In preparation for a Cinco de Mayo-inspired feast, Penelope Walsh heads to La Parrilla for a masterclass in making this traditional Latin American treat
Mexicans in Dubai – and across the world – are gearing up for a monumental party at the end of this week. Cinco de Mayo (‘the fifth of May’) falls this Sunday and is observed in particular by expat Mexicans as a mark of national pride and heritage. We’re ever keen to join in with festivities, provided it involves food, and where better to learn the insider secrets of Latin cooking ahead of Cinco de Mayo than at the Time Out Dubai award-winning Latin American restaurant, La Parrilla? Here, the show-stopping signature is the churros, made like donuts and served hanging from a mini tree amid a frenzy of dry ice-induced fog, representing the morning mist of the Amazonian rainforest.
In Mexico, churros are a humble snack often served at street-food stands across the country. As impressive as La Parrilla’s theatrical dessert display is, it’s not the most accessible method of recreating this snack at home. So we persuaded the restaurant’s executive sous chef, Daniel Hillier, to tweak the restaurant’s churros recipe just for us, to create a version of this Latin American favourite that’s easy to prepare at home.
Churros themselves originate from Spain, where they’re traditionally eaten as a breakfast dish with a cup of thick drinking chocolate, a concept first inspired by the cocoa-loving Mayan. Along with the conquistadors, churros have proliferated to the Americas, where they’re eaten with abandon from the Gulf of Mexico through to Tierra del Fuego in the tip of Argentina (well, nearly). In the classic Spanish style, Latin churros are still often teamed with hot chocolate sauce, but the continent has also added the accompaniment of dulce de leche, a thick caramel sauce made from condensed milk, typical in central and South American sweet cooking.
In the kitchen of La Parrilla, Chef Daniel tells us that traditional Spanish churros feature olive oil both in the dough, and for frying. The olive oil, he adds, is usually tempered with vegetable oil (normally corn oil in Latin recipes) during the frying stage, because olive oil smokes when subjected to the high temperatures needed for deep frying.
Daniel jokes that a Spanish or Mexican cook might baulk at the recipe he is demonstrating: it is influenced by his knowledge of French culinary thought to create what he feels is the ultimate churros recipe. As such, instead of using olive oil to make the dough, which he explains can introduce a slightly bitter taste, his recipe uses butter to create lighter, fluffier churros.
He starts by adding cubes of unsalted butter and cold water to a large pan. He also adds a pinch of salt: once the finished churros are rolled in sugar, the salty-sweet dynamic creates a lovely contrast. He brings the mixture in the pan to the boil so the butter will melt and create an emulsion, but he warns that once the mixture boils it should be removed from the heat immediately, otherwise the liquid will reduce.
Daniel then adds the sifted flour and the baking powder. He mixes this thoroughly with a wooden spoon, and explains that the dough is ready ‘when it leaves the edge of the bowl and comes together in a lump’. This process, he explains, is similar to the method for making choux pastry.
He also emphasises how important it is to perform the blending stages of this recipe by hand. ‘Chefs always prefer techniques by hand rather than using machines,’ he reveals. ‘In this case, if you mix the dough with a machine it will overwork the gluten, which makes the dough too elastic.’ Daniel then places the pan back on to the heat for two or three minutes to cook out the raw flour taste.
The next stage is to crack the eggs into a bowl and beat them. But before folding the eggs in, the dough must cool down (which takes about two minutes) otherwise the eggs will scramble. Again, he mixes in the eggs by hand. ‘Add one egg at a time, little by little, and chop in to the pastry to fold it through.’ Daniel also lets us into a secret: the best method is to alternate between a spatula and a whisk.
At this stage, he flavours the churros: he tells us there are limitless possibilities for this, naming orange blossom water, cinnamon and nutmeg as just a few ingredients to try. However, he likes to ‘keep it simple’ with lemon zest and vanilla essence.
Now the dough must be put aside to rest for 30 minutes. Daniel warns us to leave it at room temperature, rather than in the fridge: ‘otherwise the fat will solidify and it will be harder to squeeze out of the piping bag’. If you’re preparing the dough in advance before a party, he advises that it be left for one hour maximum before use.
After resting, it’s time to fry the churros. La Parrilla uses a deep fat fryer: if you don’t have one at home, you can heat vegetable oil in a pan to 180°C, but Daniel warns that this process can be dangerous, so home cooks need to be careful if they choose this method. He transfers the dough into a piping bag – ideally, he says, one with a grooved nozzle, which will give the churros that iconic linear appearance.
When dropping the churros into the fryer, he suggests placing the bag close to the surface of the oil to minimise splashback. He then squeezes the bag a little and cuts the churros off with scissors to the desired length. Once they’re cooked on one side, he carefully turns them over in the oil. Watching them cook, the churros quickly fluff up, the egg and baking powder giving them volume. The air is also filled with an appetite-whetting, sweet pastry aroma. They only take two to three minutes of cooking until they are golden brown and ready to be removed. Daniel places them on kitchen paper to drain off excess oil, then rolls them in caster sugar: they’re now ready to eat.
So we tuck in: honestly, they really are the ultimate churros, and certainly the best we’ve tried. They’re soft, buttery, briochey and yet still light inside, with a beautifully crisp exterior. The recipe is also quick and very simple, making it well worth trying at home this Sunday. Happy Cinco de Mayo and buen provecho!
200ml cold water
200g unsalted butter
175g plain flour
¼ teasp baking powder
3 large eggs, beaten
1 teasp Vanilla essence
Grated zest of one lemon
Pinch of salt
Sunflower oil for frying
Caster sugar for sprinkling
Where to celebrate Cinco de Mayo on Sunday May 5
Flavours on Two
This party offers an à la carte selection of classic Mexican food, accompanied by Mexican beverages and traditional music from the country.
Prices vary. Sun 7pm-10pm. Towers Rotana, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 312 2202).
Taqado Mexican Kitchen
Taqado will be serving a complimentary cup of Mexican drinking chocolate to customers when they order a main meal during Cinco de Mayo.
Free. Sun 8am-midnight. Mall of the Emirates, Barsha (04 385 1171).
Perhaps not one for patriotic Mexicans, but The Shore will be celebrating Cinco de Mayo with a three-course menu of Tex-Mex standards including burritos, nachos, steak and Mexican-style mixed drinks.
Dhs250 per person. 6pm-10pm, May 2-6. Atlantis The Palm, Palm Jumeirah (04 426 2626).