A couple of weeks ago, there was a recipe request from Amy for Zapallo en Almíbar that sparked some interesting conversation on the From Argentina With Love facebook page. Katie of the wonderful blog Seashells and Sunflowers provided lots of great information.
Zapallo en Almíbar is a typical Argentinean treat--cubed firm squash jarred in sweet syrup. It has a crunchy texture outside and a soft texture inside. Traditionally, Katie explained, Zapallo en Almíbar is prepared using cal viva, or calcium oxide, which gives it that crunchy/smooth texture.
I did some research on calcium oxide, the caustic solution more commonly known as quicklime. It's combustible and is used in producing cement and whitewash. It can be used as a weapon and has a phosphorus glow when reacting. That illumination was used in theatrical productions prior to electricity, hence the term 'limelight'. I decided against ingestion.
Its cousin, calcium hydroxide (aka slaked lime), is used in tortilla-making during the process called 'nixtamalization'. Dried corn kernels are soaked in a mixture of slaked lime and water, softening the kernels so that the hulls can be removed and used to make the masa for corn tortillas, tamales, etc. Slaked lime is available at Home Depot, and is used in making plaster, in hair-removal products like Nair (cue 'Who Wears Short Shorts' music now) and in petroleum refining. This could be an alternative to cal viva, but still, I thought I'd skip it.
Katie suggested another alternative, that of using 190-proof alcohol, known as Everclear here in the U.S., to give the squash the desired crunchy texture. She also posted a recipe, which in its wonderful Argentinean fashion, lacks measurements and very specific instructions.
Here's what we ended up doing: We used Rum. We didn't get that crunchy texture, but the results were nonetheless delicious. But the crunchy texture is kind of the point of this treat, so I'd still like to try a version using slaked lime and one using Everclear, just to see the difference. I'm on the case, then.
For now, enjoy this homespun version of Zapallo en Almíbar. Another little side note: We taste-tested two versions against eachother. One was a jar of Zapallo en Almíbar we transported back from a roadside vendor in Bowen, and the other our homemade version. The Bowen version was made by Marta Zacchigna de Molina, but the label provides no ingredient information, so I'm not sure of the type of squash she used, or whether she used cal viva or alcohol. See the photos below. I am amazed at the color difference, though I'm not sure the type of squash or the process used in the Bowense version.
Zapallo en Almíbar
Serve with a tray of meats, cheeses and olives in the late afternoon as a snack, as part of a pre-dinner appetizer, or as a dessert course with fruit, nuts and cheeses.
3 cups firm squash, such as butternut (you can also use kabocha, acorn or hubbard)
600 ML (about 3 cups) light rum
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 cups water
4 cups sugar
Peel and seed the squash. Cut into medium-large cubes, about 1 1/2 inch in size. In a medium bowl, combine the squash and the rum. Let soak for 24 hours, stirring occasionally to make sure all the cubes are covered.
Drain the squash, discarding the rum (unless you want to make squashtinis, hee hee). In a medium non-reactive stock pot, heat the water and the sugar over medium-high heat. Stir frequntly, and when the sugar is completely dissolved, add in the squash and the vanilla. Heat to a boil, and then reduce heat but maintain the mixture at a simmer until the squash becomes translucent, about an hour.
Remove the mixture from the heat and let cool completely. Place the squash in a jar and cover with the syrup and a lid. Refrigerate for up to 2 weeks, or alternatively, can for storage following the instructions with your canning kit.