In “Mad Kitchen,” Madeleine Brown speaks to members of the Toronto theatre community about one of their favourite recipes.
As actor and writer Augusto Bitter opens his laptop to email me his mother’s recipe for a family-favourite dessert and an English translation of it, episode three of The Great British Bake Off’s sixth season pops open.
“I mean, look at what I’m streaming,” he jokes.
The man does indeed love food.
Born in Venezuela, Bitter moved briefly to the US before returning to his country of birth. At ten years old his family moved permanently to Canada. As a result, his cooking style reflects the countries he’s called home. In Venezuela, his mother and her eleven siblings dominated his family’s kitchen for weekly Sunday dinners with upwards of thirty guests. While his father makes a respectable ham-and-cheese sandwich, Bitter proclaims his mom the best cook in the family. Even with the move north and a career as an engineer, she maintained her status in the kitchen. “The first image that comes to mind of my mother is her back to me, because she was always at the stove.”
Bitter says he is “totally a momma’s boy,” admitting his two older sisters never demonstrated the same interest in cooking that he and his mother share. Her constant presence in the kitchen and passion for cooking inspired his own love for it, although she’s less likely to speak about it than Augusto (despite his endless prodding!). For him, food is grounding and cooking is a time to collect his thoughts.
The move to Canada introduced Bitter to his other greatest cooking influence: the Food Network. From Anna Olson’s Sugar, the early days of Rachel Ray, Iron Chef (the Japanese and American series), and, yes, even Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Bitter spent hours in front of the television.
Now he has a reputation for a rather regimented approach to cooking thanks to the artificiality, organization, and those little glass dishes (“For even an eighth of a teaspoon of baking soda!”) associated with instructional cooking programming. “I’ve been told I’m intimidating to cook with,” he says.
Aware of how his family and exposure to North and South American cultures have shaped his tastes and approaches to food, he uses food in his writing to illustrate his characters’ own history and culture. (He memorably voices an avocado and ingests VapoRub in his solo show, CHICHO, currently in development.)
His family’s charlotta primorosa harkens to the rustic—and not so intimidating—aspect of his cooking style. Chosen for its novelty, the dessert is actually rarely made in his family, only on his dad’s birthday.
Bitter attributes a “fucking around” quality to the recipe given its eccentric ingredient list (pineapple-flavoured Jell-O, anyone?) and haphazard method (see the seemingly random inclusion of cake in the final line of the directions). The unique flavour of Jell-O requires a trip to a Latin American or specialty grocery store, but, lucky for Bitter, he has his mother to thank for the stash in his kitchen. With his Jell-O package count now at five, he intends to whip up a charlotta primorosa for his Toronto friends soon.
Who’s to say he won’t premeasure out even the cornstarch?
Charlotta Primorosa (from the kitchen of Emilia Hurtado via tía Teresa)
Makes one dessert
- 2 tbsp cornstarch
- 1 cup water
- 1 can condensed milk
- 4 eggs, separated, yolks beaten
- 1 package pineapple-flavoured Jell-O, dissolved in ½ cup of water
- 1 can Carnation Thick Cream
- 1 can of fruit cocktail or peaches
- 1 vanilla or yellow cake (approximately 1 kilogram)
- Prepare the custard. Dissolve the cornstarch in 1 cup of water and then add the condensed milk. Heat on the stovetop until boiling and creamy. Remove from the heat and whisk in the four egg yolks. Return the mixture to the stovetop. When it begins to boil again, add the pineapple-flavoured Jell-O and set aside.
- Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks before adding the thick cream and custard. Mix well.
- Cut the cake in small square pieces. In a baking dish, layer the cake, custard, and fruit, repeating as necessary to the fill the dish. Finish with a layer of the custard and additional canned fruit for decoration.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized Bitter’s childhood moves between Venezuela and North America.