Ramadan is one of my favorite times of the year, and I'll be honest it's because of the food. I can't justify leaving my phone and spending all day in the kitchen cooking and baking if it's not Ramadan. I love cooking, it's a huge passion of mine and Ramadan is the perfect excuse to indulge in my joy for cuisine. I'd say one of the things that really triggered my passion for cooking is that my family moved around a lot when I was younger. With traveling comes new experiences, but it also removes you from family and their sacred dishes, the community, and their treasured food.
Ramadan is the perfect time to reconnect. We give as much of our effort and love for those around us, and my medium is oftentimes than not, food. Coming from a multicultural family of Colombian, Mexican, Kuwaiti, Cuban, and Iranian heritage it's quite a challenge trying to master such a variety of dishes. Bringing those memories back to life for my parents and my siblings who miss that connection, a connection to our childhood or family members we've lost — it makes cooking a labor of love. We try making it a fun experience by recreating some of our favorite dishes and dishes we've never tried. Every night is a different country in our home and this is our tradition, some nights it's New Orleans night, Chinese American takeout or Italian nights, which are just a garlic bread god send.
This recipe is a fusion of my family's heritage. It is a pan dulce (sweet bread) called conchas. They're beloved by my family and our elderly neighbor who is native to a border town right by Mexico. Conchas translates to seashells in Spanish because the traditional design of the crust is carved to represent a seashell. Now conchas are what I like to call a dipping food. It's a cross cultural love to dip our bread, dried cakes and cookies in our favorite drinks, be it chai haleeb [tea with milk], hot chocolate or coffee – which is perfect in Ramadan! Conchas must be dipped, you'd be simply rejecting a trip to heaven if you ate it without dipping it into a warm drink. Now these aren’t your traditional flavors. I decided to alter the concha flavors to represent our love for Arab/Irani desserts. So, I made a cardamom concha, a saffron and brown butter concha and lastly, I kept the traditional hibiscus Mexican concha and infused it with roses.
Conchas are very dear to our hearts, it represents a part of our home that while it may be far, we can still hold very close to us. The last time I made conchas my dad talked to me about his life living in Mexico during the invasion, the smell of the bakeries making pan dulce every morning beside his uncles house who has since passed away. I think for many of us in this time, we’re all trying to hold home as close as we can and to me this is what Ramadan is, it’s making memories, celebrating old ones, celebrating home, welcoming diversity and community, with acts of love and food of course.
Recipe for Carina’s hibiscus and rose conchas
Ingredients for dough
4 cups of All Purpose flour (you can also use bread flour as it'll produce a softer dough)
½ cup + 2 tbsp white sugar
3 tsp dry instant yeast
½ tsp salt
100 ml room temperature butter
2 tsp vanilla extract
200 ml warm evaporated milk (you can swap for regular whole milk)
Ingredients for the topping
1 cup of dried hibiscus leaves
1/4 cup dried roses
1 1/4 cup of hot water
150 ml of powder sugar
1 cup of all purpose flour
125 ml of room temperature butter
*You may need less than 200ml milk for the dough depending on the flour you have, I was using All Purpose Kuwait Flour Mills for this because the bread flour I usually get was sold out.
*If using bread flour you'll probably need around 150ml of warm milk. So start with 120ml of warm milk and continue gradually adding till you get a saturated dough that renders you a slightly sticky, very soft and elastic consistency. If the dough is tearing easily or stiff when kneading add more milk.
*You can also swap the evaporated milk for regular milk but I prefer the flavor of evaporated.
*You can find dried roses and hibiscus at any number of the Persian spice shops, and you get the added bonus of supporting small local businesses!
Instructions for making the dough
- In a large bowl, sift the flour, salt, sugar and instant yeast together. Make sure it's well mixed.
- Next add room temperature butter and combine with your hands. The butter should be well mixed into the flour. It should resemble lumpy sand.
- Add in eggs and vanilla and mix together, then slowly start adding in your warm milk and kneading till milk is well incorporated and the dough is smooth, soft, slightly sticky and elastic. If your dough feels too dense or not supple enough, add in more warm milk little by little and knead till you have reached desired elasticity.
- After 10 minutes of kneading, form into a ball and add into a large greased bowl. Allow the dough to rise till it has doubled in size, somewhere warm. This may take a few hours or overnight depending on the temperature of your kitchen. I recommend putting your dough in the oven with the oven light on to encourage the yeast.
While your dough is rising take this time to make the top sugary paste layer. First you have to make the hibiscus and rose concentrate to flavor the paste.
- Bring 1 and ¼ cup of water to boil over a stovetop. Add in hibiscus and roses. Reduce heat and allow to simmer for 15 minutes. Then remove from heat and allow to cool.
- Once cool, pour mixture over a sieve or drain liquid with cheesecloth into a small bowl or cup.
- In a medium sized bowl, combine 150 grams of powder sugar and 225 grams of all purpose flour.
- Then add 100 grams of room temperature butter and combine till you form a paste.
- Next add 1 ½ tablespoons of hibiscus rose concentrate and combine till everything is cohesive. You should be able to scoop it all up into your hands and it should stay as one mass.
- Preheat your oven to 160 Celsius.
- Once the dough has risen take it out of the bowl, the dough will deflate. Cut the dough into ⅓ cup sized pieces. Roll each piece into a ball, tucking in any open ends under the dough and pinching shut to have a perfect ball. You should be able to make 9 pieces.
- Next place each ball of dough onto wax paper, spaced apart by 3 inches (the dough rises and expands a lot so you wanna make sure they have enough space).
- Flatten each ball of dough into a thick disk. Then grease the top of the dough with a little bit of butter. This will allow the top layer to stick when baking.
- Now separate little balls of the sugar paste. Each ball should be about a tablespoon and a half.
- With slightly buttered hands press the sugar paste into a perfect circle into your palm. It should be a thin, flat disk.
- Next take the palm that has sugar paste and press it onto a disk of concha dough. The sugar paste should list off of your palm and onto the dough. Repeat this step for all the dough.
- Next take a fruit knife and carve the seashell design onto the top layer of your conchas. It should not be so deep that you score the dough.
- Allow the dough to rise for a second time till it has nearly doubled but not entirely. This may take 1 – 2 hours.
- Once your dough has risen to almost twice its size, pop your conchas into the oven and bake at 160 celsius for 20-25 minutes. The bottom of your conchas should be a deep golden brown.
Allow to cool and serve with hot chocolate, coffee or tea — dip the conchas guys, don't forget!
Carina Maceira is a 22 year old environmentalist, activist, poet, educator and self proclaimed chef who calls Kuwait home. She is a founder and the director of Trashtag Kuwait, a local nonprofit environmental grassroots initiative exercising their agency and resources to help others in the pandemic.
Words: Carina Maceira
Images: Courtesy of Carina Maceira