Saturday was my friend Sky’s birthday party. We celebrated with lots of karaoke and a vegan feijoada prepared by her best bud Marcela and me. Feijoada is a Brazilian feast that features black beans, rice, various salads, and a huge platter of MEAT. (Guess which part we left out.)
The preparations began a few days ago, when Marcela emailed me with the idea and I ran to my bookshelf and pulled out my 1968 edition Latin American Cooking by Time Life Books.
Elegant Brazilian Ladies enjoy a feijoada completa.
I remembered there was an entire section on feijoada, because of the picture above. This image had made a big impression on me because I’d bought the book right after freshman year of college/Latin American Sociology 101, where I’d learned all about the brutal military dictatorships and economic disparity of that era. So I always narrowed my eyes a little at these fun loving, aristocratic ladies. It’s funny to think back on it now.
One winter break later, I visited my sister who was studying abroad at the University of Sao Paulo. We paid a visit to her friend Thais’ family in Rio, who had a terrace just like the one above where we welcomed the year 2000 with lots of dancing, triple kisses (one on each cheek is NOT ENOUGH), and a feijoada – just like the one in the book.
Since I was vegetarian, my favorites were maioneise (mai-yo-nay-zee), a Brazilian potato salad with peas and egg; and vinagrete (vee-nay-gret-chee), a Brazilian condiment that is similar to pico de gallo. Their names were also so darn cute and fun to say.
The plan for the party was that I would make Sky’s birthday cake on Thursday. On Friday, after dinner with Sky’s parents, Marcela and I would make the beans, vegan maioneise and mango vinagrete. On Saturday we would finish up- Marcela with the rice, and me with my Colombiana touch: tostones and maduros (savory and sweet fried plantains). The party would start at 3:30pm and at some point we would throw some fish and pineapple skewers on the grill.
One Brazilian…one Colombian…a Latin feast. As the day of the party approached – like a size 2 dress on a size 6 mamasota dancing samba – the seams of our tidy little plan began to unravel.
On Saturday morning, I woke with a start around 9:15am and fumbled around for something/anything to wear on my muffin delivery. I’d had 2 hours of sleep.
Friday’s “dinner” had turned into dinner and drinks, followed by vodka shots at Florent, plus afterparty for me and Marcela at NuBlu, where her bf was shooting a video.
By the time we arrived back at my apartment, I’d sobered up and was catching a second wind, which was fortunate because we were about 36 hours behind schedule on the feijoada front. We chopped until dawn, and Marcela went home with my big black soup pot full of presoaked beans, the chopped veggies, and the finished vinagrete. Then I made muffins.
After making the delivery it was time to start the cake. I was so preoccupied I almost didn’t notice my phone ring. It was Marcela.
“Anita, something bad happened.” Her voice quivered softly. “The beans burned.”
I laughed for a second, on reflex. “All of it?” I said, regaining composure. The thing about beans is, if you burn even the bottom, the whole pot will taste of it and becomes inedible. I’d forgotten to tell her that my soup pot was thin on the bottom, so you had to keep the heat low and stir a lot.
Now it was too late to start a new batch; we didn’t have a night, or even an hour, for the beans to soak. So the two of us, both sleep deprived and at a loss for words, decided to brainstorm individually and touch base in 30 minutes.
Well, at least I wouldn’t burn the cake, right?
At Sky’s request, I was making the same vegan chocolate cake I’d prepared for Jean’s birthday- probably the best chocolate cake I’ve ever made. This time, I planned to top it with a coconut compote. I’d remembered the coconut but forgotten the coconut milk that the recipe (from Cook’s Illustrated) called for, so I used soymilk. The cake went in the oven and I cleaned up.
Some other missing items could not be overlooked, i.e. potatoes for the potato salad. And I needed to buy bananas and apples for Sunday’s muffins. There was no way I’d have the time or patience to hack apart a coconut for the cake, so I needed something to replace that, too.
My local Brooklyn vegetable stand is the last place you are likely to find me on a Saturday afternoon, but there I was, pushing my way through the mayhem, interrupting the latest chispe (gossip) between neighborhood ladies so I could reach the sweetest pineapple before it was snatched up. On a stroller gridlock detour, I noticed some luscious peaches on sale, so I grabbed some for topping the cake. By the time I got back, it was almost 4pm.
I packed everything, cleaned myself up, and headed over to Sky and Marcela’s. When I arrived, I was happy to see that everyone else was late, too. And, to my surprise, there was a pot of BEANS on the stove, simmering away and filling the room with a wonderful aroma! I don’t know how, but Marcela had worked her carioca magic and done it. We celebrated with my first karaoke song of the evening. (Can’t remember which…Jungle Love??)
Spirits lifted, I got to work assembling the cake. But it had suffered in transit. One of the layers was crumpled on the side. And my tofu cream cheese frosting was not coming together properly. It was too liquidy and no amount of confectioner’s sugar could fix it. Marcela passed me a box of tapioca starch. I dumped some in and stirred. Nothing happened, so I stuck it in the fridge and started chopping the peaches. Halfway done, I checked the frosting. Still liquid. I transferred the mixture to a pot, set it on the stove, and went back to my peaches- which got tossed with some cinnamon and Bacardi Citron rum.
A few minutes later, a burning smell had me running back to the stove. The mixture had solidified into a gooey disk that was completely brown on the bottom. But it smelled wonderful, like toasted marshmellows. I stirred until the brown bits were incorporated into the goo, and set it aside to cool. Marcela and I tasted it, and could not help but laugh. it tasted yummy.
For some reason (probably the soymilk), the cake layers were not holding together. The more I moved them, the more they crumbled. By the time I had spread the marshmellow goo between them, and topped the whole mess with peaches, it looked more like alien afterbirth than cake.
Poor Sky had been looking forward to her birthday cake ever since March…so I did something desperate to save my ass, and my reputation as a baker. I fished a casserole dish out of the cupboard, slid the “cake” off the plate into it, and – much to the astonishment of everyone in the kitchen – mixed the cake, goo, and peaches together with my hands. I smooshed it flat and even, sprinkled slivered almonds on top, and shoved it in the fridge.
By that time, Marcela had a bowl of beans and rice waiting for me. She had prepared the beans in a traditional-meets-modern way, by frying some of the beans with the peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic and cilantro, then smashing it to a paste and adding it back to the pot of beans. For convenience and time’s sake, she used a blender for this step. This resulted in a creamy sauce that enveloped the beans with flavor. The fluffy cashew and rasin studded rice added a sweet touch and soaked up the sauce nicely.
I assembled the potato salad and had some with a second helping of rice and beans. By that time, some of the first latecomers had arrived and the karaoke was underway. I took a break to join in the fun before making the tostones.
We busted out the mango vinagrete, which went fast because it packed a peppery punch, a perfect match for the beans and the tostones.
In the end, the maduros were put on indefininte hold. The fish got marinated but never made it out of the fridge, let alone onto the grill. There was a birthday “trifle” instead of a birthday cake, but once everyone tried it…well, I think cakes are going to go the way of the dodo here in East Williamsburg. Even my harshest critic (me) had to agree that it was amazing.
Sky blows out the candles on her birthday trifle
Most importantly, the birthday girl was happy, and loved the party. I even hear there are some leftovers waiting for me, but I may have to sing for my supper!
*Stay tuned for a recipe from this post!*
Thanks to Tarek and Sky for the pictures.