What began as Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, has grown over the years to a month-long celebration. It was President Ronald Reagan who expanded the observance which now runs from Sept. 15-Oct. 15. It highlights the achievements, culture and contributions of Americans whose ancestry is from Latin America or Spain.
When it comes to traditions, there is no denying the power of food. Providing more than nourishment for our bodies, the mere mention of certain foods can instantly transport us to our youth.
I am the eldest child of Diane (formerly Santillan) and Selso Z. Garcia of Pleasanton, who both grew up in Poteet. My grandparents are the late Josefina and Tomas Santillan and Corina and Dolores Garcia, all of Poteet.
One of my earliest, fondest memories involves an early-morning breakfast. I was not older than 5 years old, spending the night at my maternal grandparents’ house. My grandmother woke me up urging me to, “Come on,” with a smile on her face. I kept rubbing my eyes, reluctant to get out of bed.
“Why is my grandma getting me up at this hour?” I thought.
It must have been between 5:30-6:30 a.m.
I walked slowly through the dark hallway and into the brightly-lit kitchen. My grandfather, who made a living as a construction worker, was sitting down at the table, smiled and asked me to join him for breakfast. I sat on his lap and watched as my grandma served us eggs and fluffy, homemade tortillas.
Growing up, I remember my grandma’s specialties like chicken mole, which was chicken perfected with a thick sauce. On New Year’s Eve, you could find her in the kitchen making bunuelos, a fried dough sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.
My mother recalled how Grandma Santillan would make empanadas with beer instead of water. She also made cinnamon tea for my grandfather to dip his bunuelos.
There were large family get-togethers, with my Grandma Santillan joining her family to prepare tamales. On my paternal side of the family, we would often gather at the farm with Grandma Nina and Lole for the holidays, popping fireworks for New Year’s Eve, with Dick Clark’s countdown on the radio.
We often had barbecues and played volleyball all day long at my parents’ house or my aunt and uncle’s house, Alice and Jack Garcia’s home in Jourdanton, which was next door to my great-grandmother’s, Belen Zamarripa. My father remembered how Grandma Nina would join her sisters there to make tamales. He joked that he only remembers eating them, not helping to make them.
One sweet dish I remember my mom preparing is leche quemada candy. Interestingly, “leche quemada” is Spanish for “burnt milk.” I will share that recipe below.
Leche Quemada Candy
Use a large, six-quart pan to allow room for boiling. Use 2 cups of whole milk or combine 1 cup of Pet Milk and 1 cup water. Mix with 2 cups of sugar, 1 teaspoon of vanilla and 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda.
Let it start boiling, then as it burns, stir it so it does not stick to the cookware until it browns. You can test it in a glass of cool water. Just use a drop or so and test it like any other candy. When it is firm, it’s ready.
Add 1/2 cup of pecans, stir and drop the candy on waxed paper with a spoon. Once it cools, wrap it or store it any way you want.
Maria Cruz (Esparza) Garza
Mary Gallegos of Pleasanton, a descendant of Alamo defender Gregorio Esparza, shared her mother’s empanada recipe. Gallegos retired as Advertising Manager with the Pleasanton Express in 2014. Her mother, Maria Cruz (Esparza) Garza passed away earlier this year on May 14, 2021, at the age of 94.
At her mother’s funeral, Gallegos shared, “She was just 4 ft., 7 in., but she was full of spunk and feistiness. Mom took a lot of pride in her empanadas. She baked apple ones and sweet potato ones and taught us all how to make them. Everyone looked forward to her empanadas at Christmastime. Our brothers were known to hide them at our Christmas Eve parties so they could have some to take home for their coffee on Christmas Day.”
Gallegos told the story of how a few years ago, she said to her mother, “I just can’t seem to get my empanadas to taste like yours and I do not know what I’m doing wrong.”
Her mother looked at her funny with a grin on her face and told Gallegos, “Try using 3/4 cup of sugar instead of 1/2 cup.”
Gallegos was confused and said, “But your recipe calls for 1/2 cup of sugar.”
Her mother just looked down and smiled.
Gallegos said, “Mom, did you give us the wrong sugar amount?” and described how her mom, “grinned that little grin and said, ‘Well, I didn’t want everyone’s empanadas to taste just like mine, mine had to be better.’ We had a good laugh, but I could not believe it. So if anyone out there has her empanada recipe, try 3/4 cup sugar instead of the 1/2 cup in the dough recipe.”
Here is the recipe, with the correct amounts.
Empandas De Manzana
4 cups flour
3/4 cups of sugar
1 teaspoon of anise extract
4 teaspoons of baking powder
1 cup shortening
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/3 cup milk (Pet Milk and water, 1/2 and 1/2)
Mix flour, sugar, anise extract, baking powder, shortening, salt and milk. Knead into dough. Divide dough into small balls. Roll out balls one at a time. Fill one side with apple filling. Fold in half and press with fork all along the edge of dough.
Bake 10 minutes at 350 degrees. Then prick the top with a fork. Next, egg wash can be brushed on the top to brown them. Continue baking until golden brown. Makes about 2 dozen.
6 big apples (peeled, cored and sliced)
1/2 cup sugar
Slice the apples. Put apples, cinnamon and sugar in pan. Cook for 20 minutes on low heat until soft with just enough water to cover the apples. Add cinnamon and sugar to taste. Mary Gallegos usually adds about 1/2-3/4 cup of sugar and enough cinnamon to give it color.