One of the things I like the most about setting my stories in a fictional island is the freedom it allows me to worldbuild. I can make some things up, but I can also draw inspiration from the rich Cuban, Dominican and Puerto Rican traditions I’ve grown up with.
In the Dominican Republic, for instance, (and in many other countries in Latin America) supermarkets are flooded around Christmas time with an abundance of Spanish sweets like mazapan, turrón and polvorones.
They, along with assorted nuts (in their shells!), grapes and apples, are a staple at many families’ holiday dinners throughout November and December. I wanted these sweets to be part of Arroyo Blanco’s Christmas traditions, so I included a scene set in a confectioner’s shop in my holiday novella, A Season for Wishes:
Mr. Zapata welcomed them with obvious delight. He’d come to Arroyo Blanco almost thirty years before to visit a distant cousin and had found it so agreeable he’d never returned to his native Spain. He had just come into the front room from the back, holding a tray full of carefully arranged polvorones.
“You’re just in time to try my new recipe,” he said, extending the tray so they could reach it over the counter.
Marcos and Alba each picked one, and their eyes met as they bit into the crumbly shortbread.
Marcos was sure they were remembering the same thing— at the start of the Christmas season, when the aguinaldos began, Marcos’s mother would make a large batch of polvorones and keep them in an enormous glass jar near the entry for carolers. The year they were both eight, they’d taken advantage of a moment in which both his mother and the housemaid were busy with Pablo—who had slammed his fingers in a drawer and was wailing loud enough to wake the dead— to steal the jar and hide under the back porch, where they’d held a contest to see who could eat the most polvorones. Marcos had managed sixteen before his stomach started to ache, but Alba had eaten an impressive twenty eight…and had been promptly sick into the bushes.
The experience hadn’t made either of them adverse to the sweet. Marcos finished his and assured Mr. Zapata that it was the crumbliest, sugariest polvoron he’d ever had, and Alba put in an order for two dozen.
Mr. Zapata beamed and gestured to the display of marzipan figurines. “And have you seen our mazapan?”
They were fashioned into different shapes, some topped with almonds and some without.
“I’ve a few young friends who would like those,” Marcos said, thinking about his cousin’s boys, who would be at his family’s Christmas celebration. “I’ll take twenty, and some penny candy as well.”
Alba requested an assortment and rounded out the order with with several bricks of turrón. As Mr. Zapata started wrapping everything up, Marcos turned to her and found her looking a little wistful as she gazed at the display, no doubt filled with thoughts of her father.
Marcos nodded at the tray of polvorones and said, “I’m half tempted. Aren’t you?”
“Not a bit,” she answered, and he was pleased to see some of the sadness melting away from her expression. “Though I am rather curious to see if you can best my record.”
“I might be persuaded to try,” Marcos said, smiling down at her. She returned the smile, and he noticed the smear of sugar on the corner of her lips. His hand rose without his thinking about it and he brushed the sugar away, wondering if she would taste as sweet as the polvorones. His first impulse was to find out. But Mr. Zapata had finished putting together their orders and was tying the bundles together with twine.
Reluctantly, Marcos stepped away from Alba and took their packages from Mr. Zapata.
So what are all these sweets? Let’s start with turrón!
Turrones are brick-shaped confections made out of honey, sugar and egg whites and come in different varieties. Pictured above are two types: hard and soft. The white one with nuts is hard and crunchy, and the more classic variety; the one in the bottom is more of a hard paste. The nuts used in turrón are usually almonds, but they can be made with peanuts or even sesame seeds.
Mazapan is another confection made with almonds (almond meal, actually):
Originally from Toledo, this traditional Christmas sweet is fashioned into different shapes.
Polvorones are common during Christmas time but where I live, big glass jars of them are also set out during weddings and baptisms.
Polvorones are little balls of crumbly shortbread mixed with walnuts and covered with powdered sugar. They’re my absolute favorite and while I’ve never eaten as many as Marcos and Alma in a single sitting, I will confess to finishing off half the package I bought for this post!