Food History

The Miraculous History of Peru's Most Sacred Dessert

For many Peruvians in October, Turrón de Doña Pepa has a sweet and layered story, tied closely with the festival of the Lord of Miracles.

October 28, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Amanda Widis.

Every October, the country of Peru becomes fixated on the color purple in preparation for one of its most important religious events: El Señor de los Milagros, or the Lord of Miracles. Catholic Peruvians all over celebrate this feast day on Oct. 28, the focal point of which is a large procession through the streets of the capital city, Lima.

Donning purple cloaks, the faithful accompany the processional platform carrying an image of the Crucifixion while swinging censers of smoldering palo santo wood. By some accounts, this is one of the largest regular Christian processions in the world, and the lead-up to the day is punctuated by smaller neighborhood processions and other religious events. Local parishes drape purple cloths in their sanctuaries as retailers offer special deals for "Purple Month." The fervor around this holiday can be likened to the Brazilian carnival, though a lot more solemn.

Although a great many Peruvians celebrate this holiday, the feast day is closely associated with Peru’s Afro-descendant minority population. The image of Christ that is paraded around the streets of Lima was originally painted by an Angolan slave named Pedro Dalcón in the 17th century. Depicted with dark skin, the image became a focal point for Afro-Peruvian popular religiosity. In 1687, a massive earthquake devastated the city of Lima and rendered the church that housed this image of Jesus into a pile of rubble. The only part of the church that remained intact and standing was the image of what would become El Señor de los Milagros.

Since that day, Peruvians from all over the country have made pilgrimages to the Nazarenas church in Lima to view the image of the “Purple Christ” in the hopes of getting their prayers answered. One such pilgrim was named Josefa Marmanilla, who was a slave living just outside of the plantation town of Cañete in the 18th century. She was known to be an exemplary cook, until one day she came down with an illness that left both of her arms paralyzed. Because she could no longer work, her master emancipated her. While overjoyed at her newfound freedom, she was concerned about how she would survive with her paralysis.

Marmanilla decided to travel to Lima to pray to El Señor de los Milagros for a cure. Some legends state that the image of Christ smiled down at her. In any case, by the time she traveled back to her hometown, she was cured of her paralysis. In gratitude, she created a special pastry that she presented to the image of the Lord of Miracles on his feast day and started selling the confection to local limeños, who soon became hooked on it. Every year, Marmanilla would return with her Turrón de Doña Pepa, until she passed away and her daughter and granddaughter continued the tradition. To this day, a descendent of Josefa Marmanilla presents a turrón to El Señor de los Milagros every year on Oct. 28.

Turrón de Doña Pepa on the feast day of the Lord of Miracles is akin to pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving in the United States: an indispensable part of the festivities. Some eateries will even include the pastry in desserts like cheesecakes and sundaes during the month of October, similar to the pumpkin-spice craze that hits the U.S. every fall.

However, many Peruvians don’t wait until October to enjoy this treat. If you visit the Nazarenas church any time of year, you will find kiosks and storefronts on the same block selling slices of this sticky, rich delicacy. A pilgrimage to see the Lord of Miracles is almost incomplete without taking a piece of turrón back with you. The pastry consists of layers of shortbread sticks enriched with lard, ground sesame, and aniseed. Each layer of cookies is cemented together by a generous drizzle of caramel perfumed with fruits and sweet spices. The whole confection is topped with sprinkles, candies, and dried fruit.

A box of factory-made Turrón de Doña Pepa. Photo by Amazon

Turrón de Doña Pepa isn’t something that Peruvians typically make at home. Expats living in the United States might go out to buy a box of factory-made turrón in October from a Peruvian grocer, many of whom stock up on the treats in the fall. Or you could get one from a bakery that specializes in them. In fact, bakeries that specialize in turrón rarely make anything else, and vice versa; regular bakeries often don't prepare this confection due to its difficulty.

Though the Turrón de Doña Pepa might seem too daunting to make at home, in reality it’s not as challenging as it looks. It does take a little patience, however, as there are quite a few steps. The good news is that you can split up the tasks between different days so you don’t have to spend the whole day in the kitchen: You could make the cookies ahead of time, and even the caramel. The results are well worth it, and the finished product makes a great addition to any teatime or coffee break. Most importantly, it's a delicious and visually striking reminder of the important role that Afro-Peruvians have played in Peru’s culture, cuisine, and spirituality.

Have you ever had a Turrón de Doña Pepa? Let us know in the comments below.

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I was born in Peru to a Limeño father and a Texan mother. We moved to Miami when I was five, and I grew up in the "Kendall-suyo" neighborhood—often called the 5th province of the Inca Empire because of its large Peruvian population. I've been writing about food since I was 11 years old, and in 2016 I received a master's degree in Gastronomy from Boston University. A travel columnist at Food52, I'm currently based in Hollywood, Florida—another vibrant Peruvian community—where I am a writer, culinary tour guide, and consultant.

1 Comment

Annada R. October 29, 2019
What a fantastic story, Carlos? I'm a sucker for such "faith moves mountains" kind of stories. Thank you for making me aware of Josefa Marmanilla.