I know I’ve written of Christmas in Puerto Rico but, truly, it is a thing to behold. The breezes were balmy and cool especially in the mountains where we spent a considerable amount of time during the Christmas holidays. My sinfully handsome uncle, Tio Enrique, had serious parties on his farm, the entire family coming from all corners of the island. Often Mama’s second cousins and their families would come and make merry because, as on any island, everyone is family. The house was big and airy, several balconies had hammocks strung up. Set back off the main road and nestled within undulating hills, we looked forward all year to the celebrations at Villa Josefina, the farm named after one of Tio Enrique’s sisters, an aunt who died young before I was born. My parents gave me a second middle name which I share with Josefina. Villa Josefina was a favorite destination for all of us when on holiday whether we were little ones, during the gawky, awkward preteen years or sophisticated, cigarette smoking, makeup wearing high schoolers. My uncle gave us free rein and let us take his horses out for a ride whenever we wanted, without even asking. You want to chew on a stalk of sugar cane? Go get a machete and cut it down…go on! You know how to do it! He didn’t care if we sneaked a smoke behind one of the massive royal poinsiana trees, its fiery flowers blanketing the ground. On the contrary, he’d bum cigarettes off us. No. We were left to do what we like with the only caveat being we had to stay on the property regardless if the iron gates were locked or had been left open. To pass unsupervised and without permission through those gates was tantamount to that of jumping off a cliff. We knew without a doubt we were secure and protected from any harm while behind the lovely iron portal. Well, except one time. My little brother and sister, Tommy and Pamela, and Tio Enrique’s sons, Quico and Tommy, were careening down a hill in a wobbly wagon which happened to deposit them right in front of the open gates. Pamela told me she was miserable and frustrated being excluded just because she was a girl. The more she tried to be part of the fun and excitement, the more they shut her out. None of the kid’s were aware of any commotion around them; Tio Enrique shouting and running toward them, frantically gesticulating, fell on deaf and uninterested ears. He was the cool uncle, nothing he did surprised us. The boys were occupied with an out of control ride as well as thoroughly enjoying a bothered, angry Pamela so all their attentions were focused on that merriment. Two of my uncle’s workers ran behind him as fast as their legs could carry them.
When Pamela turned to look where they were excitedly pointing she turned pale at the site of a monstrous, runaway bull charging down the country road straight at them. A posse of men followed behind the beast futilely attempting the animal’s capture. The children froze, eyes as big as dinner plates, while the sound of the thundering hooves rained on their ears. My uncle and his workers slammed the heavy gates shut with barely a moment to spare, the bull swerved, surprisingly agile for such an enormous creature, and continued down the road. When relief replaced the fear in Tio Enrique he proceeded to give the young boys a blistering tongue lashing. I watched them hang their heads with embarrassment as he verbally took them to the woodshed. Pamela relished every moment. “Your beautiful cousin could have been killed while you played with your wagon!!!” But she wasn’t and minutes later we were all laughing and teasing each other, some were dancing, some were eating, all were drinking. Feliz Navidad!
This dish of arroz con gandules is a traditional Christmas treat in Puerto Rico, rich with pigeon peas, pork, olives and capers. It is typically served with pasteles, lechon asado or roasted pig, salads and root vegetables. Rum and wine cut beautifully through the richness of these foods so feel free to let the alcohol flow. Arroz con gandules can be prepared with or without pork so if you’d rather not include it just leave out the steps preparing the meat. And last, when I prepare white rice it’s almost always medium grain. Short grain can be too sticky or gummy and long grain is just….I don’t know….wrong. Oh, and this recipe will feed a crowd, too. So go tropical. You’ll love it!
Arroz con Gandules or Puerto Rican Pigeon Peas and Rice
There’s nothing like a big box of presents coming from a foreign land to catapult two little girl’s excitement for Christmas to a much higher level. Well, maybe it wasn’t quite a foreign land but 55 years ago Puerto Rico was far away and exotic. Mama’s family was old-world and traditional. That meant sweet treats, heavy books and gifts from Spain. And although the presents could not and would not be opened until Christmas morning, Mama always zeroed in on one particular box. Cutting through the tape and ribbon, she would carefully smooth the festive paper, setting it aside to be reused some other time. And as older sister, Cynthia, and I watched with huge eyes, Mama would unwrap the thin, rectangular box deliberately but with enjoyment. We all knew what was waiting within. I ran to get Daddy’s one tool, a wooden handled hammer. Slowly Mama pulled out a buff colored block of Spanish “Turron” or nougat, studded with savory roasted almonds sweeping in shades from fawn to cafe au lait and swathed between two thin sheets of rice paper. As if she’d been doing it all her life, Mama took that hammer and wailed on the confection until a fat, chunky corner came off. Away Cynthia went with her little piece of paradise. Bang, bang, bang and it was my turn to savor the Turron. A few more whacks and Mama had her piece. We had albums of Spanish Christmas carols playing on the record player, a magnificent, artisan made manger and massive family bible, all presents from her father and all from Spain. Other than that our lives were understated and straightforward. These were simple times when extravagance was frowned upon. These were times when hours were spent in front of the Christmas tree practicing handwriting for our letters to Santa. We always had a real tree but some years it was the size of a shrub as that was all my parents could afford. Times when money was so tight Mama put our presents on layaway at Woolworth’s, the local five-and-dime store and we received one present apiece. That was a wonderful Christmas, its essence captured below in that old black and white photo. We felt an abundance of riches with our gift Mama had scrimped and saved to give her girls.
These were times when a holiday outing was savoring the manger scene at our church after Mass. A complete farm was displayed with donkeys, sheep and cows frozen in an Italianate style behind baby Jesus’ cradle. Straw stuck out from every corner as the magnificently beautiful Virgin Mary gazed down with such immense love at her chubby, new-born toddler, golden curls shining in the candlelight; the angel of the Lord above the crèche announcing to all His birth. It was heavenly to us, full of wonder and captivating our complete attention until Mama said it was time to leave. Mama didn’t know how to cook so there was no such thing as baking Christmas cookies or cakes. No. We used our imaginations that Mama had so carefully cultivated to wile away the hours. Our dollies danced ballet to the Spanish carols. We unwrapped and wrapped the presents we had made in school for our parents…really they were for Mama. I still have the hand print I made for her in first grade hanging in my kitchen. I remember fretting and being worried sick that it would break after some classmate spread the vicious rumor that many pieces of pottery explode when fired in a kiln and I would be left with nothing to offer. And we had the big box that came every year from her family in Puerto Rico making certain we knew our Spanish customs. Making certain Mama didn’t feel alone in this town of Yankees. And making certain that until Daddy’s business had taken off we would all have a generous, plentiful Christmas.
This is one of those great recipes that takes two minutes and you walk away. I initially purchased dried figs from the bulk section of my Whole Food store. Before I began snipping off the stems, I ate one of the figs and, boy, am I glad I did. Hard and tough was what I spat out. I purchased another pound from my neighborhood Publix. They were packed in 9-ounce, air-tight plastic boxes and worked out great. These figs had been dried yet were still soft and moist. Most recipes call for the ever pricey Marcona almonds from Spain. Once again, glad I tasted the batch I bought. I paid way too much to bring home this stale and salty mess. Again Publix came to the rescue with a 7-ounce plastic box. They had their skins on but here’s how to get those skins off lickety-split. Place the amount of almonds you will be using in a small bowl and pour boiling water over them to cover completely. 20 minutes to 30 minutes later, squeeze one almond at a time and the skin will slip right off. Takes two seconds. Here’s the most important part of this recipe. This cake is good as is but served with cheese, preferably Manchego cheese, it will transform your taste buds. Somehow the Manchego brings out a deep floral flavor from the figs. The cloves and cinnamon disappear yet their earthy tones let you know they’re doing their part. Served with hard salami, thick, crisp Cuban crackers, some nuts and a bit of fruit your guests will be amazed. The cake does taste richer if allowed to sit 2-3 days before serving but it’s still pretty terrific served the same day it’s prepared. I hope you enjoy this Christmas treat!
Sometime before Christmas I got a strong hankering for homemade fruit cake, more specifically black cake. My father’s father used to make it every June or July, basting it regularly with West Indian rum, then serving it to the privileged few in through fall and winter. Grandpa was an incredible cook and baker and I regret that we never banged around the kitchen together. My 20’s were, shall we say, sketchy? I entertained quite a bit but, being young and foolish, I allowed myself to get crazy about details and elaborate menus. I hadn’t moved back home to Fort Lauderdale when he passed away. And although I have his massive recipe collection, I don’t have his recipe for black cake or fruit cake but, again, I know he loved West Indian rums so as I did my recipe research and development I kept that in mind. Grandpa traveled often to Saint Kitts, where he had family, and also the Lesser Antilles. He always brought back beautiful bottles of rum and brandy, the labels decorated sometimes by hand, and small, mysterious bottles of bitters. His crystal decanters were typically filled 1/3 and, in late afternoon when the sun shone in, they cast the most magical rainbows across his floors and walls. Grandpa had a full closet in his house that was his bar. That bar was something else! Angostura bitters, vermouth, rum, brandy, gin, vodka, scotch, bourbon. Glasses varying in size, hand etched with his monogram, were kept on a shelf in the closet. And guess what sat next to those glasses? Yup. All those beautiful black cakes and fruit cakes sitting in fine rum through summer and fall just waiting to be served. Through the year Grandpa would refresh each cake regularly with a quick splash of rum or brandy. He kept them neatly stacked on a shelf in his bar and, as winter and the holidays approached, would regularly share a slice or two with family and friends. His apartment was on the water and since he was less than a half mile from our house we visited often.
He was a gentleman’s gentleman, from the way he dressed to how his flat was furnished. Floor to ceiling book cases overflowed with excellent collections of the classics which gave him great enjoyment, some volumes so rare they were donated and exhibited at our main library. His father, also a bibliophile, had been a book publisher and Grandpa had a deep affection for the bindings, the quality of paper and the worlds those written tomes could take you. He loved raw oysters and sweetbreads, cold, rare roast beef served with an abundance of horseradish and all manner of fowl. Nothing made him happier than throwing big, wooden crab traps off his dock, while in linen Bermuda shorts, and watching the rectangular crates sink to the murky canal floor anticipating the sweet seafood pleasure to come. He surrounded himself with family pieces; silver was always polished, windows open at the ready for gentle, salt breezes and a homemade 4-layer, dark chocolate cake, iced and ready for company was always waiting in his refrigerator. 5 o’clock found him without fail in one of his club chairs, cocktail made, reading the newspaper. He had a passion for recipes from India, Britain and the islands, handsome full brogue Oxford dress shoes and rich but worn Persian rugs. Grandpa kept his knives frighteningly sharp and his ice bucket fresh and full. The downside was he could have a biting tongue. When my older sister, Cynthia, and I were much younger, maybe eight and six, we were left alone in the living room of his apartment while the grownups were having drinks on the porch. I was fascinated with learning cursive and, of course, model student Cynthia had already perfected her penmanship. Using our index fingers we idly traced our names on an elaborate silver tray that happened to be covered with dust. Try as I might, I just could not figure out how to connect the “c” in my name with the following letter “i”. The next day, and I don’t recall if the tirade took place at our house or his, however, I DO quite clearly remember Grandpa bending down over Cynthia and me and with his booming, deep voice bellowing two inches from our white-with-fear faces, “…WHO DO YOU THINK I AM? YOUR SERVANT? YOUR LACKEY?” We stood in frozen terror and I remember thinking, “What’s a lackey?”. Mama came to our defense explaining we had not meant to insult him and I believe she ended up receiving the verbal brunt of his fury. He was highly opinionated and pretty fearless. Not only did he love me but he liked me so I moved about him with ease and affection. I am of the opinion he would have highly approved of this cake, nibbling on a sliver every day until gone to begin again the gathering of dried fruits and spirits for next year’s batch.
This cake is nothing like the fruit cakes of old which were baked with Day-Glo candied fruits from the grocery store and best used as door stops. No. This cake is tender, and rich and almost chocolaty in flavor. I’m crazy about it, can’t keep my hands off it and, as I lean up against my kitchen counter and taste that first morsel redolent with the warm, mysterious flavors of candied orange peel, burnt sugar or browning, dark rum and port, well, I almost feel like a pirate in the West Indies.
My recipe is based on Chowhound’s “Caribbean Black Fruitcake” and, really, the only major difference is that I ground up all but one cup of the soaked fruit and nuts in the food processor to a slightly chunky paste. The cake is simple to assemble, however a week or two is needed for all the fruits to macerate properly so take that into consideration. The burnt sugar syrup called for in the recipe is also known as “Browning” and nothing can replace the flavor. It can be found at Publix on the “International” aisle with all island products. The label has a little fruitcake printed on it. I made my own candied orange peel back in December but if you’re not up for that, make certain you buy a good quality candied peel at, for instance, Williams Sonoma. Because of the large quantity of alcohol used to soak the fruit there is no need for additional soaking, although I did brush a bit of rum on top, once daily for two or three days, to keep the crown of the cake tender. And once the cake cools after taking it out of the oven it can be eaten; there’s no need to age it, however if does keep extremely well for up to two months, tightly wrapped in a cool, dark place…(my mouth?) Do not refrigerate it as the accumulating moisture will change the texture.
For the fruit:
2 cups whole raw almonds, coarsely chopped
2 cups prunes, coarsely chopped
2 cups dried cherries, coarsely chopped
1 cup raisins, coarsely chopped
1 cup candied orange peel, coarsely chopped
1 cup currants
1 3/4 cups fine dark rum
1 1/2 cups ruby port, tawny port is okay but ruby is sweeter
Combine all the above ingredients in a large container with a tight-fitting lid and mix well. Cover tightly and set aside in a cool, dark place for 2-3 weeks. Shake it every so often to mix the rum and port with the fruit and nuts.
For the cake:
1 pound unsalted butter, room temperature
2 1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
6 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon ground clove
3/4 cup burnt sugar syrup or browning
2-3 tablespoons dark rum for brushing on baked cakes
Pre-heat oven to 300° and slide rack into the middle.
Place all the macerated fruit and nuts except one cup in food processor including all the liquid. Pulse until the fruit and nuts are a chunky paste; the texture of cooked oatmeal. Set aside.
Butter or cover with non-sticking cooking spray two 9×5 inch loaf pans. Cover the bottom of each with parchment paper, butter or spray paper and set pans aside.
In a standup mixture place butter and sugar and using the paddle attachment beat on medium for 3-4 minutes or until fluffy and pale yellow.
While the butter and sugar are mixing, place flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground cloves in a bowl and whisk to break up all lumps and combine well. Set aside.
When butter and sugar are well beaten, scrape down the sides of the bowl, and add one egg at a time beating well after each addition.
Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the vanilla and turn the mixer to low-speed.
Add ground up fruit mixture as well as the burnt sugar syrup and mix until combined.
Take the bowl out of the stand-up mixer and using a large spoon or spatula fold the flour mixture in until just combined.
Divide evenly between the two prepared pans and bake for 2 hours or until cake tester comes out clean. The cakes will still be very moist.
Cool 30 minutes in the pans on a wire rack. Turn cakes out onto the rack and brush with a little dark rum.
Allow to cool completely before slicing or storing.
Christmas is the best of Puerto Rican culture. There is nothing, NOTHING, like a Christmas party in Puerto Rico. Our Christmas fiestas are epic, beginning early in December and really not ending until mid-January. Growing up in Fort Lauderdale we had a conflict of loyalties at Christmas. Leading up to the 25th of December was everything every little boy and girl dreamed of. Christmas parties at school with Secret Santas. Christmas on Las Olas where we got all dressed up, played in our Florence Eiseman dresses, white socks and black patent leather Mary Janes with our friends while our parents strolled the boulevard also decked out in their formal attire our mamas sporting big jewels with cocktails in hand. Museum parties where, if you were lucky, you got your picture in the social column of the local news paper. Every waking hour found vinyl spinning carols on the big, brown hi-fi. Mama would let Cynthia and me play Burl Ives and Bing Crosby songs over and over while she sat and enjoyed our beautiful tree. She let US set up the massive manger sent from Spain that her father in Puerto Rico had given her. Mama bought us GALLONS of eggnog from Farm Stores, a convenience store known for their thick, rich Christmas drink. There were tree trimming parties and cookie exchanges. There was virtually no baking in our house so Mama would buy boxes and boxes of butter cookies with sparkling red and green sugar crystals at Jacobs Bakery. Together Cynthia and I would hide in our room and, with heads together and low, secretive whispers, carefully open the presents we had for our parents. We were so proud of them…we just HAD to look at them again. Usually the presents consisted of some sort of pottery made and fired at school. We still have our handprints we each made when we were in first grade. And Mama always, always loved and treasured each and every handmade gift. One year I made a small, squat, acid green pitcher. Another, a dark, olive green snake rising from a rock as if to strike. But Cynthia made the coolest gift of all. It would have been the late 50’s or early 60’s and each classmate had been asked to bring in an empty glass bottle. Clean, dry and labels taken off, brightly colored marbles were then inserted and the bottles were, somehow, fired in a kiln. What came out was a large glass ashtray striated with brilliant ribbons of color throughout. My parents didn’t smoke but that thing sat in proudly in our living room for an eternity. Christmas morning was an astonishing extravaganza of thoughtful, magical gifts that stunned us year after year. Mama was quite frugal year round but come Christmas, well, she let Daddy know in no uncertain terms that she was pulling out all stops and that was that. Piled high and exquisitely wrapped were dollies, complete with wardrobes and wardrobe trunks from France and Switzerland, beautifully wrapped books from England, pen and ink drawings concealed between the heavy, linen paper pages patiently waiting to whisk us away to new lands and adventures. There were gleaming bicycles and roller skates complete with keys tied with a string of yarn ready to be worn around our necks during a fast paced race down the street. And that’s wherein our conflict of loyalties would lie.
Mama would allow us to play with our new toys for a few hours but then we had to clean up and give all our attentions to Christmas dinner with our grandfather, aunt, uncle and cousins. Upon returning home we had a quick bath, story then bed, for the following morning we were flying to Puerto Rico and we wouldn’t see our toys and books again for another month. Cynthia and I never wanted to leave. Tell me the 4 and 6-year-old that doesn’t mind walking away from their NEW TOYS? We never said much about it because Mama was so darned happy…she was going home. HOME. And she would be there for the happiest, most fun time of the year. There was no discussion. So off we went. On Pan American. With our little white socks on and Mama frantically asking, “Cielo, did you pack your veil as I asked?”. That would be for all the Masses we would be attending on this VERY Catholic island. Or, “Alicia, did you find your other glove?”. Probably not. I never had a matching pair. One seemed to always be lost from each pair. From the moment we landed it was color, music, laughter and clear-cut, point-blank, unreserved love. The happy, exalted, pick-you-up-and-swing-you-around kind. My mother’s family adored us, gave us everything we wanted and gave us that which we weren’t even aware we wanted! Night after night, at my grandparent’s house, we were awakened in the middle of the night by “parranderos” made up of family friends and relatives singing Puerto Rican Christmas songs. Still a tradition, the singers gather quietly at the unsuspecting family’s house sometime after 10 or 11:00 p.m. and, at a given signal, burst into song surprising the sleeping family. Parranderos all play a musical instrument from guitars, tambourines, and maracas to palitos, short, hardwood sticks struck together to give off a deep rhythmic sound, and guiros, dried, hollowed gourds with parallel notches carved out on one side. Scraping a stick or metal tines across the notches of the guiro makes a raspy, sexy sound and all these instruments played together produces the kind of music that’ll bring your oldest grandmother or grandfather to their feet for some hip-shaking, hand-clapping music you’ll be thinking of with a smile on your face for a long, long time. The awakened family is then expected to join the group for some song and then invite all into the house for some holiday food and a few fingers of fine Puerto Rican rum.
The family is invited to join the group as they go on to the next unsuspecting household for more surprise and song. You can leave the parranda to go back home any time you like but most parrandas go on until 4 or 5 in the morning. Mama would hurry into our room and, gently shaking Cynthia and me on the shoulders, whisper, “Girls! Girls! Wake up! Come to the balcon! Come see!”. In our cotton nightgowns, barefooted with eyes half-shut, we’d hurry to the front balcony and looking down there would be friends of the family, a few neighbors and a handful of uncles, dressed up, playing their instruments and singing their hearts out. Our grandfather, Papa Pepe, would be holding court in one of the mammoth cane-back rocking chairs, the rich smoke from his cigar curled off in long wisps and disappeared into the black night. Mama would be dancing in place, singing and clapping as if it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Too young to know how to swing our hips, Cynthia and I would clap our little hands, jumping up and down in perfect syncopation with the latin beat. My grandparents always smiled and welcomed the carolers but never continued on with the parranderos. It was back to bed for us after they left. Well accepted and custom in Puerto Rico, this practice is routine weekend AND weekday! For family parties whole pigs were roasted on hand-turned spits at our Tio Enrique’s farm. He and my other uncles always had a substantial supply of “pitorro”, illegal rum made from a still, and made certain that the farm worker hired to sit and turn the spit all day was well oiled with a discreet sip and maybe a slightly off-colored joke or two. Along with the roast pork, or lechon, was served the ultimate of Puerto Rican holiday dishes, pasteles, a tamale-like treat of blended of root vegetables seasoned with tasty chunks of savory pork wrapped in banana leaves, incredibly tasty but labor intense beyond belief. Alongside the lechon and pasteles was served our island’s version of rice and pigeon peas or arroz con gandules, spicy blood sausage called morcilla, garlicky cod fritters known as bacalaitos, crispy, salty fried plantains or tostones and, of course, the Puerto Rican egg nog drink, the Coquito, which is a creamy coconut cocktail spiked with a liberal amount of island rum. While the grownups relaxed and visited my sister and I would swing as fast and high as we possibly could on strung up hammocks. Our uncle would gather the both of us onto one of his horses and, machete in hand, cut down a good-sized piece of sugar cane, one for each of us to munch on, and off we’d go to explore his property and, essentially, run free. His gated house was set far off the road, surrounded by mountains and studded with palm and mahogany trees. My favorite, the scarlet flamboyan, offered delicious shade where Cynthia and I wiled away hours playing fairy and in later years sneaking cigarettes and having boy-talk.
New Year’s Eve brought more parties and Cynthia and I were permitted to stay up although when our family rang in the new year we were then in our nightgowns and close to going to bed. There were countless toasts, hug and kisses for all and, of course, good wishes. In the tradition of the island, one of my aunts or uncles would fill a bucket with water and with everyone standing back, cheering and whistling, the water would be flung with abandon off the second story balcony onto the street below signifying renewal and washing away all bad luck. Cynthia and I bounced up and down and climbed from lap to lap, skittish with excitement…this behavior was crazy! At the threat of something worse than death, we weren’t ever allowed to throw anything off the balcony. Our eyes were big as dinner plates at this display of dangerous living. Each of the grownups had had a sip or two, possibly three, and emotions were running high. My mother’s family rejoiced that she was with them, they were ecstatic that their girl was back if only for a month. Emotion washes over me when I think of how much my mother must have missed them and they her. Mama NEVER complained, she was raised in a world which dictated that complaining was common and unrefined, but I know it must have ripped her heart to pieces to have to leave. January 6th was Three King’s Day, the most important of holidays in Puerto Rico, when the Magi traveled all over the world on their camels leaving gifts for all good little boys and girls. The evening of January 5th would find children in the city, in the country and the mountains, outside with cardboard boxes in hand eagerly searching to fill them with the greenest grasses and most tender and loveliest of flowers to offer the camels who had journeyed so far. Cynthia and I, without fail, asked our aunts for a shoebox for each of us to fill with the prettiest of flora and they never let us down. We’d follow closely in their footsteps to their closets with eagerness because their closets were veritable treasure troves. Out came the big, brass keys they wore. The doors swung open and we caught sight of delicate fans made of lace and balsa wood, jewelry boxes with small, brass padlocks and fragrant rounds of soaps from Spain delicately wrapped in pleated, red tissue paper finished with a stamped coat of arms. Their leather high-heels were neatly lined up on the floor but all the prettiest, dress-up heels, were wrapped and stored in their ornate boxes. Both aunts would pick out the loveliest of boxes because you only put out your best for the Three Kings. The boxes were left at the foot of each child’s bed in the hopes that while the camels ate the flowers and greenery, the Three Kings, Los Reyes, would reward the children with wonderful presents. Like Santa, the Three Kings came in the middle of the night. It never occurred to Cynthia or me to question how those elaborately designed boxes ended up BACK in their respective closets but they did and without a scratch on them. January 7th through the 9th are holidays as each king has his own day and then, hard to believe but it’s gospel, the next 8 days are known as Las Octavitas with continuous celebrations all over the island. Sometime towards the end of Las Octavitas would be when we returned home to Fort Lauderdale. I won’t even go into the overwhelming sadness and yearning felt by all. I know Mama would have given her right arm and one eye to stay but Cynthia and I had usually already missed a good week of school. Through all our heartfelt hugs and tears we consoled ourselves knowing that soon we would be back for summer vacation, three whole months, for new adventures and memories to be made. We’d had a magnificent time and we knew it. Again, Mama, thank you for the most perfect, blissful childhood a little girl could ever want. This glimpse I give you all into a past time, my world, is not only a precious, treasured memory but my Christmas gift to you. And so I say Merry Christmas and Feliz Navidad!
Pasteles are easiest made with two or three people helping and in stages, over two days. The achiote oil can be store-bought or homemade. For the most part I prepare the meat and grate the root vegetables the first day and the second day is spent preparing the banana leaves and wrapping the pasteles. Frozen banana leaves may also be purchased at most large grocery stores. The outer paper is also available at grocery stores or online. When peeling the green bananas and plantain I strongly suggest using disposable gloves otherwise the juices will stain your cuticles and under your fingernails and you will look like you have farmer hands. James and I assembled the pasteles at our dining room table which we covered with thick layers of news paper to avoid not only sticky messes but achiote oil stains. Please know, achiote stains permanently. So it’s probably not a good idea to wear your favorite pajama top. Jus’ sayin’.
3 pound boneless lean pork picnic, fat off and cut into 1/2″ cubes
3 tablespoons adobo powder, I use “light” for less sodium and Goya brand
4 tablespoons achiote oil
1 1/2 cups sofrito, homemade or store-bought
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
1 15.5 ounce can garbanzo beans, rinsed, drained and skinned
1 tablespoon oregano
1 cup green olives, I use olives with the pit for more flavor
Mix the pork with the adobo until the meat is evenly and completely covered.
Add olive oil to a heavy bottomed pot and over medium heat cook the pork until the meat begins to release its juices stirring all the while.
Add all the remaining ingredients, stir well, and cook covered over medium low heat for 1 hour or until the meat is tender.
Remove from heat and set aside.
9 pounds very green bananas, peeled and maintained in cold, salted water until grated
5 pounds yautia or malanga, peeled and rinsed clean
1 large green plantain, peeled then put in the salted water with the bananas
2 envelopes of Sazon Goya with Culantro and Achiote
4 tablespoon salt
1/2 cup achiote oil
Using the large grater side of a box grater, grate all of the bananas, yautia and plantain. They will grate down to a sticky, runny paste, very loose and smooth.
Mix the root vegetable paste well then add the Sazon Goya, salt, achiote oil and the meat mixture, juices and all.
Mix well then take one or two tablespoons of the mixture and fry it up in a little olive oil to taste for seasonings. This will give you a really good idea of what the final product will taste like. Season accordingly and refrigerate, covered, until ready to assemble the pasteles. For me that’s Day Two.
ASSEMBLING THE PASTELES
1 pound frozen banana leaves, washed, trimmed and cut into 5″X7″ or 8″ pieces, Publix carries them
30-35 sheets paper for pasteles, I get mine at Sedano’s
30-35 pieces of cotton string measuring about 60″ in length
achiote oil, maybe 1/2 cup
Heat a large skillet or griddle to medium high heat. Place a cut banana leaf on skillet and warm the leaf for maybe 30-60 seconds moving around to avoid burning. With tongs flip leaf to the other side and continue wilting. This wilting process will make the leaves much easier to work with. Set aside when finished.
Set up your work stations however it’s most convenient for you. I put a stack of pastel papers right in front of each person and assemble the pasteles from there.
To begin, place one banana leaf in the middle of the pastel paper and spread a scant teaspoon of achiote oil all over the leaf. It doesn’t have to be all the way to the edges. This keeps the pastel from sticking when it comes time to serve it.
Place 1 cup of the pastel mixture in the middle of the leaf.
Take the pastel paper with the leaf and mixture in it and fold in half towards you so the edges of the paper meet. Hold the edges down with one hand and with the side of your other hand press the mixture away from you, back into the leaf. You’re going to often press the mixture back into shape as you fold.
Take the edges in front of you and make a tight, 1/2″ fold. Make the same fold two more times, tightly and the same 1/2″.
Place the tightly creased fold over the pastel mixture. It will look like a torpedo with a fold running lengthwise.
Pressing the pastel mixture to the center of the bundle, make two 1/2″ folds at one end of the torpedo and, where the mixture begins, fold that entire end over towards the center.
Repeat with the other end and you’ll finish with a small bundle. Set aside, folded edges down.
Fold another pastel and tightly tie the two pasteles together placing the folded edges facing each other. I tie the length and width both two times.
Freeze until ready to cook. Because of the high fat content they freeze marvelously. We just ate the last of the pasteles I made last year and they were sublime!
When ready to eat, heat a large pot with one inch of water and a steamer, bamboo or stainless steel.
If fresh, gently steam for one hour, covered, and add water as needed. If frozen, steam for two hours, again, adding water as needed.
To serve, cut string, unwrap, discard paper and banana leaf and slide pastel onto waiting plate.
I look at our glorious Christmas tree and it brings me such happiness. Now not working, I had the luxury this past week of decorating the tree and the house leisurely and deliberately with enjoyment and all my corny carols. In the previous years I’d come home from work at the very least tired, knowing I still had dinner to prepare and the inevitable put-the-lights-on-the-tree skirmish between father and son to deal with. Every year I had hopes of having Christmas carols on, Christmas cocktails in hand, spontaneous teasings and laughter…the dog would have his Christmas collar on with its little bells ringing every time he took a step…it was a delightful aspiration just short of a Currier & Ives Christmas card. I’d put so much pressure on myself, everything had to be perfect. And that means perfect by MY standards, MY set of rules. I turned into a beast. I could feel it. The bone weariness of work, shopping, cleaning, baking, cooking and decorating. Fingers throbbed from polishing drawer upon drawer of silver. I walked with the slow heaviness of a primordial tortoise, my feet screaming with pain at every step. And no amount of stretching or twisting could touch that dull, tortuous ache in my lower back. In the middle of it all I could easily turn around, my eyes falling on a shelf in the kitchen where I’d forgotten sat a row of silver platters, black with tarnish, waiting patiently for the day I’d spend polishing them. And there was the year I opened my closet late on Christmas Eve to find all the boxes and bags of gifts I had forgotten to wrap. Too many late nights, early mornings and long days and I morph into the “Sea Hag” from Popeye, snapping and scowling, muttering curses under my breath…it’s positively hideous. And for what? So I can say with pride that I prepared the most savory vitello tonnato on the planet? So I can hold my head up high knowing deep in my heart that my table is equal in grace and elegance…wait, no! Surpasses Queen Elizabeth’s at Sandringham? Oh, please. I discovered several years ago that not only is it not worth it and highly unattractive to behave in that manner, like a kitchen witch, but there is an easier way, a way that all in my household are happy and that peace and warm feelings are a constant. A little planning, a stable of tried and true outstanding recipes and a realistic timetable. Lists are invaluable; they will keep you on task and they will give you the sense of reassurance that you ARE in control. At your office when you might normally pop over to Facebook to see what’s going on COMPOSE YOUR LISTS. Believe me, everyone else is doing it. When you look over at your co-workers and they’re hunched over their computers do you really think they’re working on the Henderson Report?? Oh, hell no! They’re at their calendars figuring out how many days are needed for their 22-pound bird to defrost in the refrigerator. How far in advance can the potatoes be mashed and maybe this is the year we use nice paper napkins instead of the family damask ones. I’m tellin’ ya, make a list, stick with it and don’t freak out about the legions of people you’re expecting. And you’ll see how lovely it feels when, task completed, you can check off said chore on your list you so wisely composed. I no longer bake two or three different kinds of pies each Thanksgiving and Christmas. I choose to prepare my pies with handmade crusts so, to make it easier for me, I serve only pumpkin pies. Some years back I discovered that of the 15-20 friends and family members in my house none, NONE, really were interested in the apple pies. And they’re kind of labor intensive as the apples have to be peeled and cored. Pecan pies were barely touched and that was only after having scarfed down the star of my desserts…the smooth and sensual pumpkin pie. My people are all over that like a duck on a June bug. AND, for all my Southern peeps, this pie can be made with plain baked sweet potatoes in place of the pumpkin. (But my Southern folk know this already.:) I make my own pie crust, one which originally started as Craig Claiborne’s recipe but, many years later and hours tinkering with it, has evolved into my own version. That said, I am also a true believer in the store-bought, rolled up crusts in a box, perfect for a last-minute baking session. This pie is positively magnificent and, true to the saying, easy as pie. Make it easy on yourself. It is exceedingly better a day or two after baking, (that’s pretty great!), served chilled from the refrigerator with a fat dollop of sweetened whipped cream. The subtle flavors of the pumpkin, rum and warm spices unfold to bring about a swirl of deep and complex tastes that give these spices their celebrated status. This is the pie that will make your life easier AND have your guests swooning!
Again, this pie is much more delicious made a day or two in advance and well chilled. I often use a tart pan rather than a pie pan for no other reason than it’s what I’m in the mood to bake. The tart is served on top of the bottom of the tart pan with the collar or side having been removed so it’s a bit prettier. If you’d rather not include the rum in the pie or whipped cream that’s fine. It’s still a fabulous pie!
Over the Top Pumpkin Pie
yield: 1 10″ pie or tart
Pre-heat oven to 325°
1 15-ounce can plain pumpkin puree
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon dark rum
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1 partially baked 10″ pie crust or tart shell
In a small bowl mix cinnamon, salt, nutmeg, ginger and allspice until well combined. Set aside.
Using a large bowl combine pumpkin, condensed milk and eggs. Mix until combined.
Add rum and vanilla to the pumpkin mixture, stir until barely combined then add spice mixture to pumpkin and stir all until combined.
Place partially baked pie crust or tart shell on tin foil lined baking sheet. Pour pumpkin mixture in crust or shell and bake in the middle of the oven for 1 hour.
Check for doneness by ever so gently touching the middle of the pie. It should be barely firm, not “jiggly” at all.
If not quite done, bake another 10 minutes and again check for doneness using the pad of your finger.
Remove from oven and cool to room temperature, cover with plastic wrap and chill at least 12 hours or overnight.
Rum Sweetened Whipped Cream
1 cup heavy cream, ice-cold
1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 tablespoon dark rum
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Place mixing bowl in the freezer with beaters in the bowl to chill for several minutes.
When the bowl is cold pour the cream in and beat at low to medium speed until the cream is slightly thickened.
Add the confectioner’s sugar, rum and vanilla and beat on medium then high until soft to almost firm peaks form.
Serve immediately with each individual slice of pie.