In the kitchen with Michael

Our friend Doña Mila, who runs a store up on the Paseo de los Cañaris with her husband Manuel, is one of the sweetest women we know. We’ve been customers for years – mostly buying bananas, mineral water and beer – though they sell everything from shampoo to candy to stale bread to fresh chickens, which she chops up on a counter in the back. The store is deep and dark, and they never seem to turn on lights during the day, to save money, I suppose. Doña Mila (“me-la”) always gives us a hug when we come to Cañar in January, and when we leave in July. If it’s a holiday she often gives us warm tamales or, during Holy Week, a pot of fanesca, the elaborate, rich soup made of twelve ingredients (representing the 12 apostles, some say) made of grains, legumes, cereals, and dried salted fish called bacalao. (That’s Doña Mila on the right.)

mila in store

There is a bench in the front of the store, where it opens onto the street, just behind the ice cream cooler, where passersby can take a seat, buy a shot of Zhumir or soft drink, and shoot the breeze with Manuel. The couple live in the rooms above the store.

the store + house

On 9/11, we were living a block away, on the Paseo de los Cañaris. Early that day, when Michael went to buy something, Manuel motioned for him to come into the back of their store, behind the counter and into a back room. A television with CNN en Español was broadcasting the twin towers in flames. Michael came home to tell me what he had seen, and in the course of the day he or I made trip after trip down the block to their store to stare at the same images on the screen. That was the day we became friends.

Manuel in store(When I complemented Manuel on his sombrero, he said, “Next time, bring me a hat from the U.S.!)

Mila and Manuel are mestizos, from the town center but originally poor, which makes them more like the country people, or the campesinos who make up the bulk of their customers, along with the indigenous folks who pass by on the way in and out of town. The distinction is important. Doña Mila told me that as a young married couple they rented a small store on the Paseo near the Pan American. Then a compadre offered to sell them land further along the Paseo to have their own place. As they prospered, they built the store and house and bought three hectarias (about seven acres) of land nearby to grow crops: potatoes, corn, peas, and a garden for the family.

For a long time Michael has wanted to do something to return their kindness, and the opportunity arose when Mila asked him to teach her how to make a torta de guineo, or banana cake. She offered to bring the ingredients, but wanted to have the baking session it at our house because, she said, we have the right type of cake pan. (I also suspect she wanted to see our kitchen.)  Mila brought a bag of bananas to add to our own. This pile costs about 50 cents in the Sunday market.

plate of bananas

Michael checks his recipe, covered with oil and flour and stains and creases, from many years of banana cakes; they figured heavily in my first book when M. made a pastel de guineo for any occasion.

M. checks recipe

Michael and Mila are making two cakes today – one for her to take home and one for us and our weekend guests. At first all Mila wants to do is look around the kitchen and out the windows at the view, our back land, our garden and comment on everything. I hadn’t realized this is her first time in the kitchen. But Michael is intent on moving things along…and I hear him saying, a little urgently, “now you put three eggs in the blender…”

adding ingredients

By the second cake, he’s got Mila attention, and she’s working:

Doña Mila adds bananas

Then it’s into the oven and wait an hour. Michael shows Mila how to check the temperature by sticking his hand in the oven. I make tea and ask Mila about her family:

They have three children. Their son, Fernando, an early migrant to the U.S., has been in el norte for twenty-five years. In that time he has returned to Cañar only three times. Doña Mila said he is married to an americana, has a American daughter, and is a US citizen.  They’ve never met their granddaughter because her mother is afraid to let her come visit. Mila and Manuel’s two married daughters live nearby, both proprietors of small shops selling school supplies and sundries.

OK, looks like at the first cake is about ready…checking doneness

Mila’s cake it out and ready to take home. I ask for one last photo of the two bakers:

finished cake

And for those of you who would like to try this at home:

Mike’s Famous Banana Cake

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a rectangular or springform loaf pan.

In a large bowl, mix well 1 ½  cups white flour and 1 heaping T of baking power.

In a blender: Lightly blend three whole eggs; Add 4 medium-sized bananas, broken up. Blend. Add 1/4 cup milk and ½ cup sugar. Blend. Add ½ t. ground nutmeg, ½ t. ground cinnamon, ½ t. salt and ½ cup good vegetable oil (preferably sunflower).

Blend everything well. Add liquid to the flour mixture and stir just enough to make smooth. Fold in 1/3 cup chopped walnuts, and 1/3 cup raisins  chopped nuts + raisins

Pour mixture into baking pan and bake for about 1 hour, checking with toothpick or straw. When it comes out clean, cake is ready. Keeps fresh for about one week.






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15 thoughts on “In the kitchen with Michael

  1. Yum Yum! And lucky you that Michael likes to cook/bake!! Think I’ll wait til winter tho when I once again use the oven. It’s getting too hot in Phoenix for baking. Always fun to hear of your adventures. Enjoy rest of your time there – looks absolutely beautiful.

  2. C’mon guys. I want the truth. Is the banana cake as amazing as Michael’s orange cake?????
    BTW, I tried the orange cake recipe here in Montreal, and it was not nearly as delicious. Do you think altitude of 12,000 or so helps??? Probably it was Michael’s special alchemy – untransferable.
    Bon voyage en France et Espagne! Ecris un mot d’Urdos, s’il vous plait.

  3. Michael,
    Thanks for sharing the recipe. My mother used to make it but I have never tried. I will try to make the torta tomorrow.

  4. different quality of photos – crisp, clear – almost magazine-like! Was it a new filter or lens or just the lighting indoors? love the vivid colors too. Portland perfect weather this weekend – garden is just about in – hiking Catherine Creek tomorrow across from Hood River on the WA side of the gorge. Supposed to be wild-flower area. Will still have to do Dog Mt. (UGH of a hike, but worth the torture for the view!)
    Heading to a meeting in Cancun mid-may (wish it was somewhere more off the beaten track in Yucatan…), then home and back to Costa Rica for meeting first week of June. That will wrap up my travels until fall. Job is great – really loving it. Sending hugs and wish the smell of banana cake was wafting in my kitchen!

  5. What a great story! I’d make the cake today if I had an oven. It looks delicious. I can see that you’ve become great friends with Mila. She has a wonderful face, full of life. And that kitchen….

  6. A beautiful story, Judy – and a great recipe to boot! Mil gracias, xoxoJoanne

  7. Thank you for the story and the recipe! I’m usually not a big fan of banana bread, but this looks delicious and I’m going to try it. It is a shame that they don’t get to see their son more often and that they have never met their grand-child. I hope they do one day.

  8. Que delicia! ya me gustaría estar ahí para saborear esa torta de banana. Le daré la receta a mi madre para que me haga una! Gracias por compartirlo. Un abrazo para Judy y Michael

  9. Is there no sort of local cake that uses bananas? I notice Mike has a thermometer in one cake – what temp is done? Thanks for the window into your kitchen. xo

  10. M. says: 185 degrees. And no, the local folks don’t make banana cakes, or any kind of pastry with bananas, that I know of. Most people don’t have ovens.

  11. Come around next Semana Santa, and you’ll find it everywhere. (The truth is, I find it too heavy and I’m not fond of the flavor of the dried fish.)

  12. Thanks for the recipe. You can’t go wrong with banana cake. I spice mine up with chocolate chunks when available, as they make it in Guatemala.

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