Working in quick, sure pats, Margarita Wetzel’s fingers shape the dough by long habit. Then, with a flick of her wrist and a sizzle as the dough hits the hot pan, an Arepa, a traditional Venezuelan cornbread, is born.
The Wetzels are a bread family. Dave Wetzel makes a startling array of breads using an ancient Sourdough Starter that’s been thriving for more than 100 years.
A friend gave him the starter in 1970, “and said then it was 75 years old,” Dave Wetzel said, showing off his cherry-studded braided Holiday Bread, his fragrant Venezuelan Ham Bread, his perfect Cinnamon Roll pinwheels.
His explanations are punctuated by the occasional sizzle of a new Arepa hitting the pan. Sourdough Starter, a fermented mixture, is used to leaven bread, sometimes with the aid of the more familiar yeast. Its characteristic tangy taste is found in sourdough bread.
“I’ve made thousands of loaves of this stuff,” he said, holding up the Holiday Bread. He also uses the starter to make English muffins and Saturday pancakes. And he’s not stingy with it, either, sharing with friends, family and assistant Food editors.
Dave and Margarita Wetzel’s explanation of bread-making and the precisely picturesque loaves, Arepas, salads and other foods make sense when you consider what they do when they’re not cooking.
“We’re a chem-e family,” Margarita Wetzel said. She’s a chemical engineer and Dave teaches chemical engineering at LSU. Daughter Virginia Bolivar, 21, is studying chemical engineering, also at LSU.
Dave and Margarita Wetzel originally met “a long time ago, back in 1975” when she was a student at another university where Dave Wetzel was a professor. They met again 10 years later, when Margarita had long since graduated.
Depending on which ceremony you count, the civil or the church wedding, they’ve been married either 15 or 13 years. Margarita Wetzel and her daughter came to the United States in 2000, when Virginia was almost 9 years old. Margarita Wetzel is a native of Maracaibo, which is near Colombia. American Dave Wetzel freely adopts Venezuelan recipes and styles of cooking.
Their recipes are a pleasing mix of traditional American and Venezuelan, one improving the other where it can. For instance, for Virginia’s 16th birthday, Dave Wetzel made a torta rellena con fresas y queso crema — a cake made with cream cheese and fruit. He used strawberries instead of the usual guavas. The previous year, Virginia celebrated her quinceañera, or 15th birthday, in grand Venezuelan style — except instead of tortas, there were king cakes.
“We mix the cultures,” Margarita Wetzel said as the Arepas-making continued, both in a traditional iron pan and in an Arepas maker, not unlike a waffle iron, available online and in most Venezuelan stores.
Bolivar described Arepas as Venezuelan street food, saying they are a favorite of schoolchildren at lunchtime. They can be eaten plain, but are usually stuffed with chicken salad, lunch meat, scrambled eggs, cheese or tomatoes. The Arepas are made with a white Venezuelan cornmeal — the Wetzels use PAN brand — that’s been precooked and is ground much finer than American meal.
Arepas are a favorite of Bolivar, who thought she’d stumped Dave Wetzel by asking for them for breakfast shortly after she and her mother moved to the United States. She came into the kitchen, Dave Wetzel said, and he asked what she wanted for breakfast. They went through several options and finally she said, with a light in her eyes, “Arepas!” Dave Wetzel accepted the challenge, though he didn’t have a recipe; he’d seen it done. Virginia approved.
“If it is for breakfast, you would have ham salad ... stuff it with scrambled eggs,” Margarita Wetzel said.
The Wetzels return to Venezuela as often as they can, trying to spend some of the holidays there. Dave Wetzel learned to make Venezuelan Ham Bread by watching Margarita’s aunt every year at Christmas. It starts with a yeast bread that’s rolled out and stuffed with piles of ham, capers, olives and raisins. He makes it and his other breads when they travel to Venezuela — he reports that the starter travels very well — and Margarita Wetzel said her mother is forced to hide some for herself before hungry family members devour the loaf.
Another traditional Venezuelan holiday dish is a chicken or ham salad, with apples, carrots and peas. It was excellent stuffed into a hot Arepa and served alongside another Arepa stuffed with traditional Venezuelan cheese from Margarita Wetzel’s family’s farms and tomatoes, and a thick wedge of the Ham Bread to finish the meal.