The Book: Cuba Cocina! (1994)
My three years in Miami allowed me plenty of time to sample the wonders of Cuban cuisine–ropa vieja, picadillo, caldo gallego, pressed sandwiches like the medianoche. Nothing charmed me more, though, than pastelitos, the flaky, ubiquitous turnovers (sweet or savory) served at every Cuban coffee joint in town.
And the best of the pastelitos, by far, were guava filled.
Guava makes me happy. It tastes of sun and citrus and tropics. Tart and red, it sings at dessert. Except when subjected to the dessert found on page 227 of Cuba Cocina. This recipe, for Capricho Habañero (Havana Whim), was yet another dish discovered during our Three Cubed adventures that, despite the potential promised by its ingredients (homemade caramel custard, meringue and guava) looked off on paper. And it was in practice.
Basically the capricho is a strata. But the tiers of bread, covered with guava jam and custard, only makes a brief trip through the oven–to brown the meringue on top. The result is layers of stuff that do not meld, remaining in their constituent parts. And bread soaked in custard, no matter how good the custard, is still bread.
I was tempted to just bake this before topping with meringue. But then I would not have been following the recipe. And while I am kind of inclined to try it that way — or to make a caramel-guava bread pudding (!) — I think I would rather stick to perfect, flaky, triangle-shaped pastelitos.
Standard football-watching food in Nebraska and Kansas–a beef and cabbage-filled pocket sandwich called a bierock–comes courtesy of the German immigrants who settled the plains and their ancestors, including my family, who kept the tradition alive.
The bierock’s modest ingredients and homey appearance belie how tasty it is, especially with a dab of horseradish sauce on every bite. The basic yeast dough, enriched with butter and eggs, folds around the three- to four-ingredient filling (if you stick to tradition). Baked to a golden brown, brushed with melted butter, a bierock straight out of the oven reveals steamy deliciousness. And it is a heck of a lot better than delivery pizza at any party.
Christmas may be a hazy, food-coma hangover, but that does not mean pastry season is over. Indeed, today we have entered King Cake time, the weeks between Epiphany and Mardi Gras–the last night before Lent and its prescription of 40 days of restraint.
In the United States, New Orleans has made King Cake synonymous with Mardi Gras. Named for the visit of the three Magi to the newborn Christ child, the cake comes in so many variations that one needs a few weeks just to fully enjoy them all. It can take the shape of a cinnamon-scented ring of bread sparsely dotted with candied fruit (Spain and Latin America) or an almond-paste-filled circle of layered puff pastry (France). One commonality is a buried trinket–a plastic or ceramic baby figurine or a dried bean to symbolize the infant Jesus–which bestows various honors upon the person who gets the item in her or his slice. Mexico, where I first encountered the bread, has my favorite tradition: The person who wins the baby has to make tamales for everyone on Candlemas, February 2.
Mexico’s cake, rosca de reyes, is a vaguely sweet yeast bread (akin to pan de muerto), formed into a ring and finished with a sugar topping that may also include candied fruit and/or nuts. It is tasty–and lovely with a cup of coffee for breakfast. However, I like my desserts sweeter and have long been drawn to the French version (galette des rois) and its layers of sweet almond filling.
So I pulled together a hybrid to celebrate Día de Reyes, a basic sweet dough filled with a rough almond paste, rolled like cinnamon rolls, shaped and baked into a ring, and glazed when cool with almond icing. I just might call it a rosca des rois.
I must be suffering a rice deficiency because all I seem to crave these frigid winter days is risotto. And I have been making it with some frequency: Over the last few weeks, asparagus, wild mushroom, pumpkin, lemon, and pumpkin-and-mushroom risottos have all turned up at the dinner table…
I have to say, though, that I may have hit a new high point on Christmas when, in honor of the season–and to satisfy my obsession for beets–I concocted this bright red bowl of joy. Served with pull-apart garlic bread, this was definitely celebratory. And probably good for us, too.
Years ago, at a birthday party in Cornwall, the hostess decided Tessa should not go cake-free for the evening. She whipped up this tangy, delicious almond and clementine confection especially for her–and a tradition was born.
“In the U.K., clementines and tangerines are very much part of Christmas, and the combination of sweet oranges and almonds are a good gluten-free alternative to Christmas Cake (aka, fruit cake),” says Tessa, who capped her holiday dinner in D.C. this year with this easy dessert.