During our first few weeks in Cusco, my daughter took Spanish lessons at a school just off the Plaza de Armas. Quite often Patty, her teacher, would take her on walks around the city to learn Spanish through the other senses instead of only her eyes and ears in the classroom. Quite often they’d stop at a small kiosk off the plaza and buy a Doña Pepa candy bar and soon this became a ritual on their daily walks. When my daughter offered me one, I looked askance at the packaged candy covered with sprinkles and said “no thanks.” It was only later that we learned about Doña Pepa and her story.
According to legend, an Afro-Peruvian slave named Josefa Maraminillo lived in the Cañete Valley, south of the Peruvian capital of Lima and went by the name of Doña Pepa. Doña Pepa could not work because of paralysis in her arms so she prayed to the Señor de los Milagros (“Lord of the Miracles”) and traveled to Lima to view that saint's image to supplement her prayers. Allegedly, Doña Pepa was cured of paralysis on the first day of the Señor de los Milagros procession. That night she had a dream that a saint gave her a recipe for a cake. She baked the cake the following day and brought it as an offering to the procession. Since that time Doña Pepa cakes are traditionally eaten each October during the Señor de los Milagros procession.
The cake is also called a Turrón de Doña Pepa, but is different from the Spanish turrón in that it does not contain nougat. The traditional cake is flavored with anise and cane sugar and decorated with sprinkles. The candy bar that my daughter enjoys is basically a two-layered cookie covered in chocolate and dipped in sprinkles, but the wrapper bears the image of Doña Pepa. Sometimes you learn about a country’s culture from the unlikeliest sources. The one sol coin that I gave my daughter each day for her Doña Pepa has turned out to be a good investment.