I always found early morning in Puerto Rico to be special. As a child and as an adult. Pamela and I just got back from a long weekend at our grandparents house in Rio Piedras, a university town outside of San Juan. We had a wonderful time though it was bittersweet and wrought with emotion. Stifled, repressed emotion thick in our throats. Our beloved aunt, Madrinita, at 90 years old, has decided that she is ready to go. And so, while she is of sound mind, we flew down for a visit. We didn’t want our next trip to be for a funeral. We arrived late in the afternoon and grabbed a taxi to the house, dinner waiting as expected. The reunion with our aunts was tough; we wiped any tears away before they could be detected, there was joy mixed with sadness on both sides. Pamela and I struggled to get our suitcases up the stairs all the while exclaiming “Oh! Look at the tile! So worn and beautiful.” and “Our rockers are still in the same place!” “Here’s my bed!’ and “Man!! Put the fan on…high!” We had the whole upstairs to ourselves. We always do a “walk-through” when we first arrive. Cynthia and I started doing this as young girls recognizing the significance and uniqueness of the lives we were living and where we spent that time. Often we spent whole summers in that old house. It was always an early start in my grandparents home. The sun was barely up when we would smell our coffee brewing…Puerto Rican coffee.
I remember lying still in bed listening to the doves outside our windows cooing and relishing the last bit of morning coolness, resigned to the searing heat which would, without fail, creep through the house soon enough. Morning was when someone would go to the market, the market called Plaza del Mercado. I don’t know who. I never saw anyone come into the house with bags. None of the women in our house drove. Dressed in heels and linen they briskly walked down the street and out of sight to do their errands always hidden under the protective canopies of their umbrellas. The searing rays of the sun would NEVER touch their peaches and cream complexions! So I don’t know who went to market. But somebody did. Cynthia and I would race through the house playing only stopping long enough to grab a quick drink of water in the kitchen where we would find a big bowl of red beans soaking on the counter to later be ladled and savored over rice at lunch. Or we would find a bowl of bacalao, salt cod, soaking in water to eventually become somebody’s lunch but not ours. As little girls we hated bacalao. We’d smell that fish cooking and panic thinking that maybe our grandmother had forgotten to prepare a little piece of chicken or something for us. I never made it to that market. Even as an adult when I lived and worked in Puerto Rico I never went. So on this trip I asked my aunt if she would make the arrangements for the three of us to go…and we’d like to walk if that was okay. And it was! The morning of our adventure Pamela and I got up early, dressed, splashed water on our faces and made our way downstairs for breakfast. The same breakfast we always have. And love. Several cups of steaming, strong cafe con leche, at all times in cup and saucer. There is not one mug in that house. Not one. I like that. A huge tin of soda crackers waited on the table along side a chilled platter of cheese from the island, queso de hoja, a firm, white cheese which comes wrapped in a banana leaf to give it more flavor. And the best part, an ample bowl filled with ice-cold, scarlet red papaya, again, from the island. Heaven! Sheer heaven! Breakfast finished and teeth brushed we girls headed out. “Wait! We’ve got to take a selfie!”
That was Pamela’s idea and a good one at that. The sun was out but being early April the weather was still pleasant and breezy. We had a wonderful walk, uneventful but with a lot of laughs and a few serious discussions with our beloved aunt, Maita. We entered the market and I was surprised to find that it to be a one-story, building holding a maze of passageways each with stalls of varied produce, meats and specialties of the island. It was fantastic.
We saw people lined of at the octopus stand waiting to tuck into a hot breakfast stew. Everything for your breakfast octopus needs. We saw baskets of plastic-wrapped coconut candy the color and size of large chocolate chip cookies, the coconut surrounded by browned, caramelized sugar. There were stacks and stacks of salt cod, “bacalao”, and row after row of cut pumpkin; whole pumpkins stacked to the ceiling inside the stalls.
Butchers sipped the last of their coffee patiently waiting for the customer who needed some freshly cut pigs feet. Or pig tails. We strolled past long cases filled with beef and veal from the island, fresh pineapples arranged in perfect towers and box after box of yuca, yautia and name.
Bunches of plantains and bananas hung everywhere and on the ground were boxes of tiny, sweet peppers called aji dulce and long pods of fresh pigeon peas, gandules. Every manner of voodoo/santeria/ witchcraft item was sold in pretty, little bottles all lined up behind the flower stalls.
Is your heart-broken or do you just want to keep your man? Does your baby have colic or are you out to put a juju on someone? Well, this is the place for you. There were sweets; all manner of candies made from mango, guava, coconut and sweet potato. You could even purchase household items at the hardware and notions store, suitcases, mops and plastic bowls all set out in front. If you were hungry there was a myriad of stands each calling out to you to taste their alcapurrias, grated root vegetables stuffed with meat or crab then fried to a golden, crispy goodness or sorullitos, cornmeal sticks stuffed with cheese and fried so the cheese melts making a gooey, savory snack.
And, of course, all manner of coffee. Except iced coffee. To many islanders that’s bizarre and almost wasteful. Our own aunts beautiful faced wrinkled with distaste as she exclaimed “Con HIELO?”. “With ICE?” Salsa played in the background while old and young men alike laughed and played dominoes or just caught up with each other. For me it was all magic! And a most splendid memory. Morning life on the island.
This recipe is adaptable in that you can make your own pastry, I did today, or you can buy the already made pie crusts at the grocery store. The same with filling. I’ve made my own but today I used three different store-bought jams and jellies. These are like Puerto Rican Pop Tarts. They can be for breakfast or eaten as a snack. The filling is good with a traditional jam such as strawberry or you can give everyone a tasty surprise and use mango, guava or passion fruit. They are so good! I sometimes crumble a little white cheese, like a queso fresco, in the guava filling then fill the tarts. The result is a sweet/salty pop of flavor. I have a hard time staying away from them. If you buy already made pie crusts you’ll want to roll them out a bit on a floured surface. If the dough is too thick when baked the tarts can end up rather hard and dry. Thin, as always, is better. You’ll need a top and a bottom piece for each tart no matter which shape you choose. To the bottom of my rounds a good teaspoon of filling was enough. The filling will spread when baked so try not to over-fill as the tarts will leak filling while in the oven. If you want a traditional size Pop Tart shape brush the bottom piece of dough with a filling that has been thinned out with a bit of water. Just enough that the jam spreads easily. Add one tablespoon of water to one egg and beat well. Paint the inside of the top piece with the egg wash. This will help the two pieces of dough to stick together. Place the top piece over the filled bottom and seal the tarts by pressing the tines of a fork all around the edges. Poke the top of each sealed tart with the fork to release air. Brush the tops of the tarts with the egg wash. When all the tarts are assembled bake at 375° on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. They’re done when they are barely golden. Cool on a wire rack. Ice with the topping of your choice after they are completely cool and add any sprinkles of colored sugars while the icing is still wet. Buen provecho!