In a popular Costa Rican children's story, the kind most Costa Ricans know by heart, a mouse accidentally falls into a steaming pot of arroz con leche - all because he used the wrong stirring spoon. As a little girl, the image of a giant pot of one of my favorite desserts, made me hungry.
And to me, you can't have a proper Costa Rican meal without dessert; a decadent flan or a couple of empanadas are the perfect ending to a satisfying meal. What's odd about desserts is that they're not what most visitors would think of when they're asked about Latin American food (or Costa Rican food, in this case). Savory dishes, such as the gallo pinto or the chifrijo, are usually in everyone's top of mind.
But, I insist, desserts are sacred... and very sweet. And that's the word I'd use to describe them all. Whether it's a creamy custard, a fruit-filled pastry or a cake, they will all give you a generous fix of sugar.
Costa Rica, like other Latin American nations, has created a wide range of desserts, pastries, breads and candies. We definitely have a sweet tooth! Yet most of these desserts are, as food writer and chef Roberto Santibañez notes, "pretty basic at the core". They incorporate native ingredients, such as tropical fruits and local spices, with European baking techniques.
Chef Doris Goldgewicht has a very good collection of Costa Rican desserts, which are featured in her book Sin secretos. We’ve gathered some of the classics for you to have a taste of traditional Costa Rican sweets.
Cinnamon and Rice Torte
In the old times, this kind of torte was given as a wedding cake.
- 4 cups of rice, previously cooked with a pinch of salt
- 5 eggs
- 1 cup fresh orange juice
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup vegetable oil
- 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
- 1/2 cup raisins
- Dash of salt
Soak raisins in orange juice and vanilla. Mix all ingredients and transfer to a greased baking dish. Bake in a 350 F oven for approximately 50 minutes.
Black Coconut Cajetas
- 2 raw sugar cane blocks
- 1 stick of cinnamon
- 2 cloves
- Pinch of salt
- 2 cups of water
- 5 cups of fresh peeled, coarsely grated coconut
- Lemon zest
Cut sugar cane blocks into pieces and cook with water in a heavy pan. Add cinnamon, cloves and salt. Boil until dissolved. Mix coconut and lemon zest, stirring occasionally until the liquid has evaporated. Transfer to a greased baking pan and cool. Cut into pieces.
Carrot and Apple Chutney
- 2 tbsp. lemon juice
- Apple sauce or baby food
- 4 carrots, peeled and grated
- Salt and pepper
- 1/3 cup cashews
Cook all ingredients together for about 30 minutes at medium heat. Correct seasoning. Serve hot, with meat dishes.
Coconut, Cheese and Coffee Custard
- 1 1/2 cups of "dulce de leche"
- 1 1/2 cups evaporated milk
- 8 oz. cream cheese at room temperature
- 6 eggs
- 150 gr.grated coconut (best if fresh)
- 2 tsp vanilla
- 2 tsp very strong coffee
- 1 oz coffee liqueur
- 1 1/3 cups water
- 1 cup water
Preheat the oven at 350 and fill a large pan with hot water. Cook water and sugar until it thickens and changes color. Carefully transfer to the baking pan. Set aside to cool. Beat cheese and sugar, add eggs and remaining ingredients. Pour in the prepared baking dish. Bake in "bain de marie" until it's firm to touch. Remove from heat, allow to cool and refrigerate for at least 12 hours or until cool. Unmold onto a nice platter.
- 12 green mangoes, peeled
- 1 to 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- Pinch of salt
Cut mangoes in cubes and cover them with water. Add sugar, cinnamon, salt and cloves. Cook until mixture is soft and syrupy.
Plantains in Syrup
- 6 very ripe plantains (it's important they look dark on the outside)
- 2 sticks of butter
- 1 2/3 cup of brown sugar
- 2 tsp vanilla
Fry plantain slices in margarine until brown. Cook sugar, water, add vanilla and fried plantains. Cook on medium heat until the mixture turns caramel.
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