Té de Cumpleaños

As our plane descended into the valley of Cochabamba, my heart took flight. The gentle mountains encircling the valley opened in welcoming embrace. As we landed, I saluted Tunari, the valley’s highest peak standing proud and seemingly eternal.

My father waited outside the baggage terminal, emotion making his embrace fierce. He had counted down the days for our arrival for almost two months.

Arriving at my childhood home, my feet automatically took me around our little bit of heaven, greeting the avocado tree — every limb bent with heavy fruit –, the valiant little lemon tree also loaded with large, generous fruit, the bougainvillea and roses, every tree a friend, every flower a celebration of Mother Nature.

The afternoon was spent in a frenzy of baking preparing for tea the next day to celebrate dad’s 74th birthday. Teatime was a daily event in his and in my growing up years. As Bolivia has joined the fast pace of other nations, daily teatime seems to be fading into the past. But Té de Cumpleaños, tea parties for birthday celebrations, are still tradition.

My guiding parameter for tea parties is: two savory items, two or three cookies and a cake.

Knowing I had only about 24 hours to make this tea party happen, I chose tried and true recipes I knew I could easily pull off. With one exception. The mighty little lemon tree in the garden tempted me with its bounty. I knew I had to make something with those enormous, marvelous lemons. I found this recipe for Lemon Meltaways and wow-wee-wow! I have a new favorite cookie recipe. The first cookie I taste-tested was so spectacular, the entire first cookie sheet risked disappearing.

The Sandwich Cake was an easy choice. My mother was famous for her Sandwich Cakes. She always made the bread from scratch. On occasion I do too, particularly as a labor of love. But because of my time crunch, I used store-bought loaves. The garden’s bountiful avocado tree provided creamy avocados that I mashed with garden-fresh lemon juice and chopped onion. The other fillings for the sandwich cake were romesco, (a roasted red bell pepper pureed with toasted almonds). The third filling was an egg salad with black olives making the fillings colorful and tasty. The “frosting” is cream cheese beaten with plain Greek yogurt.

The Parmesan scones were also an easy choice. My dad is mad about cheese. These scones are impossible to resist. They don’t look particularly attractive, but one bite and oh my oh my yum.

The Chocolate Coconut Macaroons are quick and easy to make and outrageously delicious to eat. But in my haste trying to make everything in one afternoon, I poured the melted chocolate onto the beaten egg whites before it had cooled off, rending my egg whites runny. Appalled at the thought of having to throw them out, I kept adding coconut to rescue the consistency. Having almost doubled the amount of coconut from the original recipe did restore the batter but changed the texture and flavor of the macaroons. No one but I knew the difference and they were eaten at the same rate as the cookies I make from the original recipe. Phew. Disaster averted.

I take pride in making homemade birthday cake but this time, I bought a traditional Torta de Penco, from one of Cochabamba’s long-established pastry cafes. This is my dad’s absolute favorite cake. Crispy layers are stacked with dulce de leche filling.

As everyone sat down around the table that once was in my great-grandparents’ house, my heart again took flight with happiness at this gathering of beloved extended family, and with thankfulness for the food on the table.

Additional cookies for celebratory tea time

Orange Marmalade Cookies

Joy of Baking: Thumbprint Cookies

Epicurious: Italian Almond Cookies

Epicurious: Pignoli

Savory alternatives

Epicurious: Tuna Empanadas

Tea sandwiches (open-face) with chicken salad, egg salad, and/or Olive Tapenade

Té de Cumpleaños

Birthdays and special occasions are often celebrated at tea time in my hometown of Cochabamba. The table is beautifully set with linens and porcelain tea cups. My favorite part is to find we are all still at the table, long after the food is gone, chatting and sharing, enjoying each others company in a leisurely way.