While sugar may not be en vogue these days, it simply cannot be erased from traditional Cuban cooking. For if there was no sugar, the island of Cuba actually wouldn’t have thrived. As one of the top producers of sugar in the world, it was this very output of the sweet granules that kept the Cuban economy going for so many years. Despite all efforts to keep personal consumption of sugar reasonable, when it comes to Cuban desserts, well, that is going to take some effort, for the Cuban culture is all about Azucar!- the sweetness of life!
Cubans are so serious about their sweet endings that my own sister in law practically demands you have a box of pastelitos under your arm if you want entry to her home! While my relative likes to buy Cuban desserts ( at only the best emporiums), Cuban desserts are actually really simple to prepare from scratch. You don’t have to be an experienced baker like most Cuban abuelas, just a little love and of course, a little sugar, is all that is needed.
Let’s start with one of the easiest to prepare and one of the most beloved of Cuban desserts, the pastelito. Similar to strudel, this iconic pastry begins with a blanket of sweet and buttery crust. Inside the pastry is when things get exciting! The pastry is filled with everything and anything you can imagine. Guava, coconuts, pineapple, custards, and cream cheese are just to name a few of the luscious interiors waiting for your strong appetite. But pastelitos have many lives- meaning, they can be savory too! Stuffed with beef, chicken, ham and cheeses, you could make an entire meal of different pastelitos.
Typically, square pastelitos are filled with just guava; triangular ones are filled with guava and cream cheese; round ones are often savory filled with the meats. Whatever they are filled with, the most important part of devouring this flaky dessert is that it must be served warm. Ah….that warmth is the essence of the Cuban culture- homey and comforting!
While many Hispanics cultures profess their love for flan, Cubans actually have a little secret as to why people stand in line at the bakery for hours for the jiggly dessert. Instead of using regular milk, Cuban flan uses evaporated or condensed milk. Perhaps it is a blessing in disguise that in Cuba that fresh milk is harder to come by, but this struggle is actually why Cuban flan tastes so much richer with the canned milk products.
If there was ever a Cuban dessert to binge on, it would be this melt-in-your-mouth cone shaped cake. With a combination of egg yolks, cornflour and sugar, once you start eating them, there will be no stopping you. To make capuchinos, bakers need a special cone shaped pan. The name, as you may have recognized, is similar to cappuccino coffee. Both of these delicious edibles came from the Roman monks hats. To top it all off, the sponge-like cake is soaked with a specially made syrup. The final taste is something akin to a perfect pancake slathered in fresh maple syrup.
As one of the most famous Latin American desserts, when translated means “three kinds of milk.” Condensed milk, heavy cream or full fat milk, and evaporated milk are all used to make an absolute dream dessert that is a perfect pairing to a cup of strong Cuban coffee. Often the tres leches is topped with a delightfully burnt sweetened meringue that only adds more Azucar to every bite!
But remember one important aspect that runs through the art of Cuban cooking-abuelas cook with love and passion well before following an exact recipe. And while hand-written measurements and directions have been passed down from generation to generation, they take a backseat to the pure enjoyment of creating something special for family and friends.
These are the two recipes I make over and over again for my Cuban relatives as well as anyone who wants a little Azucar in their lives!
All Purpose flour for dusting
1 pound frozen puff pastry, thawed, cut into 4 inch squares
Ground cinnamon and nutmeg to taste
1 cup guava preserves
1 egg, beaten
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Dust your working surface with flour. Roll the puff pastry out to make a rectangle measuring 8x16 inches. Sprinkle with cinnamon and nutmeg. Put 1 ½ Tbsp of the guava preserves on each piece of puff pastry. Brush the edges with beaten egg. Fold over to form a triangle.
2. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Place the pastries 2 inches apart. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until brown. Cool before serving.
6 ¾ ounces cake flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
4 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
8 ounces sugar
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
1 (12 ounce) can evaporated milk
1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup half and half
2 cups heavy cream
8 ounces sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil and flour a 13 by 9-inch metal pan and set aside.
2. Whisk together the cake flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl and set aside.
3. Place the butter in a bowl of a stand mixer or use a hand-held mixer and a medium bowl. Beat the butter on medium speed. Decrease the speed to low and add the sugar. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
4. Add the eggs, one at a time and mix thoroughly and mix to combine. Add the vanilla and mix to combine. Add the flour mixture to the batter in 3 batches and mix until combined. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan ad spread evenly. This will appear as a small amount of batter. Bake on the middle rack for 20-25 minutes until the cake is lightly golden.
5. Remove the cake to a cooling rack and cool for 30 minutes. Poke the top of the cake all over with a skewer or fork. Allow the cake to cool completely and then prepare the glaze.
6. Whisk together the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and the half and half in a measuring cup. Once combined, pour the glaze over the cake. Refrigerate the cake overnight.
7. Make the topping: Place the cream, sugar, and vanilla in a bowl. Using beaters, whisk together on low until stiff peaks form. Change to medium speed and whisk until thick. Spread the topping over the cake and allow to chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve.
But wait……want to savor Cuban desserts in an authentic neighborhood? Come join us on a Miami Culinary Tours adventure in Little Havana as we treat you to a variety of desserts. While you enjoy some of our favorites, learn the great intriguing stories behind the food as only our master storytellers can share. What are you waiting for…Azucar awaits!
By Robyn Webb