Sunday, December 18, 2011

What do we do for Christmas? Did anybody say Hallacas?

There is nothing better to describe Venezuelan cuisine during Christmas than an Hallaca. It is the most traditional dish of the season. I have been doing Hallacas for as long as I can remember, first as a helper to my grandmother, then my mother and lately at the head of my own house!

The making of the hallacas is a ritual. The whole family is involved and we all help. Normally I would still be making Hallacas with my mom, but as she now lives in Spain, we have been doing them apart (I do get a bit sad about that). But I still make them every year with all my love and with all the excitement as I teach and pass on the traditions to my kids!

I have been following my mother's recipe (which was my grandma's and I do not know how many generations before that) since 2008! Be prepared to be amazed and to work hard. It takes approximately 12 hours to make 25 hallacas and that is with the help (on and off) of my 2 kids! There are things in life that you cannot rush, hallacas is one!

This is the story and recipe of my grandma's hallacas as my mother told me and as I will tell my daughter once she is big enough to remember:

History (as we know it):

Hallaca comes from the term "ayúa", "ayuar", "ayuaca" which means to mix, to blend in Guaraní (A Venezuelan Indian tribe). Some people also say that it comes from a West Venezuelan Indian tribe word that means to wrap or to make a parcel.

My grandmother used to say that in the time of the Spanish colonization, the black and Indian slaves used to make this dish on the 25th of December and on January 1st. The day after the land owners' important Christmas Eve and New Year's celebrations. The slaves will collect the left overs of meat, chicken, pork, olives, capers, etc. Back at their homes, the whole family would work together, the men and boys will collect the corn early in the morning, the women will cook it and turn it into dough. The women and girls will make the filling, by cutting all the left overs very small and making a sort of stew. The stew will then be put inside a corn parcel, wrapped in banana leaves and boiled. The whole family will then feast on such delicious meal.

The story tells of a slave that was eating her hallaca in the kitchen of the main house where she worked. The young daughter of the owner asked for a bite and liked it so much that she got her mother to try it and the wife gave it to her husband. The family liked it so much that they asked the slave to make them for a special dinner to which they invited their friends. From then on, the dish was consumed by rich and by poor alike as a tradition during the Holidays. Nowadays, we make hallacas and enjoy them with family and friends in celebration.

The hallaca is synonym of Christmas and happiness, and Venezuelans often exchange them with friends and give them as presents to family and friends. Every region has its own twist and there are hallacas for each and every taste!

Our family was originally from the East before they move to Caracas, so they kept their Eastern Venezuelan Recipe, enjoy it!

Yield: 25 hallacas

  • 750 g (1.6 lbs) of lean meat (flank steak or similar)
  • 500 g (1.1 lbs) of chicken (deboned)
  • 500 g (1.1 lbs) pork
  • 250 g (0.6 lbs) of bacon
  • 150 g (0.3 lbs) of salt pork belly
  • 750 g (1.6 lbs) of onions
  • 500 g (1.1 lbs) of tomatoes
  • 150 g (0.3 lbs) of leeks
  • 150 g (0.3 lbs) of spring onions
  • 150 g (o.3 lbs) of Italian jardiniere - pickled vegetables
  • 100 g (0.2 lbs) of sweet peppers (I have not been able to find these in the US)
  • 4 to 6 chicken stock cubes or equivalent in powder
  • 3 spoonfuls of sugar
  • 7 garlic cloves (half a head)
  • 3 green peppers
  • 2 red peppers
  • 1L of vegetable oil
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 pack of Harina PAN (Venezuelan corn meal - you can find it at Latino or International stores)
  • 1 pack of Annato -Achiote (natural colorant)
  • 1.5 kg (3.3 lbs) of banana leaves (you can find them frozen at Latino and International stores)
  • 1 ball of cotton thread (from a craft stores - use 100% cotton in white)
  • 250 g (0.6lbs) of raisins
  • 250 g (0.6 lbs) of pitted olives
  • 50 g (0.1 lbs) of capers
  • Salt, pepper, tomato ketchup, red wine, Worcester sauce and cumin to taste.
  • Vinegar and Oregano


Boil all the meats (beef, pork and chicken) in a bit pot with a lot of water (you will need the stock to make the dough later). Add 1 or 2 stock cubes, half an onion chopped in big pieces and one green pepper also chopped in big pieces (I used a yellow pepper this time - only because I had it). Let it boil until the meat is tender (about 1 hour). 

Heat 1/4 liter of vegetable oil with about 1/2 a cup of annato. Let it boil for a few seconds and turn the heat off. Let the oil cool down - it should be nice and orangy-red. Keep apart until needed.

Make the decorations (vegetables that will be put inside the hallaca to top the stew up) while the meats are boiling. Traditional decorations are sliced boiled eggs, sliced salt pork belly, julienne red peppers, capers, olives, fresh onion rings and raisins. If you want all of the decorations can be prepared the day before you make the hallacas.

Red peppers: Julienne the 2 red peppers, make sure to get at least 50 strips. Put the pieces in a pan with about 1/2 cup of water, 3 tbsp vinegar, 2 tbsp of olive oil, a tbsp of oregano and 2 tbsp of sugar, heat until the peppers soften.

Salt Pork Belly: Cut the pot belly into 25 thin and small pieces. Put in a container and mix with half of a stock cube, 1 tbsp of oregano, 2 tbsp of vinegar and a touch of pepper. Put apart until needed.

Boil the 4 eggs as hard boiled eggs (about 10 minutes in rolling boiling water - then turn the water off and leave eggs in it until water cools down). When cooled, peel and slice the eggs in at least 25 slices (7 pieces per egg minimum). Note: if you are preparing the decorations the night before, keep the eggs on the shelf and peel and slice just before you need them.

Cut 2 onions in thin rings and put apart until needed.

The Stew or filling:

Cut the rest of the onions, green onions, leek (make sure to wash it properly and cut very small), garlic, pickled vegetable and tomatoes (my mother peels them and take the seeds out - I do not, so it is up to you!) into small pieces. 

Heat about 1/4 liter of vegetable oil in a big pot and fry the vegetables. Start with the onions, green onions and leeks. When they are soft add 2 stock cubes and the rest of the vegetables.  Fry until tender.

Cut the bacon into small pieces and add to the pot with the vegetables. 

When bacon is cooked, add the rest of the meats. 

Mix well, now it is time to add seasoning: Add 2 tbsp of sugar, tomato ketchup to taste (start with 2 tbsp), Worcester sauce (start with 2 tbsp), red wine (start with 2 cups - yummy!). keep mixing and tasting and adding until you like it (sorry not to be more specific, we cook a lot by feeling and tasting rather than exact measurements. You will keep cooking until it is all blended and cooked properly. The end result needs to be thick, with no liquid. If it is too liquid, you can either cook it for a little longer so it evaporates or you can mix 4 tbsp of Harina PAN with a little water (1/2 cup) and add to the pot - it will help thicken it. Turn the heat off, and keep apart until needed.

The dough:

Make the dough in a big tray - I use my roaster pan!. Pour the whole package of Harina PAN in the tray and make a volcano with it. 

Put about a cup of the red oil you made earlier in the well of the volcano with a cup of the stock where you boiled the meats. Start kneading that dough, you will keep adding oil and stock until the dough is soft like play doh - be patient it takes a while (about 30 minutes or so) - also please make sure you add enough stock, the dough takes a lot of it to get pliable.

Once the dough is ready, make 25 balls with it - a little bigger than the size of a lemon.

The banana leaves:

Open your leaves on a table or the floor, cut the main vein off and then carefully (they break easily) cut 25 squares of about 11 to 12 inches wide. You will also need to cut another 25 smaller rectangles of about 7 to 8 inches wide (I normally use the smaller ends of the leaves for this) and a last set of 25 bands of about 3 to 4 inches long.

Keep them in 3 different piles - carefully wash them in the sink with warm water and a clean soft sponge. Dry them thoroughly with a  paper towel.

Putting it all together:

Take your big leaves, red oil and your dough balls and put them on a table. Take one leaf at a time, make sure you have the smooth side up (banana leaves have nerves on one side that are bumpy or slightly raised) and it is dry. Dab your fingers in the oils and spread it as a circle in the middle of the leaf. Take one ball and gently pat it until it forms a it circle in the middle of the leaf, almost like a pancake. Repeat with the rest on the leaves and balls. You can stack the leaves one on top of each other.

Now you are ready to fill and fold. Put all you decoration ingredients in a tray in front of you for easy access, also put the stew within easy reach from you. 

Take one leaf with the pancake dough on it. Put 2 spoonfuls of meat stew on it, and decorate with 2 or 3 rings of onion, a slice of egg, a slice of pork belly, one olive, 5 or 6 capers, 2 red pepper strips, 3 or 4 raisins. Your hallaca is ready to be folded.

Take the 2 edges parallel to you and fold in half, pull out a little of the dough from each side and let them rest over the stew. Now fold the edges you are holding two or three times. Now fold the two sides of the hallacas under it to form a rectangle. Take now the medium size leaf, put the hallaca on the leaf on a diagonal and roll the hallaca in it. As before, fold the two edges, this time one up and one down. Finally take the leaf band and wrap it around the center like a belt. If your first 2 leaves are strong you may skip this step.

Now take the cotton thread  and wrap it around the first hallaca like it was a Christmas present. Put the thread horizontally underneath the hallaca, wrap and twist to form a vertical line on one side of the hallaca, carefully turn the hallaca around bottoms up, twist the thread again to form a second horizontal line, turn hallaca bottoms up again, twist the thread to form a second vertical line on the other side, turn again and make 2 knots. As you tie the hallaca, make sure to keep it tight and with some medium pressure (too much and it will burst and if too little the water will get in while cooking).

Cooking them:

Get a big tall pot (I use my canning pot), and fill it half way with water, add about 2 tbsp of salt and let the water boil. When the water if boiling, add the hallacas one by one on a vertical way until they are all tight. 

Make sure they are all covered by the water, cover with a lid and boil for 1 hour. At this time, turn all the hallacas up side down, add more water if necessary to cover then all and boil for another hour.  Once done, take them out of the water one by one with a fork on the thread and let them drain. 

Put on a tray to rest standing up vertically. You are now ready to eat them!!!!

To store, once they are cool, you can freeze some straight away and leave others in your fridge. They will keep for month on the freezer and for about 2 weeks on the fridge. To reheat, boil the hallacas in salted water for about 30 minutes if frozen or 15 minutes if fresh from the fridge.

Now go and enjoy a well deserved rest!!! 


Mamá Contemporánea said...

Que rico! yo tambien hago mis hallacas, aunque soy oriental y vivi en el Zulia las hago a la manera de Caracas! Buen provecho y que disfrutes tu cena de Navidad!

S. Yissele Gallo said...

Carelys se ven ricas! se me hace agua la boca! Gracias por ser tan detallista con tus recetas y las fotos, nos ayuda a entender más, especialmente a las principiantes en las artes culinarias como yo! lol ;D


Mayra said...

Hallacas son como los pasteles puertorriqueño. Dan trabajo, pero son bien ricos.

Comiendo en LA said...

Yo no debería leer estas cosas a estas horas d ela noche! No te puede simaginar el hambre que me ha dado con tus fotos y el hecho de imaginarme el olor de las hallacas !!!!!

Helena said...

Carelys yo quiero una hallaca! Besos :) Mamaita esta por aqui y te mando miuchos saludos!

Cristina said...

Yo quiero, que delicia. Cuando probe las hallacas, me fascinaron. Muchas gracias por la receta!

Que cocinaste hoy? said...

Hallacas!! Que rico, gracias por tu receta.


Catherine MUA said...

En mi casa las hicimos ayer! Nunca habia visto que le hecharan huevo ya que en mi casa no lo hacen. Y cuando viene a la masa no hacemos las bolitas porque hacemos como 100... Buen Provecho y Feliz Navidad!

María J. Aponte said...

Cool! Esta versión me gusta! Y tengo harina pan, así que las preparo pronto! :-D

Tiffany@LivingSweetMoments said...

Se ven deliciosas esas Hallacas! nunca he probado unas de Oriente!

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