I’ve been pursuing the semita trail for the last several years and a very interesting trail it is too. Breads called semita or cemita pop up all over Latin America and, I think, can be traced back to the Mediterranean, probably North Africa. Originally they were the humblest of breads, breads made from the lowest and brownest grade of flour (at least in the hierarchy of the time).The other day I ran across a semita I had missed, probably because, being call acemita, it didn’t run across it when I searched under cemita or semita.

Source

It’s in Dan Strehl’s lovely translation of Encarnación Pinedo’s El Cocinero Español which was originally published in California in 1898, a celebration of the upper class Mexican kitchen of California. It’s now in the superb University of California Press Series on Food and Culture, Encarnación’s Kitchen: Mexican Recipes from Nineteenth-century California (University of California Press, 2003). As an aside, Dan Strehl, who worked for years for the Los Angeles Public Library has been a real mover and shaker, serving for seven years as Director of the Hollywood Farmers’ Market and, with Charles Perry, founding the Culinary Historians of Southern California.

But back to pan de acemite or acemitas. Strehl translates this as semolina bread which is how acemite is usually translated in modern dictionaries. Just look at this recipe though.

Recipe

“Add a good piece of raw lard, a teaspoon of salt, and a teaspoon of soda dissolved in a little milk to a quart of flour sifted with two teaspoons of cream of tartar.

Then roll out the dough on the table with a rolling pin. Cut the rolls with a mold or knife as big as you need. When rolling the dough, make it a quarter inch thick.”

From Semita to Biscuit

Now what is that? No mention of semolina or of whole wheat flour. We have to assume that flour in California at this date meant fine white flour. Soda, cream or tartar. Modern raising agents. Lard to make the dough softer and flakier. Rolled out and cut into pieces.

No doubt, this is a good old American biscuit. For non-US readers, an American biscuit is a small bread raised with soda or other chemical leavener.

Commentary

Well, if ever there were a cautionary tale about assuming that recipes with the same name produce the same dishes, this is it. Semitas morph from the bread of the poor, to breads raised with all kinds of unusual sources of yeast, to breads flavored with raw sugar and pecans, to white rolls stuffed with meats in Puebla, to breads claimed to be Jewish on the Mexico/US border, and now to good old American biscuits.

Aside: Capirotada and Semita

 

And on the side. Here’s a discussion of possible links between capirotada, the Mexican Lenten bread-based dessert, and semitas by Bob Mrotek. I’ll need to think about this one. In any case, his recipe for capirotada is lovely.

 

So if there’s anyone out there with other kinds of semitas, I’d just love to know.

 

 

 

 

 

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