Cha Cha Chaa Creek
By Marilyn Weissman
During our first family trip to Belize in 1998, we stayed inland, close by San Ignacio town at The Lodge at Chaa Creek. During the ensuing years we have returned to this sustainable “green” resort with our family, friends and visitors to take a canoe trip down the Macal river, tour the butterfly farm, go horseback or bike riding or to enjoy their delicious meals. However, this past fall was the first time since my initial trip that I actually stayed overnight at Chaa Creek. I went on this trip with a number of goals: touring the Chaa Creek Preserve, the 33-acre Mayan Organic Farm run by owners Mick and Lucy Fleming, poking around their Global Kitchen and visiting with the chef, Mario.
This is a first class, sustainable jungle lodge started by the Flemings in 1981. Mick is English and Lucy grew up in New Jersey! They now employ 130 workers and have built 25 cassitas that are scattered across their property. They run a first class restaurant and bar as well as a spa and offer numerous tours to their guests. Our accommodations were beyond gorgeous and the cassita fit seamlessly into the natural environment. Every morning I awoke to the sounds of bird calls. Since my first visit almost 15 years ago, the lodge has expanded and there is now a huge pool and conference center on the grounds. Many couples choose this venue for their wedding or honeymoon. Prince Harry recently chose this top notch lodge as a destination and stayed there during his visit to Belize!
I was happy to meet Mario, the executive chef who has been at Chaa Creek for three years. Mario was extremely friendly and he is passionate about creating local dishes using the produce and products grown on the Mayan farm. Like many of the employees, he lives in Crista Rey, a Mayan village nearby. Maria, our waitperson, has worked at the lodge for 23 years. She was kind enough to let us practice our rudimentary Spanish while she served us delicious food.
The lodge offers an abundance of tours and excursions from cave tubing, Mayan ruin excursions, horseback riding, canoeing – seemingly endless possibilities. The highlight of my trip was a private, guided tour of the Mayan organic farm, led by the Chaa Creek owner Mick. On the way, we were amazed to see an expansive woodworking shop where most of the furniture is crafted for the lodge. We spent a couple of hours watching compost being “fed” and observing the many chickens, goats (they supply milk for the lodge, which is also made into cheese and yogurt) and other animals feeding off the land. Mick is, understandably, quite proud of his farm and is slowly but surely learning how to raise a variety of fruit trees and vegetables using ancient Mayan methods (no sprays or fertilizers!). The entire staff’s dedication to authenticity and natural produce made me appreciate their food all the more!
I urge you to visit the Lodge’s website where you’ll find amazing Belizean and local recipes. One dessert I ate at Cha Creek reminded me of a cake I have made here in the States. It is simple and the ingredients are usually in my pantry and refrigerator. I’m thinking that in the future I will use coconut milk in place of cow’s milk and possibly some coconut oil to replace some of the butter. This cake delights guests who aren’t chocoholics – and even though I love chocolate I also enjoy making and eating this cake.
Tropical Coconut Cake
- 1 stick salted butter, room temperature
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 1 ¾ cup all purpose flour
- 1 tbsp baking powder (aluminum free)
- ½ cup milk or coconut milk
- 6 Tbsp butter
- 1 cup packed light brown sugar
- 1/4 cup cream or half and half
- 1 ¼ cup shredded sweetened coconut
Preheat oven to 325 degrees, and adjust the oven rack to the middle of the oven.
Cream butter and sugar for 4 minutes with an electric mixer, add the eggs one at a time along with the vanilla. Continue to beat 1 minute. Stir the baking powder and flour together so they are combined. Add ⅓ of the flour/baking powder mix just until incorporated, then add ½ of the milk. Alternate adding flour and milk, ending with flour. Do not over beat.
Put into a greased 10” x 2 inch cake pan. The batter will be thick – spread it evenly with a spatula. Bake for 35-45 minutes (my oven took 45 minutes) or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove the cake pan to a rack and let the cake rest for 10 minutes. While it is cooling, make the topping.
Melt butter in a 2 quart sauce pan, add brown sugar and whisk until smooth. Cook over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add cream and whisk to incorporate. Heat another 1 minute – do not let it boil or simmer. Remove from heat and stir in coconut. Let cool about three minutes then spread on warm cake (that has cooled for 10 minutes).
Spread topping to evenly cover the top of the cake and broil at 400, rotating constantly until it bubbles all over and becomes slightly brown. This happens quickly so be careful.
Cool cake and slice into pieces to serve. Cover the remaining cake tightly with saran and foil – this stays moist for few days. The cake also freezes beautifully, tightly wrapped, for up to 2 months.
Note: You could substitute some chopped toasted pecans for part of the coconut if you’d like. I have also made this in a springform pan (line the bottom with parchment) and put the cake on a beautiful cake stand for company. This recipe as written works for me and looks pretty because I plate it and serve it with some fruit on the side.
I am thinking that next time I might drizzle it with melted bittersweet chocolate.
Did I mention that I will absolutely go back to Chaa Creek as soon as I can? The two nights we stayed there were so relaxing and peaceful. If you plan to visit Belize, this is a place you should not miss.