the recaudo.

To prepare the masa, begin by sautéing 1 whole white onion in 2 cups of olive oil until golden. Once ready, remove the onion to be blended with 1 cup of the broth. Next, in a separate bowl, take the flour and add in the remainder of the chicken broth. Mix until the flour is diluted and smooth, then add the blended onion and the blended ingredients strained from the soup. Continue to mix until fully combined.

Next, take 1/4 cup of the uncooked recaudo and pour it into the main masa mixture, this will give the masa a faint red color. Likewise, take 1 cup of uncooked masa and pour it into the main recaudo to help thicken the salsa. Now it’s time to cook everything!

Begin cooking the recaudo. This should take about 10 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of olive oil into the pot and set stove to medium. Stir continuously until the recaudo begins to boil. Once it boils, turn off the fire and set it aside.

Now it’s time to cook the masa. This should take about 15-20 minutes. Using the oil set aside to sauté the onion, pour your masa into the same pot. Set the fire to medium heat and stir continuously as the masa begins to thicken. Do not stop otherwise the masa will burn. Add the stick of salted butter as you stir. The masa is done once it begins to boil and the dough doesn’t stick to the pot.

While the masa is hot, prepare the banana leaves & aluminum foil for assembling. Clean the banana leaves and cut them accordingly for portion sizing. To layer, put the aluminum foil on the bottom, then the banana leaf on top. Continue until you have enough for the tamales. Set aside remaining banana leaves for later.

Onto assembling! Take one serving of the masa and put it on the banana leaf. Add 1 tablespoon of the recaudo on top. Proceed to add pieces of shredded chicken, potatoes, and chickpeas. Once all the ingredients are assembled, roll it up to form the tamale. Continue until finished.

Now we’re in the home stretch! Take those remaining banana leaves to put into a large pot. Add your wrapped tamales to the pot and fill with water to simmer. Cover the tamales with more banana leaves and a plastic bag or aluminum foil around the edges. Cover the pot and heat over medium heat and allow to simmer for approx. 2 hours and you’re done.

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