I find myself prattling on about etymology and language here as much as I do about food and travel, but perhaps the most relevant association to date is this one: alegría in Spanish means “joy”—and that’s exactly what the process of making this Mexican candy evokes.
These gluten-free Aztec grains are actually a pseudocereal like quinoa and buckwheat, meaning that they’re the seeds of non-grasses but culinarily treated as classic cereals (think rice, wheat, millet, oats). The flowers of the amaranth plant are stubbornly beautiful (“amaranth” is derived from the greek ἀμάραντος/amarantos meaning “unfading”) and I associate its edible spinachy greens with Chinese cooking. The seeds are a bit gummy when cooked as a porridge, but discovering the popped variety revolutionised my amaranth breakfasts; the sound of the popping alone guarantees the start of a good day.
I donned this mindset when I woke at the crack of dawn to catch a last-minute train to Lulworth Cove in Dorset (as you may have gleaned from Instagram), a spot on the Southern coast of England. A week-long uni brief simply entitled “Courage” was a roundabout way to test our skills in idea generation, mass communication, and outcome presentation. Selecting a task that succinctly portrays (and rises victorious over) the emotion of fear with both universal relatability and personal resonance is not as easy a task as it may seem… and that’s the shorthand of how I ended up stark naked on a February day, facing waters of a moody English Channel.
It’s hard to imagine this was initially about the courage required to skinny-dip in freezing water, which was the very least of my concerns by the end; everything took a backseat to the precarious route-picking down a steeper-than-imagined cliff. It was almost a relief to reach the water, but the icy force of that second wave snapped me into adrenaline-fueled action. I primitively (a ripe combination of tangled wet hair, mud streaks, chattering teeth, bleeding knees, and unabashed nakedness) climbed back upwards on all fours, as though the wave was still chasing behind. Propelling me forward was the hyper-awareness of being utterly vulnerable and dwarfed by natural forces as I scampered over sharp crumbling rocks and slippery clay sediment that occasionally sucked in my whole leg up to the knee. That rush adrenaline made me feel stupidly immune to so many debilitating factors at once. The seagulls were laughing at me, but I didn’t care. Far more prominent than fear or embarrassment was pure alegría in the recklessness and liberation of it all.
I ended up piecing together a film of the experience, which I have substituted here with some PG-versioned stills and a GIF that won’t make you lose your appetite for the amaranth candy that tricked you into clicking through to this post in the first place.
Very smoothly transitioning back to the kitchen from my bare and bizarre anecdote… Alegría is Rice Krispies-esque, brought south of the border with a slight tang of lime. It’s traditionally made with a brown cane sugar called piloncillo/panela, but I’ve been in a malty mood lately with the likes of Ovaltine and Maltesers all around. Malt extract is naturally sweet, economical, delightfully treacly, and packed with vitamins and minerals (you see where my loyalties lie) but it also makes this gluten-free so you can substitute other sweet syrups like molasses, honey, maple syrup, or agave. Although currants and sesame seeds were a combination that made sense after scouring the contents of my own pantry, substitute any variety of nuts, seeds, and dried fruits as you would a homemade granola recipe. The only non-negotiable part is popping your own amaranth and basking in the resulting alegría; it’s an easier route to take than wild winter swimming in rough seas.
Alegría (Amaranth Candy)
- ½ cup amaranth
- ¼ cup currants
- 2 T sesame seeds
- 1 T malt extract syrup
- ½ cup demerara sugar
- 1 T lime juice
Heat up a wide-bottomed pan or wok over medium-high. Spoon in just 1 tablespoon of amaranth at a time, covering with a lid and swirling the bottom of the pan gently over the flame so that nothing burns. The popping should start instantly upon contact with the hot pan, and keep swirling until the pops dwindle to a few per second.
Repeat this process with remaining amaranth, transferring popped seeds to a clean bowl each time. Mix in sesame seeds and currants.
Heat up a small saucepan over medium-low, adding the sugar, malt syrup, and lime juice until the sugar crystals have all melted. Stir constantly to prevent burning and sticking, because the sugar will caramelise easily.
Pour hot syrup into the bowl of popped amaranth, mixing quickly together with hands and pressing into a baking pan lined with parchment paper. After letting this sit until fully cooled, it should be breakable/sliceable.