My late, dearly beloved auntie, Betty, introduced me to Conkies. I cannot remember my exact age, but I know that I was not yet 13. What I do remember clearly was her calling me to show me what she had made and giving me my first ever Conkie. It was a Saturday afternoon; the sun was still high in the sky and light flooded the kitchen. Auntie Betty carefully unwrapped the Conkie from the banana leaf in which it was wrapped and revealed a smooth, compact, oblong-shaped Conkie with the richest shade of orange I had ever seen. The Conkie glistened in the sunlight. I gently lifted the Conkie from the plate, peeled back the wrapper and took my first bite. It was sweet and redolent of pumpkin flavour.
I had no idea how to make Conkies — other than it’s a thick batter steamed in banana leaves — or that they contained cornmeal. That is, until I moved to live in Barbados. Conkies are a big deal in Barbados and the making and eating of Conkies, though it can occur throughout the year, happens especially during the month of November in honour of the country’s independence. In supermarkets across the island, there are displays set up with the ingredients to make Conkies – cornmeal, coconut, essence, spices, raisins (the pumpkin in the refrigerated section). I’m honoured when my Bajan friends tell me that I make excellent Conkies. I have tried, on more than one occasion, to teach them how to make Conkies, but they shy away from all the hand-grating involved. Since I last gathered a group of them a few years ago for an independence lime and Conkie-making, I have not made Conkies. They are not something that I yearn for nor is Conkie one of these obligatory foods I feel moved to make at any time, much less at independence. This year, however—and I believe that it is because I lost my aunt Betty a mere 6 months ago—I feel compelled to make Conkies; it’s a way to keep her close, and work through my grief.
I have no idea why, but at the start of this year, I had asked her if I could make Conkies without cornmeal and she said yes. For some reason, back then, I kept thinking about the Saturday afternoon and the first time she introduced me to Conkies. I promised myself that I’d try it without the cornmeal because I didn’t like the coarse, sometimes grittiness of Conkies with cornmeal and coconut – two of its key ingredients. Fast forward 10 months later and I set out to make Conkies. But not really, Conkies, that is.
As I said, I do not like the grainy texture of a traditional Conkie and my taste memory from my aunt’s Conkie was that the texture was smooth. I have no idea whether or not she had put in cornmeal and coconut; I didn’t ask. Since she had told me that I could make Conkies without cornmeal, I figured that I could omit the coconut too. Drawing on my own little cooking knowledge, I decided to make the “Conkies” with only pumpkin and sweet potatoes; of course, I’d include all the usual spices and flavourings – cinnamon, nutmeg, almond essence. And there must be raisins. For me it was all going to be about a texture thing.
My main worry about this experiment was whether or not the mixture would hold/firm up after cooking since there’d be none of the other ingredients to combine and bulk things up. Then I remembered that Bajans make steamed sweet potato pudding every weekend to serve with souse and that firms up. I also thought of the North American Thanksgiving Sweet Potato Pie (but that includes eggs that operate as a binding agent). I convinced myself that it would firm up.
I grated and mixed everything together and set about wrapping portions – first in greaseproof paper then aluminum foil. I did not use banana leaves because this was a test run. With parcels wrapped and arranged in a large pot to steam, I set the timer for 30 minutes. I figured that without the cornmeal and coconut the “Conkies” would be done sooner than the usual 40-minute cooking time. When I removed a parcel to check, though not raw, the mixture was soft. Talking to myself, I still had 10 minutes I could use because real Conkies take 40 minutes; so I let the parcels cook for another 10 minutes. At the 40-minute time mark, I checked on the parcels again and they still felt soft. Puzzled, I made a decision to do 2 things – remove one of the parcels and let it cool and see if the “dumpling” would firm up (I haven’t figured out what to call it). The decision was to leave the other parcels cooking for another 10 minutes making it a total of 50 minutes cooking time.
The heat was shut off after cooking for 50 minutes and the parcels were left in the pot to continue to cook with the residual heat.
Half an hour later, as I lifted the parcel I had put to cool, I immediately noticed that it felt a little heavier then when it was hot, but still not trusting that it had firmed up, I gently opened the parcel. The real test, for me, was going to be lifting the dumpling on to a plate. I cut into the dumpling and the knife sliced smoothly and it still held firm. Switching to a fork, I took the plate and sat down to taste. It was everything I wanted it to be for a Conkie, for me – smooth, sweet, a raisin here and there to delight and adequately spiced, like a real Conkie. Or as the Bajans would say, a proper Conkie.
Six taste testers were tasked; I had told only 1 of them that there was no cornmeal and coconut in the mixture. And of the 6, only 1 of them had eaten Conkies I had made in the past.
The question everyone asked was, “How did you get the Conkie so smooth?” They raved excitedly about the texture and the flavour. When I revealed that there was no cornmeal or coconut; they simply stated that they did not miss it. “How did you prepare the ingredients?” one of them asked. “The box grater baby! Grating on the fine side”, I said. Seriously people, if you want a fine texture to your Conkie, the box grater is the way to go, I am yet to find a food processor that gives that yields such fine results when cooked.
The 1 taste tester who knew beforehand that there was no cornmeal or coconut in the mixture said, it was only because I told her that she noticed; it did not have the usual grainy texture. “So, what are you going to call it?” one of the guys asked. I explained that because I do not want to get into trouble with the food police or the Conkie aficionados, it cannot be called a Conkie because there’s no cornmeal or coconut.
Long after the tasters left, I sat down and ate the last dumpling (seems like that is what I am calling it) and thought of my auntie Betty. I would have liked for her to taste it. I think she would have liked it.
Steamed Pumpkin & Sweet Potato Dumpling/Pudding
Yield: 15 – 16
• large pot with cover and steaming rack
• ½ cup measuring cup
• Prepped banana leaves or greaseproof/parchment paper
& aluminium foil
• 4 cups grated sweet potatoes
• 3 cups grated pumpkin
• 1 ¼ cups sugar
• 1 heaped teaspoon ground cinnamon
• ½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
• 1¼ teaspoons almond essence
• ½ cup all-purpose flour
• ¾ cup raisins
• 4 ounces unsalted butter, melted
• 1 ounce vegetable shortening, melted
1. Mix together the following in a large bowl – sweet potatoes,
pumpkin, sugar, spices, and essence.
2. Add flour and mix to fully incorporate
3. Add raisins, melted butter and shortening and mix to fully
incorporate. Set aside mixture and let rest for 15 minutes.
4. Add water and steamer to large pot, cover and place
on high heat. Bring to a boil.
5. Meanwhile, give the batter a good stir, add ½ cup of
batter to each piece of banana leaf or grease proof/
parchment paper and fold to secure. If using greaseproof/
parchment paper, wrap in foil. Set aside and repeat until
all the batter is done.
6. Arrange in pot and cook for 50 minutes. When done,
remove parcels from pot and place on wire racks to
cool. Let cool to room temperature before serving.
• Use any variety of sweet potato you can find, for this
recipe I used the orange-fleshed sweet potatoes.
• Stir the batter each time you dip into it as liquid tends
to pool easily.
• You can make the dumpling/pudding larger if you like
by adding ¾ to 1 cup of the batter to each parcel.
If you use this amount, steam cook for 1 hour.