Several years ago I had the opportunity to return to my homeland - Venezuela – for a trip full of adventure. So much adventure, in fact, that what was supposed to be a 3-week trip turned into a 6-month stay.
The majority of the 6 months, I lived with my Uncle Licho and Aunt Sonia in the city of Margarita, an island located on the northeastern coast of Venezuela, in the Caribbean Sea. It is also known as "The Pearl of the Caribbean" due to its beautiful beaches and landscapes.
Uncle Licho, or "Papi" as we call him, is a man full of love, who enjoys good company, good food. He is funny, loves his family, and helps anyone in need. Aunt Sonia is a cheerful and intelligent woman who likes to have a cup of coffee in the afternoon, and enjoys reading. Her laugh is contagious - my dad says that I look a lot like her, and when I laugh out loud he always jokes saying, "Sonia, is that you? It sounds like Sonia just walked into the room!"
As retired teachers, my aunt and uncle gave love, knowledge and values to generations, and they are a treasure to me.
During my Venezuela visit, months passed; and I kept extending my time. Before I knew it, December had arrived, and as a lover of everything Christmas, I asked my aunt about her Christmas tree. She took me to the room where the boxes of decorations were. Everything was so beautiful!
She told me that in past years my cousins would set it up, but they were so busy this year that they probably were not going to be able to do it. So, as I was taking all the boxes out of the room and dusting off the ornaments, I happily volunteered to set it up while listening to Venezuelan gaitas - folk music of the state of Zulia.
After a few hours, with the help of my aunt and my nephew, Luis, Christmas had officially arrived! We had lights throughout the entrance of the house, the enormous tree was full of flashing lights and ornaments, and Christmas music was jovially streaming in the background. It was so sweet to see my niece, face aglow, jumping with excitement when she saw the lights on the tree.
My brother Jorge and his wife Evita, had been planning to travel to Venezuela from Mexico for their honeymoon that Christmas. They wanted to spend a few weeks on the island visiting my uncle and aunt, relaxing on the beach. My being there was not a part of their plans. My being there wasn’t part of my plans either, but because of the change in circumstances, we met on the island.
But it wasn’t only my presence that was unplanned. My older brother, José and his family, decided to travel to Margarita to join us as well! My cousin Carlos, who traveled from another port, also came to visit and spend time with us … at the end of the day the house was packed with family! My uncle's house was filled with excitement and laughter. We were so happy to be together after so many years ... Well, most of us were happy - we ruined my brother and his wife’s much-desired honeymoon. hehe
It was one of the best, most memorable Christmases of my life (though, to this day, I still feel a little guilty for interrupting their honeymoon ... someday I will make it up to them).
In the excitement of all the preparations and last-minute changes, I realized that nothing else mattered in the moment. All we really wanted was to spend time together.
We planned dinner - José would make hallacas, a type of “tamal” that is eaten during Christmas in Venezuela. [Note to self: Get José’s hallacas recipe!] My aunt made “pernil” (tenderloin), and my cousin made chicken salad.
I offered to make bread.
For years living outside of Venezuela, the nostalgia of my country’s Christmas season often hit me hard. So during one of those intense nostalgic moments, I learned how to make “Pan de Jamon” (Venezuelan Christmas bread), looking for recipes everywhere, until I created something my own.
If you are familiar with world news, you may know that Venezuela has been going through a lot for several years now.
We tried to navigate through the crisis that, but were unable to find many of the ingredients we needed, including yeast, milk, ham, bacon (everything for bread! Haha). But with the joy that characterizes my family, nothing stopped the celebration and our determination to have a good time. My cousins Carlos and Luis, were so upbeat, constantly making jokes, sweetening the time of the search for ingredients, with a humor that lifted our spirits. My cousins Ailec and Freyja moved land and sea to get the ingredients, and they actually found them!
My sister-in-law Carmen, who at that time worked in a bakery in my hometown, managed to buy some yeast from a baker friend. Though she couldn’t join us for the dinner (because of her work in the bakery), she was able to send us a little bit of yeast to make the bread. It was the most precious yeast my hands have ever touched! That bread had a touch of Carmencita.
Some say that the best things in life happen when you least expect them. Just like that Christmas. Deep down in my heart, I believe that time was planned in heaven for us. It was spontaneous, full of laughter, fun, and great memories.
Now when I think about Christmas, I start baking that bread, and I remember that special time with my family. That time of celebration when we all took little pieces of ourselves to create magical moments in the midst of difficulties. It was unforgettable!
So, here is my recipe for "Venezuela Christmas Bread,” which is a bread filled with the flavor of Christmas.
For those who do not like raisins or olives, I have made this bread with only ham and bacon, and substituted the raisins and olives with cream cheese and it was delicious. Also, turkey is a good substitution for ham.
If you are Venezuelan reading this from a different part of the world, enjoy this recipe, I hope it raises your spirit. If you are not Venezuelan, and this is the first time you’ve heard of this bread, try to make it! It would be a delicious addition to your Christmas dinner.
Merry Christmas everybody!
PAN DE JAMON - VENEZUELAN CHRISTMAS BREAD
3 tablespoons yeast, either dry or paste (45 grams)
1/2 cup warm water
1 teaspoon of sugar
1 pound of flour (1/2 kilo or 4 cups)
3 tablespoons of sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup warm milk (8 tablespoons)
A handful of flour, to flour the table/counter/kneading area
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 pound sliced ham (1 kilo)*
10 1/2 ounces of bacon (300grams)
3 1/2 ounces of olives (100grams) cut in halves.
3/4 cup raisins
*Though the recipe calls for ham, turkey is a great substitute.
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon of sugar
1. Place the yeast, warm water and teaspoon of sugar in a small container. Lightly stir and cover, letting it sit in a place with no airflow for about 30 minutes.
2. On a clean, large table or counter space, pour flour into a pile, and poke a hole in the top, creating a volcano. Pour the yeast mixture into the top of flour volcano. Add the butter and egg, and using your hands, slowly mix the liquids with the flour, until the consistency is smooth and not very sticky.
3. Make the dough into a ball and place in a wide floured container, cover it with a towel and let it rest in a place without drafts for 2-3 hours - I leave it inside an unheated oven. During this process, the dough will double its size, so it is important to place it in a sufficiently large container so it will have space to expand.
4. After the rest time has lapsed, the dough should have doubled in size. Place dough on a floured surface and knead with your hands for about a minute. Using a floured roller, push and extend the dough using the weight of your body to create a rectangle around 30x50cm (12x20 inches), with a uniform thickness of half a centimeter (1/4 inch).
It doesn't have to be perfect, but try to get as close to the shape as you can.
5. Spread the ham on top of the dough, and place the olives and bacon in perpendicular lines next to the shorter sides of the rectangle - I like to place it in strips - that way I ensure that all the pieces of bread will have some bacon and olives.
6. Spread the raisins all over the surface
and roll from one end of the rectangle, tightly rolling into a large “Swiss Roll”-like, or “Gypsy Arm” log.
Once completely rolled, seal the edge with a little water and flour. Do the same with the ends and any other opening there may be.
7. Carefully place the bread, with ends closed and sealed, in a greased and floured tray, or covered with baking paper (parchment paper). Make sure the line where the dough joins is below the roll.
8. With a fork, carefully make small perforations around the bread and some on the top. This will help that during the baking of the bread, so it does not lose its shape and allows air ventilation.
9. Cover the bread with a towel and let it rest in a covered place, without drafts - I leave it inside an unheated oven - for 3 to 4 hours.
10. After the resting time. The bread will have increased in size. Remove the bread from the oven. Preheat the oven to 400ºF (200ºC).
11. Once the oven has reached the desired temperature, place the pan with the bread for 20 minutes.
12. Meanwhile, lightly beat (Varnish ingredients) egg yolk and sugar.
13. After 20 minutes of baking, remove the tray from the oven. Brush the entire surface of the bread with the mixture of the egg wash. If you do not have a brush, you can improvise with a piece of thick napkin, taking care that it does not leave any paper napkin residue on the surface of the bread. Once the surface is covered with the egg wash, put the bread back in the oven for 5 more minutes.
14. Remove the bread from the oven and insert a toothpick or knife on one side to ensure it is cooked thoroughly - if the toothpick comes out clean, the bread is ready.
15. Let cool slightly before serving.
Bon Appetit and Feliz Navidad!
Make this recipe and share your experience with us through #johastable
More Christmas recipes? Check Joha's perfect turkey recipe!