Saturday, January 19, 2019

SPINNING SQUASH INTO GOLD

Golden angel's hair, an unusual marmalade.

This pot of gold comes from an unusual squash called cidra. Cidra is the Malabar gourd, Cucurbita ficifolia, or “fig-leaf” gourd. In Spain it seems to be grown for only one purpose—the confection of cabello de angel, “angel’s hair,” a golden confiture of candied strands of the squash. Angel’s hair is used as a filling in many traditional pastries. 


Cidra is a type of squash. The flesh is candied to make a filling for typical Spanish pastries.

These empanadillas are filled with cabello de angel, angel's hair made of candied squash.

I used to grow cidra as a decorative object. I once had a row of five of them on a shelf, each slightly different in striations and shapes. Edible sculpture. However, if I wanted to make a Spanish recipe, such as the filling for empanadillas, or little pies, I bought the angel’s hair in a can at the supermarket. The recipes for the confiture seemed too arcane: “use only a cidra that has aged” (I still don’t know why, nor how long is “aged”); “use a hatchet to break it open” or “crack it open by dropping it on the floor.”

Now that I’ve actually made angel’s hair, I can divulge the secrets of cidra. It indeed has a tough hide, like leather. This is probably why it has an extremely long “shelf life.” I was able to pierce it with a knife and prise it open. But, hey, if dropping it on the floor works, go for it.

Traditional recipes for cidra call for cooking the squash in a pot of water for up to an hour. Perhaps the microwave would work—as it does beautifully for spaghetti squash? Yes! The cidra needed only 12 minutes to become tender enough to shred.

But, no, cidra is not the same as spaghetti squash, which is a cultivar of Cucurbita pepo. (I still can’t say if spaghetti squash would work in the confection of angel’s hair. I intended to settle the issue, but my home-grown spaghetti squash turned out to be a butternut mutant and did not separate into strands.)  And, although the name "cidra" is also used in South America to designate the chayote (see last week’s blog for a photo of that green cucurbita), the Malabar gourd is different from chayote.

The threads of squash pulp cook with lots of sugar, lemon zest and cinnamon.

Sauteed al ajillo (with garlic).

I can tell you that cidra is the most tasteless food I have ever tried! No wonder it has to be candied with a huge quantity of sugar. I experimented with the cooked cidra in a savory dish, sauteeing it in olive oil with sliced garlic, al ajillo. Meh.

Old recipes for angel’s hair call for an equal weight of the pulp and sugar. I decreased the sugar, using 75 percent of the weight of the pulp.



If preserving the angel's hair, use sterile jars. (Pictured is the yield of one cidra.)

In the traditional kitchen, the angel’s hair is preserved in jars for use all year long. If you intend to do this, use the full weight of sugar. Place the hot confiture in sterile jars and process them in a boiling water bath. Or, freeze it.

Like marmalade, angel's hair is good on breakfast toast.

What am I going to use the angel’s hair for? I’m trying to decide between several pastries. Meanwhile, the kids used it like marmalade, as a topping for breakfast toast. They think it would be good on a peanut butter sandwich. I’m thinking it would be nice with mild queso fresco, fresh white goat’s cheese.

Angel’s Hair Confiture (Candied Squash)
Cabello de Angel (Cidra Confitada)

Spun gold.

Cinnamon and lemon zest are the traditional additions to this confiture. If you like candied lemon peel, you might prefer to shred the lemon zest finely and mix with the strands of squash rather than remove the strip of zest after cooking.

After cooking and draining the squash pulp, weigh it. Use ¾ of the weight in sugar. I had 670 grams of pulp; 75 percent of that weight was 500 grams of sugar. Measured by volume, it was 2½ cups of squash and 2 ½ cups of sugar.

1 Malabar gourd, squash (cidra)
Sugar
Cinnamon stick
Strip of lemon zest
3 tablespoons lemon juice

Before cooking, the flesh of the cidra is very white, stringy around the seeds, solid inside the skin. Seeds are mainly black, but little transparent ones run through the stringy bits of flesh. After cooking, the rim of flesh inside the skin will separate into strands.
Wash the squash and split it open. Divide in halves or quarters. Remove as many seeds as possible. 

Place the squash, cut side down, on a plate and cover with a microwave-safe vented lid. Microwave on high for 6 minutes. Leave the squash in the microwave for 5 minutes. Turn it cut side up. Cover and microwave for 6 minutes. Leave it 5 minutes before opening. 

Use forks or fingers to separate the flesh from the shell. Separate the flesh into strands. 
When the squash is cool enough to handle, scoop the flesh out of the shell. Use a fork to separate it into strands, discarding any remaining seeds. Cut away the knob of flesh at the stem end. Place the shredded squash in a colander and let it drain for 60 minutes. 

Weigh the pulp. Use ¾ the weight of sugar. Place the squash and sugar in a heavy pot with the cinnamon stick and lemon zest. Add the lemon juice. Stir to combine sugar and squash strands. Allow to sit 30 minutes.

The pulp of the squash cooks with sugar, cinnamon and lemon zest until thickened into marmalade. In this photo, the mixture has just begun to cook. 
Bring the sugar and squash to a boil. Reduce heat to medium so the mixture bubbles gently. Cook, stirring frequently, until the liquid is cooked away, the squash is a pale gold and thick like jam or marmalade. (Depending on quantity and heat level, this can take 60 minutes or more.)

Remove cinnamon and zest. Ladle the angel’s hair into hot, sterile jars and seal. (Or, if freezing, allow to cool before packing in plastic freezer containers.)





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