Rosquillas are an explosion of Mesoamerica in your mouth that starts in a remote mountain village in Nicaragua. I am visiting my daughter, Gabriella, in the campo, studying Spanish while decompressing from life in America; leaving behind computer, cellphone and running water, and breathing sweet mountain air.
El Lagartillo is a sparse farming settlement on a steep hilltop with a view all the way to Honduras from its rocky summit. Here, in my bed in a house at the edge of the forest, I am awakened at daybreak by the din of a thousand birds. My host, Amparo, says they are singing from happiness.
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A century of struggle
For five centuries, many foreigners have been lured by this sizzling land of volcanoes and cloud forests. From the conquistadores to William Walker, the American adventurer who installed himself as president in 1856, to the U.S. Marines in the early 20th century, Nicaragua has endured conquest, occupation, oppression and brutality.
After the Marines, people endured the Somoza regime until the Sandinista revolution, when campesinos were awarded the land for which they had fought. Twenty-six families banded together to form a farming cooperative in El Lagartillo until CIA-sponsored contras decimated the village in Ronald Reagan’s secret war. The survivors were determined to rebuild, and the village has been reborn.
“Little by little, we began to find our way again,” writes Tina Pérez, whose husband and young polio-stricken daughter were among those killed. “One day…I saw [my daughter] Maria Zunilda … I said … ‘You look so beautiful. How can you be here, you are dead?’… She said …’I am fine except that we work so hard … We work for the revolution, Mommy.” At this village’s heart is a shrine. A plaque under the tree where Maria Zunilda died is inscribed: “1985/For peace against all aggression/ The heroes of Lagartillo live at the plough, which works the earth to the song of the birds and the sound of the militia men’s guns.”
The stone is surrounded by six bamboo cabañas that comprise Hijos del Maiz Spanish School. Its mission is to “support dreams in the community … exchanging with other … cultures in a dynamic transformation toward social justice.” During the day, it is a village of women. They sweep, scrub, cook, make cheese, soak and hull maiz. Their children play in the road, skittering away when an occasional horse and rider passes by or a pickup rumbles through, scaring up billows of dust. Chickens peck and scratch everywhere. Scarlet bougainvillea are lit with electric blue hummingbirds.
The families have a school and a library administered by a survivor in a wheelchair. A miller grinds hominy into masa, and Lisbet, my teacher, runs a cafe, offering freshly squeezed juice from the fruits of her trees.
Corn masa cookies
At dawn, Amparo fires up an adobe oven upon which to cook tortillas. I follow her to the mill with a pail of lime-slaked maiz that was boiled the day before, to be ground into masa, the dough that is made into staple breadstuffs.
“Si no hay tortillas, no hay comida,” she says. “If there are no tortillas, there’s no food.”
Juan Cerros, a campesino from nearby Las Lajas, pulls up on his mule with a sack of the maiz slung over the saddle. Electricity reached El Lagartillo a year ago and the powered machine here grinds corn much faster than he can do it by hand. Amparo explains that he makes rosquillas, the magical cookies, to sell.
It is not until my last evening in El Lagartillo that I finally taste them. When the relentless sun begins to wane, I wander into Francisca’s house. She is in the courtyard, flanked by other women who mix fresh masa with sugar, leavening, and shortening.
They pinch off pieces of the dough and shape them into flowers. Francisca piles shaved loaf sugar in their centers before baking them in a concrete oven in the back yard. The women work in silence.
The next morning, we set out on the dusty road for the long journey back to Managua. As we bump along in the back seat of a truck, Gabriella pulls out a bag filled with rosquillas that Francisca has sent along for the trip.
I take a bite and close my eyes. It hits me with a taste like no other that makes you think of the sacred food of the ancients, the life blood of empires. It is sweet and pleasantly sour like only masa can be. Far away now from the tiny village, I bake these cookies in communion with the wise and gentle people of El Largartillo who treasure the fields and the forests.
Rosquillas (Nicaraguan Corn Masa Cookies)
Makes about 20 cookies
In my own kitchen, I make the rosquillas even if I cannot get fresh ground masa. Instead, I use masa harina, masa flour which is available in Hispanic markets. Unlike an American sugar cookie, the use of masa harina rather than wheat flour results in a crispy but tender cookie with a pleasantly gritty texture not unlike that of Scottish shortbread.
Note that Bob’s Red Mill brand masa harina, while organic, doesn’t taste like the original or have the same fine texture, so you won’t be able to make authentic-tasting rosquillas with it.
The simple cookie has two characteristic shapes. The first, like those of Francisca’s in the photo, is circular and fairly flat, pressed with fingers to resemble a flower. Francisca heaped a bit of loaf sugar, which has a rich, molasses-like flavor, in the center to resemble the disc of a daisy.
The alternative shape is a loop, formed by rolling out little balls of the dough into thin ropes and pinching the two ends together, like an oval-shaped pretzel. Because rosquilla dough is crumbly in nature, the loops can be a bit more challenging to form, but persevere, it’s doable. Historic recipes for rosquillas prescribe lard. Francisca used a butter-like shortening. I use butter.
The water that is called for in this recipe replaces the natural moisture in fresh masa dough.
As for the topping, there is no substitute for the artisanal brown loaf sugar described that is sold in Hispanic markets. If you cannot find it, leave off decorating with sugar. The cookies are delicious with or without it.
For the cookies:
1 stick (8 tablespoons or ¼ pound) unsalted butter at room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 cups instant corn masa, also called masa harina
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup water at room temperature
For the topping:
1 cup brown loaf sugar, shaved or coarsely grated
1. Preheat an oven to 350 F.
2. In the vessel of an electric food mixer or in a large mixing bowl, cream the butter until it is light and fluffy. Add the granulated sugar in a slow, steady stream, continuing to beat until the mixture is well blended and creamy.
3. Whisk together the masa harina, baking powder, and salt.
4. To the creamed butter, add the water, alternating with blended dry ingredients. Beat the mixture with the paddle attachment of the electric food mixer, or by hand with a wooden spoon until a uniform dough is formed.
5. Line two baking sheets with bakers parchment. Scoop up a rounded tablespoon of dough and form it into a ball. Repeat this process and arrange 12 balls of dough on each of the parchment-lined pan, leaving at least an inch between each.
For the flower shape, press the bottom of a glass onto each ball to flatten to about ¼-inch, or flatten each by hand. The edges will appear to crack, but the cookie will stay intact and the rustic texture will just decorate the edges.
Use your fingers to make indentations first in the center, and then around the perimeter, sculpting a daisy shape. The idea is not only to give the cookie a decorative shape, but to thin out the disks for even baking from their perimeter through to their centers, making the cookies lighter and crunchier than if they were simply flattened.
6. If decorating with loaf sugar, after forming the flower shape, spoon about a small mound onto the center of each round.
For the loop shape, roll a similar-sized ball of dough into as thin a rope as you can manage, wetting your fingers lightly as you work to prevent the dough sticking to your fingers, if necessary. Pinch the two ends together to form an oval. The easiest method is to roll out each rope directly on the parchment-lined baking sheet, then pinch the ends together. This avoids the unnecessary step of lifting the loop from board to baking sheet and breaking it in the process.
7. Slide the rosquillas onto the middle rack of the oven and bake until cooked through and lightly browned on the bottom and around the edges, 20-25 minutes.
8. Transfer them at once to wire racks to cool completely. Store over night or for up to two weeks in air-tight containers, chilled.
Top photo: Corn masa cookies (rosquillas). Credit: Nathan Hoyt