A Delightful Treat from Curaçao
The novel, Daughters of the Dance, mentions several foods from Curaçao.* Now that we are in the midst of winter where, in the panhandle of Florida, there were rare flurries landing on the ground, enjoy the treats that are of Sephardic origin and popular in custom on the island. The most ancient is a recipe of the Curaçao Sephardim, which is also a favorite–the panlevi, a festive accompaniment with “hot chocolate” made with cacao or cocoa powder.** Hot chocolate is a traditional drink at a brit milah, the Jewish religious rite of male circumcision (aka bris).
Since there is no recorded plantation of cacao in Curaçao, the likely plantations from the French St. Lucia and Martinique must have provided the cacao to Curaçao as early as the 1660s, about 28 years after the revolt of the Spanish Netherlands. Although it was Christopher Columbus who was the first European explorer to taste chocolate in Nicaragua in 1502, it was Hernandos Cortes who sent the first shipment of the cacao bean to King Charles V of Spain in 1585. But it was not until 1828 that the Dutchman Casparus van Houten created a machine that makes chocolate as we know it today. It was his son, Coenraad Johannes, who invented the soluble cocoa powder which replaced the greasy, difficult to digest chocolate, which had to be cooked in milk.
The recipe for Panlevi (aka Dutch Caribbean Sponge Cookies) is as follows:
- 4 medium eggs, beaten
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- Pinch of salt
- ¼ tsp ground cinnamon and ¼ tsp. nutmeg
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 or 1 3/4 cups flour, plus extra for dusting
- ½ tsp baking powder
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and lightly flour two large baking sheets.
- Put the eggs, sugar, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg into a mixing bowl and beat together well, either by hand or using an electric handheld mixer.
- Stir in the vanilla.
- Fold in the flour and baking powder by hand to make a smooth batter.
- Drop tablespoonfuls of the cookie batter onto the prepared baking sheets, spacing them about 2 inches apart.
- Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 275 degrees and bake for another 5 minutes, or until the cookies are lightly browned.
- Remove from the oven and loosen the cookies from the baking sheets using a palette knife. Turn the oven off, then return the cookies to the oven to crisp up. Once crisp, transfer to a wire rack and leave to cool.
- Store the panlevi in an airtight container at room temperature; they should keep for a few days.
Hot chocolate for four servings
- 14½ oz. evaporated milk
- 3½ T unsweetened cocoa powder or cacao powder
- 4 T granulated sugar (or to taste)
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 medium egg
- Place all the ingredients, except the egg, in a saucepan.
- Fill the empty evaporated milk can with water and add this to the pan.
- Mix well and bring gently to a boil, stirring constantly.
- Remove from the heat and cool to drinking temperature.
- Beat the egg well.
- Add to the cocoa mixture, stirring to combine.
- Pour into serving mugs/cups and serve immediately with an extra sprinkle of cocoa powder on top, if you like.
* Curaçao? The name Curaçao does not come from the word cacao as some claim. More than likely, it comes from a Portugues word, coraçao, which means “heart .” At a point in the colonized history of the Leeward , the Island was where injured or sick sailors went for R&R, to heal. Earlier in history, however, in his first voyage to Venezuela with Amerigo Vespucci, Alonso de Ojeda visited modern-day Curaçao in 1499 or in early 1500s. As discoverer, he called the island, Isla de los Gigantes (Island of the Giants), since he found the Arawak Indians or Kalingo Caribs to be of tall stature for indigenous people. However, the modern name probably could be another Europeanized version of a lost indigenous word.
**Basically, cacao is the word for the raw product (cacao bean) while cocoa is the name for a processed powder that is manufactured at a higher temperature and is often packaged with the addition of sugar and dairy, making it less acidic than cacao powder. However, both terms tend to be used interchangeably by people in the industry. Both are processed to separate the fatty part known as cocoa butter.