By Neva Gurrusquieta
Like every country, Mexico has its own unique Christmas traditions, many closely tied to the Catholic church. For the month of December, we get Christmas church bells and fireworks, along with Christmas parties, festive food, and drink. And Las Posadas, nine days of neighborhood reenactments of Joseph and Mary arriving at the inn in Bethlehem, along with other local traditions. With schools, government offices, and many manufacturing plants closed, families are in the streets until quite late enjoying live music, festive lighting and delicious foods found only this time of year. And…hundreds of Volkswagen beetles lit up like Christmas trees!
The Christmas season is particularly welcome this year, a needed respite from the stress and worry so many are going through. I hope that we all will be more kind and loving and gentle in this season. I hope we can all treat each other with grace and mercy. As I write this, my sister is being released from the hospital after a scary month-long stay with so many complications, and a dear uncle was released from the hospital because there are no other viable medical options. I have friends battling cancer, friends whose children are doing the same. I think of friends and family who are going through really tough times, financially, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and most likely, if you are not experiencing such times personally, you are sure to know someone who is. I pray that the hope, joy, peace, and warmth of this season will linger far beyond this winter. I pray for healing, reconciliation, and restoration.
My husband and I are celebrating a simple, quiet holiday this year. We are foregoing the street parties, the mass decorating and the compulsory gift-giving in favor of more peaceful, more introspective Christmas. However, Christmas food is irresistible, not just because of all the sugar and spice, but because I love to cook, my husband loves to eat, and food brings families together around the table to laugh and to cry and love on each other and to remember all the goodness and blessings we share!
It’s been surprisingly cold here in central Mexico, hitting the low thirties every night for the last couple of weeks, even dipping down into the twenties a few times. Most homes here don’t have heat, so once the temperatures dip below freezing a few times, the chill settles into the bones of the concrete houses and their occupants. On the other hand, most people cook all their meals from scratch, so hanging out in the kitchen is a good way to stay warm. One of the best ways to throw off that winter chill is to cook up a big pot of beans or a hearty stew, or throw yourself into baking or whipping up a hot Christmas punch, and enjoy the company of friends.
Depending from whence you hail, a Christmas punch could mean the spiced and spiked apple cider known as wassail in the UK or Jamaican sorrel punch spiked with rum, or Ponche Navideño found here in Mexico. When I lived in Jamaica, I fell in love with sorrel Christmas punch, a red hibiscus based drink served everywhere during the Christmas season, even hair salons, which is where my friend Cilda first introduced me to this lovely libation. Traditionally made with fresh sorrel flowers in Jamaica, flor de Jamaica (the flower of Jamaica) is very popular in Mexico and it is very easy to find the dried flowers.
Popular variations of Mexican Christmas punch use either apple or sorrel as a base, and everyone has a traditional family recipe. One of my favorite websites for authentic Mexican recipes is La Cocina de Leslie, and she has several really great recipes for Ponche Navideño, as well as Mexican hot chocolate. For my Christmas punch, I usually start with sorrel, citrus fruits, spices, and add a nice red wine instead of rum. In past years, I’ve added pineapple, pomegranate, cranberries, grapes, persimmons, figs, and pears, amongst many others. The alcohol you use, if you use it, should be something that complements your other ingredients. But you know my philosophy: Make it yours! It’s about using the flavors you love to create a cozy inviting drink to warm up your family and friends!
Beyond the usual cookie baking, ponche making, and general meal prepping, this time of year I like to make another family favorite, candied orange peels dipped in chocolate. So simple and easy, and because oranges are plentiful and inexpensive this time of year, it’s natural for someone like me. And they are delicious!
It usually takes a couple of days for us to eat enough oranges for a batch of candy, so I save the rinds in the fridge in a mason jar filled with purified water. If we’re not eating the oranges quickly enough, I slice a few extras and use the pulp to make a glaze for a spice cake.
When the jar is nice and full, pour the contents into a heavy-bottomed saucepan, adding a little more water if needed, but just barely to cover. Bring to a low, slow boil over medium heat and cook for an hour or so to soften the rinds. Scoop out the rinds from the pan, retaining two cups of the water. Using a knife with a flexible blade, remove the pith, leaving only the rind. This is easiest to do while they are warm by laying them flat and sliding the blade along the rind.
Return the rinds to the water, and add a cup of sugar and a half teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil again, and cook until the syrup has thickened and the texture of the rind is kind of like a gummy bear. I test them every five to ten minutes after the syrup starts to thicken. Go ahead, take a bite!
When they are ready, scoop them onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and separate them so they don’t stick together while cooling.
Meanwhile, melt a cup of chocolate chips. American style chocolate chips are sometimes hard to find in Mexico unless you have access to Sam’s Club or Costco. I buy dark chocolate melting chispas at the bakery supply store here and add a tablespoon of coconut oil, but if you can’t find those either, you can substitute Hershey’s kisses or chocolate bars, but skip the oil.
I usually melt the chocolate in 15-second increments in the microwave, stirring in between. And I use a coffee mug because I find the dipping process works well for me in a mug. Dip each of the cooled rind strips into the warm chocolate, shake it a bit to remove the excess (if you think there is such a thing), and lay on waxed paper or parchment paper until set. Delicious, inexpensive, and wonderful for a Christmas treat!