Procuring yeast proved to be a little more complicated as I discovered that yeast is not generally available in stores. I tried my favorite all-purpose store in Antigua, La Bodegona, which carries a fair amount of specialty items like Celestial Seasonings tea and Chinese or Thai rice stick noodles and roasted macademia nuts. They didn't have any yeast. I asked Jeanet, my colleague at the radio station, where people in Quiché buy yeast, since everyone makes bread for Semana Santa (Holy Week). She told me to go to a bakery. There are a lot of bakeries in Santa Cruz but stopping at one means finding a parking space. So on Monday evening I went to one of the bakeries in Chinique and asked if they sold yeast -- it's a bakery on the main street a couple of doors down from my landlord, Modesto's, store. The young woman said yes, they did, but they had none left. I asked if they would have some the next day and she said yes, but not until the afternoon, so I asked her to make sure she set some aside for me so that I wouldn't have the same experience, that it was all gone, and said I wouldn't be able to be there until about 7 p.m.
Purchasing wine also required advance planning as there are only a few places to buy wine in my part of El Quiché -- a store in Chiché that carries one not-very-stellar variety of Chilean wine, a few places in Santa Cruz and in Chichicastenango. The variety is better and so are the prices in Antigua, but I hardly go there anymore, so I had to think about this part of the festivity about a week and a half in advance.
And then there was the subject of plates and utensils, Most Guatemalan households have a lot more people than mine; many extended families live either in the same dwelling or separate structures on the property (as Doña Mati's family). Sometimes most of the extended family cooks and eats together. In any case, most Guatemalan households, at least the ones I have visited here in the altiplano, have a lot of plates and utensils. I have gradually expanded my supply but since I only occasionally have people over and I am leaving in a few months I haven't wanted to accumulate THAT much in the way of household goods (I am already dreading the process of distributing all of this before I leave, but that' another story; I will start crying for sure if I start down that path now).
So I had pretty much everything I needed by the night before and started some of the preparations, but mostly they needed to be done the day of. And so I left early, got home and started on bread dough and the chicken and the vegetables salads. My friend Caterino had offered to have his wife Sandra come and help with preparations, but she didn't actually arrive until after 5. I had tried unsuccessfully to get the wood-burning stove going, thinking I'd cook the chicken on that. Sometimes I can get the stove going with no trouble, other times, nothing I seem to do works. Sandra had brought a spare pot (since I realized that I wouldn't be able to make enough rice in my rice cooker, and didn't have another pot that would be large enough, as my one good-sized pot was devoted to the chicken), some masa to make tortillas, and some lime to clean off the stove top (I discovered
Making the challah dough was not quite as straightforward as it usually is. We are at a much higher altitude here than in New York -- about 5000 feet above sea level. I've been making challah every since since 1974, my sophomore year in college, but mostly at or around sea level. Everything here is different, not just the altitude. The yeast is different; the flour is different (wheat grows differently depending upon the soil and climate, and has a different gluten content); the water is different; the air is different (there is natural yeast in the air as well as other microbes that affect locale- and environment-sensitive foods like bread, cheese, wine). Everything, really (maybe the eggs, oil, salt and honey have a more or less similar chemistry to those in the U.S.). So, I had bought two pounds of flour, with an eye toward making challah and honey cake. I assumed, based on previous experience, that this quantity should be sufficient for both. Was I wrong. I used a little bit less water than I normally do, but as I kneaded I kept on adding flour but the dough never really got un-sticky and so I eventually left it. No honey cake this time. There simply wasn't enough flour.
The challah dough rose slowly, but it seemed to be okay. Until I turned it out and tried to shape it into three long strips so that I could braid it as I usually do. Challah for the new year is usually made in a round shape (as opposed to the rest of the year: challah is traditionally prepared on the sabbath, but in a regular oblong loaf), to symbolize the continuum, the cyclical nature of life. Or at least that's how it has been explained to me. I usually make a braid and then shape the braid into a round, or if I am especially ambitious I make two braids, one larger and one smaller, and place the smaller braid on top of the larger one and make that into a round. But when I tried to cut the dough into strips it was too sticky to easily handle and so I gave up and just decided to make a round. Luckily I had purchased a round cake pan and so that helped keep the shape.