Exactly four years ago I spent twelve days around Christmas with my parents, siblings, niece and friend at a gorgeous ranch in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Every day was beautiful—dry, mid 70’s brilliantly sunny. My hair never looked better. Sounds perfect, right? Wrong.
Now, before I come off sounding like a spoiled princess I need to be very clear that I did not grow up in one of those families that took lavish vacations every Christmas and Spring break. Not in the least. Holiday travel is a big deal to us and my outrage stemmed more from feeling my generous father had been hoodwinked by the property owner than it did from my own frustration. I know, aren’t I nice? It’s true. I felt terrible for him.
The ranch, owned by a former distant colleague of Dad’s was really more like a house of cards. On the outside it was architecturally beautiful, landscaped and lush (meaning that water which might have served the arid surroundings and its people was being pumped onto the property to keep it looking like we were in the rain forest instead of the desert.) The inside was another story.
The electrical wiring: Unbeknownst to us the nights were freezing and the house was not centrally heated. What happens when you plug in two space heaters (on opposite sides of a supposedly modern house) at once? Kaboom. You’ve blown a fuse and now you’re sitting in the dark with a crying, frozen baby, trying to grope around for a hidden power source. You then learn that the heater will have to be rationed and the baby will always win.
The plumbing: Upon finishing her evening bath my mother pulled up the stopper to empty the tub, only to find water rising out of the enormous drain planted in the middle of the bathroom and flooding the entire floor. Housekeeping’s pitiful attempt to clean it up with a tiny mop was too painful to watch. Two days later a toilet ceases to function.
The comfort: That cozy nook in the corner where you want to read? Oh no, that lamp is just for show and doesn’t turn on. And that fluffy looking couch? No, it’s stuffed with foam which collapses under your relatively light weight so that you might as well be sitting on a wooden bench. In the dark. Shivering. So, why not light a fire in that fireplace in your bedroom? Sorry, the flue is broken and now you're choking on the black, billowing smoke rapidly enveloping the room.
The issue was that during the days we were having a great time. San Miguel is incredibly charming and there is so much to see and the weather was amazing for walking around and exploring.
But just as the setting sun cast its shadow across the lovely colonial courtyards so it did to our spirits. Knowing we were about to return to a house where every night something went wrong prompted a rolling wave of depression and anxiety that started with me and made its way through the entire group. I like to be able to count on things and the house was all about the unpredictable.
How to cope? We were quickly plowing through our multiple cases of red wine. “Vino tinto? Poco Mas?” Querino, the caretaker of the rotting ranch, offered continuously. “Si! Por favor. Gracias!”
And now to the food. Lunch was always good because we ate while we were out and about. But, because of the baby we ate breakfast and dinner at the house of unreliability. After an evening of rubber chicken breasts, iceberg lettuce salad with orange French dressing and a basket of Wonder bread my mother attempted to communicate a suggestion; “Mas authentico?” she pleaded in an Italian accent (?) to Querino. “Comme (uh, Mom that’s French) quesadillas, fajitas, tacos? Merci.” (Oh dear.) Grabbing the English-Spanish dictionary from my mother’s hands, “Postres, por favor?” I begged. I had gone for two meals without dessert and was close to losing it. Where was the dulce de leche? Spicy hot chocolate? Mexican wedding cakes?
I was so hungry that night I tip-toed into the off-limits kitchen to see what I could rustle up. The bare bulb hanging from the ceiling barely illuminated the open cabinet, or should I say 1970 convenience food time capsule—the Mexican versions of Wishbone salad dressings, boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, Minute Rice, Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix and jars of Miracle Whip all elbowed each other for shelf space. I gave up and remembered I still had some pretzels in my purse from the plane.
The next night, after a dinner of iceberg lettuce salad drowning in (big change!) blue cheese dressing, baked spaghetti and tomato sauce (not bad actually) and more Wonder-y bread, Querino emerged from the kitchen bearing a wide, proud smile and with great ceremony presented a silver platter of jumbo sized spiced gum drops. "Postres!" he announced.
From that day forward we made sure to stop at a bakery in town for some trans fat cookies—who cared, just give me some sugar. But where were the Mexican Wedding Cakes? It’s Christmas for goodness sakes and I never go a holiday season without them!
The day after I got home at 3:30am (two delayed flights and a lost set of luggage—could this be more fun?!) I went to the store, re-stocked my supplies and made the cookies I’d missed so much. They are as close to Mexico at Christmas as I plan to be.
Mexican Nightmare Vacation Wedding Cakes
Adapted from Rose's Christmas Cookies, Rose Levy Beranbaum (Morrow, 1990)
Printer Friendly Version
1 cup pecan halves
2 ½ cups powdered sugar-divided
Pinch of salt
1 cup unsalted butter
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper
Put pecans, 1 cup sugar and salt in bowl of food processor and pulse until nuts are finely ground.
Cut butter into tablespoon size pieces.
With processor running add butter to mixture and process until smooth.
Stop machine and add vanilla extract.
Add flour and pulse until fully incorporated.
Scrape dough into bowl, cover lightly and refrigerate one hour.
Preheat oven to 350.
Place remaining sugar in large bowl.
Scoop dough and form into 1 inch balls rolling between your palms.
Place balls on cookie sheets @ 1 ½ inches apart.
Bake 15 minutes or until cookies are barely brown.
Cool on sheets for 2-3 minutes.
Remove cookies from sheets and roll them in remaining sugar.
Yield: 4 1/2 dozen cookies