My grandmother had magical hands. Big, beautiful, strong hands that for many years cooked my favorite dessert as a child — Picarones, or Peruvian Donuts. I can almost hear the hot oil sizzle as she tossed a ring of dough with a flick of her wrist into the large pot. And I remember standing on my tippy toes to look into the pot and watch the dough rings inflate and turn crispy brown, like small life preservers coming to life. As the donuts floated in the oil, she scooped them up with a wooden stick that passed through the donut holes, rescuing them just in time for dessert.
One of the things I enjoy the most about cooking and eating, is learning about the history of a dish, and Picarones is no exception. They were first made over 200 years ago, during the Spanish Viceroyalty in Lima. And all you had to do to get one back then was wait until 2 PM for the street vendor to come by. Today, it’s particularly popular during the religious celebrations in the month of October. And though it’s based on the Spanish buñuelo or fried dough ball, the recipe was developed by Afro-Peruvians and later made popular by the nuns of Saint Claire’s convent.
Since October also marks the anniversary of my grandmother’s passing, I decided to make Picarones in her honor. I started with a recipe from Teresa Izquierdo and enjoyed spending a few hours in the kitchen really getting into the spirit of this dessert. I cooked the sweet potatoes and squash in water with anise and prepared the syrup with whole cane sugar, cinnamon, and an orange peel. Then, I mixed the yeast based dough with the sweet potato and squash purée. All of which gave me a tremendous appreciation for the work involved. My grandmother really must have loved making Picarones.
Though I started with the fried version, my ulterior motive all along was to make baked Peruvian donuts. So the next couple of days, I experimented with the recipe, tasted the results, and of course shared them with friends. My goal is to make a dessert that honors the origin and flavor of the Picarones, but is also accessible and simple to make. In the meantime, I may need to make a few trips to La Mar to get my Picarones fix or consult with my friends who are bakers for ideas. And one day soon, I’ll take them out of the oven, taste them, and say “this is the one, this one is for you grandma.”