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Secret Christmas Recipes of Tenerife Nuns

Convento de Santa Catalina La Laguna Koppchen [CC BY 3.0]

In the past one would see long queues of people at the back of the Convent of Santa Catalina in La Laguna, Tenerife, there to buy Christmas sweets from the turntable that was the nun's only method of delivering their goods, unseen, to the public. Today, the nuns' hand-made Christmas delicacies are sold to order, since there are not as many nuns as there were in the convent olden times to carry out the necessary work, but those who have tasted these delights certainly don't mind how much they cost, because they have the pure flavour of tradition.

The Santa Catalina nuns are experts in special foodstuffs for Christmas Eve.

An old document from 1767 recounts that the nuns dined on eggs and chocolate and, that on the following day, being Christmas, their menu was based on meat, a fig pudding, roscas de manteca (lard cakes) and mistela. (Vin de liqueur.) 

In the past they made deserts, now disappeared, such as one based on rice with sugar, almonds and cinnamon. The Mother Superior of the Santa Catalina convent, Sister María Cleofé López Lantigua, underlined that they continue to faithfully maintain the Christmas sweet making tradition. Although they used to make more sweets, production has been reduced, attending only to the orders from those persons who collaborate with the convent. This is because, she added, "there are very few nuns to do the work and, given the hours it takes, it isn't profitable." Though she doesn't reject the idea of opening a dulcería in the convent, teaching their culinary arts to youngsters via a workshop and school and, if the authorities don't apply heavy taxes, the money can be a benefit to the community and be used to restore the convent.

The current sweet and pastry maker in the Santa Catalina convent is Sister María Inés de León Domínguez, who is 71 years old. Sister Inés, who was born in La Orotava, learned the art from her grandmother, Remedios Méndez.

Sister Inés has lived in the La Laguna convent for 54 years, delighting many with her culinary magic and special flavours.

One of her principal specialities are rosquetes de vino, which are made with nutmeg, cinnamon, liqueur, flour, lard and salt. Then there are her galletas de leche (milk biscuits), formed with antique metal cutters in shapes of hearts, clubs and half moons, made with oil, butter, flour, milk and almond or coconut.

The mantecados (lard cakes), typical of the Christmas season, Sister Inés makes with lard, lemon, cinnamon, aniseed liqueur, flour, salt and ground almonds and, that are then decorated with a piece of crystallized fruit.

Her rosquetes de palo follow an ancient recipe, made with oil, flour, lard and wine, to which is added water mixed with aniseed liqueur. She also makes truchas de batata (sweet potato pies) and tocinos de cielo (caramel puddings).

The star of the Santa Catalina nun's recipes though, is the tarta de almendra (almond tart), which has a crunchy exterior made with almond paste and, which opens to reveal a rich filling made with cabello de ángel (literally translated, this means angel hair and which is a type of pumpkin) and peach.

The Antique Recipe

Sister Inés says that all the sweets described contain a small secret that they guard and underlined that her oldest Christmas desert is the sopa borracha - literally translated this is drunken soup. This is not a liquid, as the name suggests. The recipe is one of the oldest existing and takes 8 hours to make. The day before, a syrup is made by boiling water, vanilla pods, cinnamon and aniseed. Half of this goes to make a paste by adding almonds. The next day, the delicacy is made with layers of bizcochos de lengua de gato (oval sponge cakes shaped like cats tongues) which are moistened with rum and aniseed liqueur, followed by a layer of the almond paste and continued, alternately, into the form of a cone. The whole is then thoroughly "sozzled" with the cited syrup.

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