In keeping within the last-minute and easy holiday treats theme, (see my last post of Parmesan, Pepper and Lemon Oyster Crackers), this sweet morsel is just the ticket. I love bringing island and tropical flavors to our house as we live in the tropics and also, due to my Puerto Rican roots, our Christmas season is redolent with joyous, celebratory music, luscious ripe fruits from hot climes and plenty of brilliant sunshine. Pineapple, guava, tamarind, orange and limes, guanabana, mamey sapote, coconuts and apple bananas are some of the magnificent fruits of the season. I made these guava and cream cheese tartlets just so I could nibble on guava paste. Sweet and utterly decadent, the taste and even the smell of the ripe, fresh fruit careen me back to my grandmother’s kitchen in Puerto Rico. As a child the kitchen seemed cavernous although now I marvel at the countless breakfast, lunch and dinners that little nook cranked out, day in and day out for years. The aromas which wafted out of that kitchen are legendary but at Christmas… well! My grandmother was a renown baker, recognized throughout the island for her magical cakes. Her wedding cakes were breathtaking in beauty and taste. I’m pretty sure the rum syrup she drizzled over them had a lot do with it. One of the cakes ordered often was the “brazo gitano” or gypsy arm. It was a vanilla sheet cake slathered with homemade guava paste, rolled up, heavily dusted with confectioner’s sugar and topped with four or five maraschino cherries. Being so young in age I never understood why someone would want, never mind PAY, for a cake without icing. A cake without one edible, handmade and hand painted Cinderella or Snow White. There weren’t any lilies or roses, dwarfs or footmen in livery or, at the very least, sweet, little woodland creatures. But the gypsy arms sold. And the profits were my grandmother’s “pin” money. I would give anything for a taste of one of those cakes. Or to smell the vat of fresh guavas and sugar bubbling away on the stove. Christmas time turned the kitchen and dining room into a bustling hive of activity. My grandmother would hum often when she made her flowers. What an indulgence it was when she would pinch off a small knob of pastillage for me to savor! I can see her now, her arms flailing wildly, as she shooed away the errant sparrow who mistakenly flew in through an open window and swooped down to light on one of her floral masterpieces. Those precious days are gone as well as many of our family members who lived at my grandparent’s massive house. So many were involved in one way or another. An aunt might help out by trimming the crusts off the of the gypsy arm. Any uncle who happened to be around could not sit down to a freshly brewed cafe con leche until he helped carry the 4-foot high wedding cake out to the waiting van. But the fruit desserts, the “brazo gitano”, which in the folly of my youth I completely disregarded, are today dear to me although they are now faint memories. We may not have these treasured sights, sounds and smells any longer but I guarantee you, cut off a sliver of guava paste, close your eyes and as it slowly melts in your mouth you’ll be with me at 177 Flanboyanes Avenida.
These little tartlets are a sweet-salty treat that will surprise you with their ease of preparation. At my grocery store the guava paste is shelved with the canned fruit…go figure. Packed air-tight in plastic, guava paste is a great pantry staple to have on hand especially during the holidays when sweets are more…how shall I say? De rigueur. Also good to have on hand are the frozen fillo shells. Simply store them in the back of your freezer and when you need a quick nibble to enjoy with a glass of champagne they are at your service to fill with shrimp, mushrooms sautéed in wine and tarragon or any number of combinations. The little shells crisp up perfectly and add a great touch of elegance to any cocktail hour. I know I don’t to tell you there should always be 2 or 3 bricks of cream cheese in the refrigerator as well. If you’re pressed for time or low on energy, skip the fruit or berries on top and merely give the finished tartlets a good dusting of confectioner’s sugar. Enjoy!
Guava and Cream Cheese Tartlets
- 8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
- 1 large egg
- 1 14-ounce block guava paste, for some reason it’s stocked in the canned fruit section of my grocery store so look around for it
- 1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3 1.9-ounce boxes of mini-fillo shells, total 45 shells
- confectioner’s sugar to garnish, optional
- berries or pomegranate seeds to garnish, optional
- fresh mint leaves to garnish, optional
- Pre-heat oven to 350°. Place the fillo shells on a rimmed baking sheet and set aside.
- Using a hand mixer, beat cream cheese and egg until light and fluffy. Set aside.
- Place guava paste in a microwaveable bowl and heat in 30 second intervals until the paste has melted.
- Pour the melted guava paste into the cream cheese mixture and add the confectioner’s sugar and vanilla extract. Mix until smooth and there are no streaks.
- Fill each shell with a generous teaspoon of the guava mixture.
- Bake 12-15 minutes.
- Remove from oven and immediately dust with confectioner’s sugar, carefully press in mint leaves and berries.
- Serve warm or at room temperature.