The celebration of Holy Week in Alcalá is followed by more than 100,000 people. Gathering together visitors and city inhabitants, both the faithful and tourists attend processions. Such festivities are linked to a centenary gastronomical tradition adapted to the Catholic religious rule of this period, as the prohibition of eating meat. Confectionery has a special role in this celebration, represented in Alcalá by torrijas [French fried toast], and chocolate and almond penitents.
Penance in the Confectionery
Such religious conditions on food costumes forced cooks and bakers to stimulate their imagination and creativity. These circumstances leaded to the invention of culinary recipes using different ingredients, conferring at the same time a greater leading role to confectionery.
Therefore, there are countless desserts all over Spain based on flour and sugar or honey, that along with eggs and milk compound the essential world of Holy Week sweets. Flour-base is fundamental to confectionery; in many occasions, bread—one of the most important symbols of the Last Supper—was used hours before Holy Week commemoration, so it is an ingredient always present on tables in those dates.
Apart from torrijas —the greatest sweet in that interval in Alcalá—, since a few years ago, confectioneries of Alcalá offer penitents, which are only so by name, as when you taste it, you see they are in fact a sweet and joyful “penancy”.
This sweet is made from traditional rolled wafer, but in shape it imitates the sharp-pointed hood under which penitents hide their identity during processions. Its interior is filled with almond cream and smashed sugared almonds, an especially delicious mouthful.
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Chocolate and Almond Capirote
This cake has been specially designed with the same shape than the hood—traditionally called capirote —that faithful people wear in processions. It is based on rolled wafers, a sheet of light and crunchy dough with squared pattern. Its recipe has at least three centuries of antiquity, as it was described by the Royal confectioner Juan de la Mata in 1747, in its famous book “Arte de Repostería” [The Art of Confectionery]:
“In a fourth part of water, two egg yolks will be added, half pound of powdered sugar, and another of flour; and an additional fourth part of water will be added in which you previously have diluted two ounces of fresh butter, almost reach boiling temperature; well stirred, everything mixed, rolled wafers will be made ordinarily”. Arte de Repostería. Juan de la Mata. Madrid, 1747.
In order to finish the penitent, the confectioner covers the rolled wafer with chocolate, and leaves it to dry while he prepares its exquisite filling. On the one hand, custard is prepared: we take a clean and well dried pan and put sugar and corn starch in it, then we remove firmly and continuously with a bar. We add 100 gr. of milk and move it again. Next, we put eggs and stir until the mixture has no lumps.
On the other hand, we put milk on the cooker, and when it starts to boil, move it away from the fire and add to the mixture the previously-prepared cream. Continue with the stirring until it is done. When the dough starts to boil again, cream will be curdled and it is possible to move it away from the fire.
To finish the sweet, the confectioner of experienced housewife will add the key and delicious touch: for each kilo of cream, 600 gr. of smashed almonds and 200 gr. of smooth-smashed sugared almonds will be added. The rolled wafer cornet is filled and covered with chocolate and it is served on a tray, tempting every person passing through the confectionery’s window, or to relatives and friends in case they are at home.
Since several years ago, the Tourism Councillorship of Alcalá’s City Council makes a promotional campaign of Penitents sweets of Holy Week in Alcalá, giving these typical sweets for free to all visitors who go to city’s monuments within their opening hours, from Maundy Thursday to Easter.
- www.elheraldodealcala.es: interview to Yolmar confectionery owners, who claim to be the creators of penitents.
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