Baking in Ecuador

by Sarah Owens


One aspect that motivates me the most about baking with sourdough is the community that is cultivated around its curious magic.  Nowhere have I felt that more than here in Ecuador.  Baking in this diverse but sometimes inadequately supplied country is a challenge on its own, despite the added complications of high altitude, high humidity, or inexperience with exotic ingredients.  The rewards have been many though and those who have shared this journey with me  have enjoyed a delicious blend of South American tradition with Brooklyn creativity.

Top L to R: Harina de Yuca, Harina de Maiz, Harina de Platanos,  Middle L to R: Pinol, Harina de Quinoa/Trigo/Maiz, Harina de Negra Maiz Bottom L to R: Amaranth, Quinoa, Barley

Top L to R: Harina de Yuca, Harina de Maiz, Harina de Platanos, 

Middle L to R: Pinol, Harina de Quinoa/Trigo/Maiz, Harina de Negra Maiz

Bottom L to R: Amaranth, Quinoa, Barley

The food in Ecuador is a complexity of simple ingredients manifest in surprisingly flavorful dishes.  Bowl after bowl of murky soup appears at Almuerzos, followed by what seems to be endless lumps of carbohydrates to accompany an unidentifiable stew of meat.  The surface of these appearances belies little of their flavor though.  Rich broths spiked with fresh herbal notes are a canvas for potatoes and succulent meats.  Bland hominy corn that I choked down as a child is a culinary celebration in this country.  So when I spied the many panaderias throughout my first few days in Ecuador, I had high expectations.  

The makings of an apple tart with naranjillo, cinnamon, ginger, and local honey.

The makings of an apple tart with naranjillo, cinnamon, ginger, and local honey.

A loaf made with caramelized onion, cumin, and blue corn flour.

A loaf made with caramelized onion, cumin, and blue corn flour.

No such luck.  Despite the endless varieties of flour and grains that can be found in the markets or grocery, most bread found in Ecuador is a bland rotation of uninspired soft white buns.  There are some tasty exceptions such as pan de yuca but rare is the dark crusty loaf with character.

So I set out in blind faith that I would be able to create something wholesome, tasty, and a reflection of what is locally available.  Butter for shortcrust was close to impossible to find on the coast as well as simple things like dish towels or baskets for proofing.  And forget about a baking stone or lame!  Here in Cuenca, I've found some staples at the Super Maxi along with promising substitutes for the steam bath method of baking levain.  Flour selection tends to vary by province and climate but I've sourced several that are sure to inspire some new recipes.  

The first loaf I attempted was at a beautiful hostal on the coast in Manglaralto.  Tagua Lodge is run by Luis and his girlfriend Caty who couldn't have been more helpful or accommodating.  With photos of their open-air kitchen and semi-industrial oven, I was itching to put mi Madre to work.  With two handleless pyrex glass pans and a little finger work from Luis, we produced a gorgeous crusty loaf of purple levain laced with caramelized onions.  Everyone at the lodge gathered to nibble, asking many questions about the leavening power of mi Madre.  But soon the humidity of the region set in and the crust softened.  It continued to toast wonderfully though and for several days we feasted on the 2 lb. loaf.   One local farmer who was adept at a type of pineapple mead fermentation was smitten with the process and traded a small container of mi Madre and a tutorial for some fresh veggies.  This was the perfect audience for baked goodies!  An apple galette laced with the tart juices of naranjillo, cinnamon, and ginger followed and didn't last nearly long enough to succumb to the action of the coastal air.  After more than a week, I said a temporary good-bye to Tagua with hopes of returning to harvest yuca from Luis' nearby finca...

Many items can be found in the mercados throughout Ecuador that can be used to create the conditions needed for a good crusty loaf of bread.  Cooking pots and hand woven baskets are in abundance.

Many items can be found in the mercados throughout Ecuador that can be used to create the conditions needed for a good crusty loaf of bread.  Cooking pots and hand woven baskets are in abundance.

Once I arrived in Cuenca, the options widened.  The rotary market was full of ceramic ware that promised to provide an ample and more manageable steam chamber.  Hardware stores were confounded but happy to sell me a large razor blade and the Super Maxi had all kinds of butter at a reasonable price.  I was in business.  

Staying with a young American couple I had found on Airbnb, I was able to use a modern oven much like the one in my own apartment in Brooklyn.  At 8,300 ft, the biggest concerns are dough that can easily overproof.  Higher altitude means lower air pressure, decreased rise times, and very dry air.  But with a few adjustments, I was able to achieve adequate dough strength as well as enough rise time to guarantee a complexity of flavor.   Instead of mixing the levain, water, and flours as my initial step in building dough, I first mixed the flours and water and allowed to autolyze for an hour before adding the levain.  This allowed full hydration of the flour, encouraging gluten development, before the action of the wild yeast and lactic bacteria ever began.  I used a low percentage of levain in the dough itself once mixed which allowed for a slow rise and even an overnight cold retardation.  The naturally slow(er) fermentation from sourdough as opposed to commercial yeast was also on my side.

Handwoven baskets from the local mercado are perfect for proofing bread.  With a 3.5 hour bulk fermentation and an overnight cold retardation, the dough was puffy and ready to be loaded into the clay baker.  

Handwoven baskets from the local mercado are perfect for proofing bread.  With a 3.5 hour bulk fermentation and an overnight cold retardation, the dough was puffy and ready to be loaded into the clay baker.  

My wild cards were two ingredients I had never encountered or used before: pinole and plantain flour.  I combined these with some barley chops and a little honey as well as whole wheat and bread flour.  The result was a delicious and hearty loaf with a touch of sweetness.   I can't wait to play a little more!

Plantain, pinole, barley, whole wheat, and oat bread.  Laced with a little honey, this was a deliciously malty loaf with a thick crust and moist whole grain crumb.  

Plantain, pinole, barley, whole wheat, and oat bread.  Laced with a little honey, this was a deliciously malty loaf with a thick crust and moist whole grain crumb.