In Venezuela, our big celebration is usually on Christmas Eve where families get together, many times bringing food made at home or bought. They set the table, and for those who are religious they sit down to eat around the schedule of Midnight Mass-or Misa de Gallo– either before or after church.
The central dish is the hallacas. This tamale-style food is a meat stew covered in corn dough and wrapped in banana leaves. However, it almost always is accompanied by several items: chicken and potato salad or ensalada de gallina, pernil or roasted pork which usually consists of the shoulder or leg quarters, jamón planchado or sweet sliced ham covered in syrup and pineapple slices, pan de jamón-a stuffed bread with ham, olives, raisins and bacon-and in some cases a roasted turkey.
There is also an assortment of desserts with many influences. Families of Italian descent will add one or two sweets from Italy such as the pannetone which is a fluffy, sweet bread filled with fruits and raisins. Families of Spanish descent will not miss one of many assorted turrón, which is a sweet combination of almonds, white eggs, honey and waffles, usually as hard as candy or toffee. More traditional households termed criollas (native) would make a desert based of chunks of sweetened papaya which is cooked with papelón (sugar cane molasses) and cinnamon.
In our home we prepare our the traditional quesillo, and although its name literally means “little cheese” it has no cheese at all. It is a type of flan; however, a bit more firm. Quesillo is made of milk, condensed sweetened milk, eggs, and vanilla and is cooked slowly at a low temperature in the oven in a bath of water to avoid overcooking. The mold has been covered with hardened, homemade caramel. Our family puts a secret ingredient which gives the quesillo an extra kick.
This dinner also has a myriad of drinks which include wine, rum, beer, whiskey, fruit punch, or plain soda drinks. But perhaps the most famous is Ponche Crema, a type of eggnog (made of condensed milk, eggs, and rum) that is almost as well known among Venezuelans as the hallacas. Ponche Crema is also the brand name of the drink and is exported commonly to Miami, Madrid, and many other places.
Along the table there are other side dishes to picar (munch on) before, during, and after dinner. Olives of all colors, nuts, chocolates, raisins, and other dried fruits such as prunes, figs and dates are among the many dishes that can be served. Of course chips are a more recent addition, and depending of the taste of the host, you can find several plates of fruits, cheese with crackers, and breads.
A Christmas table without hallacas is not a Venezuelan Nochebuena Dinner. No matter how rich or poor you are, there is a way to enjoy them: they can be prepared with friends or family, given by relatives or bought pre-made.
And let’s not get hung up on the grammar: hallacas can also be spelled as hayacas. It all depends on the country. “Hay-aca” is believed to come from the Spanish expression meaning “Here there is”; other people would tell the name means “from here and from there” referring to the ingredients that made the food: a meat stew with ingridients from various origins, native to Europe and Latin American, wrapped in a corn dough which in turn is covered with green plantain leaves and boiled in water.
Each family’s recipe is unique, typically passed from mothers to daughters, but sons get to help and learn the secrets of the trade. Hallacas are prepared in groups and are lead by one person who usually gets the rest of the family together for the celebrations.
Venezuelan Hallacas – My family’s Hallacas
Ingredients for the stew:
1. 2-3 lb of fine chopped stew beef
2. 1 to 1-1/2 lb of fine chopped pork meat
3. 1 small jar of capers
4. 32 oz jar gardener’s pickled vegetables
5. 1 cup of raisins
6. 1 cup of green olives
7. 2 leeks, washed and dried
8. 2 bunch of green onions
9. 1 head of garlic peeled
10. 1 green or red chopped pepper
11. Bunch of parsley
12. Bunch of cilantro
13. 2 big onions
14. 2-3 chopped tomatoes
15. 2-3 cups of chicken broth
16. Hot peppers or ají (chili) to taste
17. Salt, seasoning cubes or chicken broth cubes to taste
18. Black pepper
20. Sweet red wine
21. Olive oil
Chop the meats into very small bits, mixing in a portion of 2 parts beef, one part pork, and seasoned to taste. Cut all other ingredients, either in a food processor or by hand, combining all ingredients on the list from 3 to 12 and half of the onions.
In a big, deep frying pan, heat olive oil to sear onions, tomatoes and ají until half cooked then start adding the meat and vegetable mixture in alternating lumps. Use the wine and broth to keep the mixture wet and saucy. Add salt and pepper to taste, sprinkle a bit of sugar too. Once the meat is cooked, turn off heat and let it cool.
When possible, I like to mix the raw meat mixture with half the condiment mix, wine and seasoning, and keep it in the refrigerator overnight to be cooked as above the following day before assembly. The assembly process can last 6 hours or longer, depending on the experience and amount of helpers.
Ingredients for the dough and assembly:
1. 2 packages of pre-cooked corn flour used for arepas (P.A.N. brand preferred)
2. 8-10 cups of chicken broth
3. 1-2 cups of vegetable cooking oil
4. Annatto seeds (achiote) – about 1 cup
6. Thinly sliced red or green peppers (about 2 cups)
7. Sliced onions (about 2 cups)
8. 32 oz jar of olives – without pits
10. Parsley leaves cut in small branches
11. White pealed almonds
12. 1-2 cans of cooked chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
13. Cooked chicken shredded into small size pieces– from cooking the broth
14. Plantains leaves, rinsed with a cloth.
15. Cooking string to tie the plantain leaves wrapping the dough
Assembly of the hallaca:
Once you’re ready to proceed, there are 4 big steps to follow: cook the stew, make the dough, clean the leaves and assemble the hallacas.
Once the stew is cooked, start on the dough. Heat the vegetable cooking oil with onoto (annatto) seeds until the oil turns deep orange/red from the annatto. Add 2/3 of that oil to half the chicken broth, and about 2 cups of water and 1 package of corn flour. Add salt to taste and keep adding more flour, broth, water and oil until achieving a soft consistency that can be molded easily. Separate the dough in fist-size balls and keep them covered with a damp cloth.
Even if you have access to fresh plantains leaves, it is much better using frozen ones. These are usually available at the frozen food section of most supermarkets. Defrost them outside the refrigerator, rinsing them with a clean, damp cloth. Separate the covers by size since you will need to wrap them at least in two layers. Keep them moist by covering them with a damp cloth.
In different containers, place ingredients 6-15 from the assembly list. Arrange people helping with the hallacas to work in stations around these ingredients. In a clean plantain leaf drop some annatto oil and spread the dough very thin, add a big spoonful of stew and a bit of each decorative ingredient from list 6-15; fold the dough with the help of the leaf. Close the hallaca; cover it with another leaf and tie it with several lines of string, finishing with a knot. Once all hallacas are tied, bring them to boil in a big pan with water and salt for about 1 hour. Repeat as needed until all the dough and stew is used. Depending of the size of the leaves, dough and generosity of the assembly line workers, the result would be about 4 to 5 dozen hallacas.
When there is left over dough, is customary to combine some stew and other ingredients and make what is called “bollitos.” Everything is mixed together and wrapped into smaller hallaca size items, tied and boiled in water for about 45 minutes.
Now the tradition is to open a few hallacas from the first batch to taste and try among the cooks, and to share some