Delicious Picarones

One of our family’s Cusco traditions is to go out for picarones, which are deep-fried, donut-shaped treats with molasses drizzled over them. Though not the healthiest snack in the world, they are delicious. A week ago, we invited another American expat family to join us at our favorite picaroneria and they loved them as well. Their young daughter, who was falling asleep after a long day, rallied when she took her first bite. We all watched her as extreme fatigue dueled with overpowering sweetness, creating what looked like a 4-year old devouring a picarone while fast asleep.

Picarones, a popular dessert in Peru and other Andean countries, are made from squash and sweet potato, along with flour, eggs, yeast and spices. They are sweetened with miel de chancaca (chancaca honey), a sweet sauce made of raw cane sugar. They are frequently paired with anticuchos (marinated meat on skewers) and are often served during the month of October during the procession of Señor de los Milagros. Picarones were created during the colonial period to replace buñuelos, which were too expensive to make. People started replacing traditional buñuelos ingredients with squash and sweet potato and the new dessert rapidly increased in popularity throughout the Andes.

Just as the Incas imported their creation myth and religious traditions from Lake Titicaca, this tradition of ours originated there as well. Coming back from our Bolivian vacation, my wife and daughter decided to visit the Titicaca islands of Taquile and Amantani, while my son and I headed straight back to Cusco. They were hiking to the top of Amantani to see the sunset and some Pre-Inca ruins when they saw a stone cottage with “picarones” written on a chalkboard in front. It was cold, windy and getting dark and the fire inside was inviting. They sat down at one of the two tables and ordered the only two things on the menu: picarones and hot chocolate. They watched the lady knead the dough and place it in the cast-iron skillet filled with hot cooking oil. After frying it, she set them on a plate and drizzled molasses on them. When my wife and daughter returned and recounted the highlights of the trip to the islands, picarones were high on the list.

Shortly thereafter, I discovered our favorite picaroneria in Cusco while walking home from work. The shop is on a corner with a large vat of hot cooking oil right near the door. Inside there are five tables and the back wall is dominated by a large photo of a smiling woman with blue eyes and too much make-up biting into a picarone. Three ladies work there: one kneads the dough, one woman fries it and the other takes orders. While close to San Blas and the Plaza de Armas there seems to be many Cusqueños frequenting this place, a Peruvian version of a blue-collar donut shop in the U.S. For me, this comparison was reinforced about a month ago when a policeman walked in and ordered a dozen picarones to go. Some things transcend borders.

Recipe for Picarones:

Ingredients for picarones:
/2 kg (1 lb) of peeled sweet potatoes
1/2 kg (1 lb) of peeled buttercup squash
1/2 kg (1 lb) of flour
3 tablespoons of yeast
2 stick cinnamons
4 cloves
2 tablespoons of aniseed
3 tablespoons of sugar
A pinch of salt
2 eggs, slightly beaten
Vegetable oil

Ingredients for the chancaca honey:
1/2 kg (1 lb) of chancaca
1 cup of brown sugar
4 cloves
2 stick cinnamons
2 pieces of orange peel
4 cups of water

Chancaca honey: Cut the chancaca in pieces, put them in a pot and add sugar, cloves, cinnamon, orange peel and water. Boil until it gets a little thick (200º F, 110º C), more or less for 20-25 minutes. Strain.

Picarones: Boil in a pot a lot of water with the cinnamon, cloves and aniseeds for 10 minutes. Strain. In this water, cook the sweet potatoes and the squash. When they’re ready, take them out from the pot and strain. Keep back 2 cups of water and let it cool down.
In a bowl, mix the yeast with this 2 cups of water and the sugar. Go down for 15 minutes.
Mix the sweet potatoes and the squash making a purée. Add the salt, the yeast mix and the eggs, beating and mixing good. Add the flour while you continue beating with energy. You must get a soft and elastic pastry and it mustn’t get stuck to your fingers. Go down for 1 hour or until the preparation doubles its volume.
Heat a lot of vegetable oil in a big frying pan. Moisten your hand in water with salt, take the pastry and let it fall in the hot oil forming a ring. Let them get brown and turn over.
Usually, the portion is 3 picarones topped with miel de chancaca.

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