I have something embarrassing to confess. I realized this year that I had no idea what Cinco de Mayo commemorated. I’m not exactly sure how I’ve managed to live my whole life and not question the origin of this calendric holiday but it happened and I’m sorry (though I suspect I’m not the only one likewise uninformed). Of course I knew it was a celebration of Mexico but, at least from my viewpoint, it manifests most frequently as a commercial holiday for Mexican restaurants and bars. I, too, considered it primarily as an excuse to enjoy a personal pitcher of margaritas.
So I googled it, as one does. What I learned is that Cinco de Mayo commemorates the 1862 Battle of Puebla in which a Mexican militia defeated a much better equipped French militia that was also double in size. Quick recap*: The Mexican American War has ended and Mexico is broke and can’t pay its debts to its debtors (Spain, Britain, and France). France (under Napoleon) sees this as a good opportunity to imperialize. The Mexican victory at the Battle of Puebla on the 5th of May symbolizes a boost in morale and patriotism in the effort to defeat France. France ends up winning for a sec (three years) but ultimately ends up withdrawing due to a myriad of things (Mexican resistance, impending threat of America, etc.) so it all worked out, in the end. * Thank you, Wikipedia.
I also learned that Cinco de Mayo celebrations in Mexico are mainly limited to the region in which the battle was fought and hold nowhere near the national significance as Día de la Independencia (Mexican Independence Day) which is September 16th. Cinco de Mayo has a larger significance in the United States where the holiday has become more like a general umbrella under which we can celebrate Mexican (and Mexican-American) culture. And of course it is highly commercialized, that’s capitalism for you. These days, especially, I think it’s an important holiday to celebrate and not just for the great happy hour specials. As an American it’s a really great opportunity to reflect on an amazing culture and cuisine that makes up such an important part of the landscape of this country, and a relationship that should be valued and protected. And since this is a food blog, after all, I’ve obviously got a recipe to help in all this celebration.
I originally was thinking I wanted to do some type of churro but then I thought I’d take that cinnamon-sugar inspiration to another classic: the cinnamon roll. I know they aren’t traditionally Mexican, but I figured that small hiccup could be rectified by packing them (literally) with Mexican flavors. The base is a classic yeasted dough which is then smothered in the star of this recipe: cajeta. I’ve read it described a bajillion times as “Mexican dulce de leche” but it is essentially a caramel sauce made from goat milk. And it is good. Like, really really good. All the recipes I found call for fresh goat milk, but I’ve been eyeing canned goat milk in the baking aisle at the grocery store for about ten years so I decided to, hesitantly, give it a shot. I was kind of amazed at how well it worked out. I added tequila-soaked raisins and toasted almonds for texture, then rolled the whole thing up. After baking, the rolls are smothered in a tres leches glaze (inspired by the traditional Mexican milk cake). The glaze is milky and rich with a brightness provided by a hint of lemon juice. The end product is a gorgeous pastry that I think is perfectly befitting to a Cinco de Mayo brunch but good enough to serve any day of the year.
Cuatro Leches Cinnamon Rolls
First things first, start this recipe a day ahead. You can even make the cajeta days in advance.
- 1 package active dry yeast
- 1/4 c. warm tap water (105°-115°)
In a mixing bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. After 5 minutes, add:
- 1/3 c. sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 cake flour
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/4 c. milk
- 1 tsp vanilla
Mix until combined. Gradually add:
- 2 c. bread flour
Mix for one minute, until combined. Knead by hand (10 minutes) or with dough hook (6 minutes) until dough is smooth. Add in:
- 6 tbs. room temperature butter
Continue kneading until dough is smooth again. Place dough in buttered bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place for about one and a half hours. Once dough has risen, punch down and knead a few times. Return to bowl, cover, and place in refrigerator overnight (or at least 4 hours).
- 1/3 c. plus 1 tsp. sugar
- 1/4 tsp baking soda
- 1/4 tsp vanilla
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 12-oz can of Evaporated Goat Milk (I used Meyenberg brand)
Measure out 1 tbs. of goat milk and mix with baking soda, set aside. In a medium saucepan, bring sugar, goat milk, and cinnamon stick to a simmer, stirring frequently. Once simmering, remove from heat and add baking soda/milk mixture. The mixture will bubble up, continue stirring. Once the bubbles have gone back down, return to heat. Cook until mixture thickens for 45 minutes-1 hour, stirring often. The mixture is done when it is deep in color and has the consistency of thick honey. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Store in jar and refrigerate.
Roll dough out into a rough 12×16 rectangle (it takes some elbow grease). Spread a generous layer of cajeta onto dough (I used about 1/2 cup). Top with:
- 1/8 c. toasted almonds (reserve a few for garnish at end, if desired)
- 1/8 c. tequila raisins (Cover raisins with tequila in small pan, heat until plump. Drain tequila.)
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 2 tbs butter, cut into small cubes
Using the 16-inch side of the dough, roll up into spiral. Using unflavored dental floss, slip under dough, cross and pull slightly to cut log into 8 equal pieces (discard about a half-inch from each end). Place into a greased, round 9-inch cake pan. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise one hour.
Bake rolls in oven for about 25-30 minutes (if dough is getting too much color on top, place a square of tinfoil over top while it continues to bake). Remove from oven and let cool slightly before glazing.
- 2 tbs evaporated milk
- 2 tbs sweetened condensed milk
- 1 tbs half & half
- 3/4 c. sifted powdered sugar
- 1/4 tsp vanilla
- 1 + 1/2 tsp lemon juice
Top with any leftover almonds or raisins, if desired.
Dough recipe from Joy of Cooking.