Festa de São João, also known as Festa Junina, is on June 21st and its origin comes from the commemoration in the Northern Hemisphere of the longest sunny day of the year, the summer solstice. The celebration was brought to Brazil centuries ago by priests to celebrate harvest season.
Festa Junina is not exactly a holiday. It’s more of a festival of foods and traditions cherished in some parts of the country and completely neglected in others, especially in urban cities like Rio and São Paulo.
But in many rural parts of the country, like Paritins on the Amazon River, or Campina Grande in the state of Paraíba, the traditional cuisine more faithfully reflects many of the local’s lifestyle, and as such, Festa Junina is still a huge deal throughout the entire month of June.
In these places, this folkloric celebration has acquired a kind of Brazilian identity, with special decorations (typical cut triangles), people wearing straw hats, and dancing a folk dance called quadrilha and forró around a giant bonfire, which legend says, it keeps the bad spirits far from the lands of harvest.
I have never been to Paritins or Campina Grande, but in Teresópolis, a mountain city 2 hours north of Rio, I got my taste of Festa Junina as a child. I used to dress typically; with my hair parted in two braids, a straw hat, and fake freckles on my cheek. I don’t really remember dancing quadrilha or forró, because I was always busy browsing and tasting the foods.
It’s a feat to get out of a Festa Junina with any appetite at all if you spend time grazing around the festival’s sprawling stands where classic temptations include toasted coconut, pamonha (similar to tamales), corn on the cob, Caramelized apples, bijous ( a sort or tapioca crepe), local honey and so forth.
And then there is canjica de milho, my favorite food from Festa Junina. It’s a sweet corn pudding prepared with white corn, to coincide with the annual corn harvest in June.
(This type of white corn kernel is also called hominy in Latin cooking; it comes from a corn that’s very starchy and has the skin removed from soaking in cal, a white powder made from limestone, and then dried again. This process is called nixtamalnation. It is also used to prepare white corn flour.)
I recently met Lourdes Soares, a Brazilian from Minas Gerais who, prepares a killer version of Canjica de Milho. According to her, “the key to making Canjica de Milho is to treat the grain like a bean”.
“What do you mean?” I asked her. She explained that you need to soak the grain overnight,
and cook in a pressure cook (though you can also use a regular pan) until it becomes soft, and then, you save all its water. It’s a very soupy dessert, definetly to be eaten with a spoon, though as it chills, it gets thicker.
I asked her to teach me how to make canjica, a dessert that brings back memories from my childhood in Teresópolis. After so many years, I was finally learned how to make it.
Canjica de Milho (Sweet Corn Pudding)
Adapted from Lourdes Soares
1 ¼ cups (250g) white dried hominy corn kernel (canjica de milho, available in Latin and Brazilian stores)
½ cup (75g) whole unsalted peanuts
2 cups whole milk
½ cup sugar
1 can (14oz) sweetened condensed milk
1- Place the canjica in a bowl and cover with tap water. Leave at the counter, at room temperature overnight. Drain, and place in a pressure cook. Add water, about 2 inches above the canjica level, lock the pan, and bring to a boil. When it reaches full pressure, reduce the heat to medium and cook until the grain is nice and soft, about 20 minutes (start timing after reaching pressure).
2- Release the pressure by submerging the whole pressure cook under running water for 3-4 minutes (or by lifting the handle), and remove the lid
3- Reserve the canjica and all of its water inside the pan. At this point the canjica has absorbed a lot of water and the mixture should look pudding-like.
4- In the meantime, place milk and peanuts in a blender, and whir for just a few seconds; you want the peanuts to remain coarse. Pour into the canjica pan. Reserve.
5- Prepare a caramel: place the sugar in a small saucepan, and cook over high heat, stirring frequently, until the sugar reaches a beautiful amber color.
6- Pour into the canjica mixture, scraping the pan with a rubber spatula.
7- Finally, pour the sweetened condensed milk. Cook everything together over low heat, stirring slowly and constantly with a wooden spoon, until the mixture looks like a soupy mash, lightly golden, and thickened with the consistency of a vanilla sauce, but extremely grainy, about 5-10 minutes.
8- Transfer to a bowl and cool for 20-30 minutes. Ladle into individual bowls and serve warm.