Saturday, December 26, 2009

54: Pastel de Medianoche

For the dough:
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon double acting baking powder
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 pound (1 stick) butter
2 egg yolks
1 whole egg
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup oil

For the filling:
1/2 pound sliced sweet ham
1/2 pound sliced swiss cheese
1/2 pound sliced roasted pork
1/4 pound sliced turkey breast
1/2 pickle, chopped
1 teaspoon mustard

For the egg wash:
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon milk

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Sift the flour with the sugar, baking powder, salt and nutmeg.
3. Add the butter and cut with a pastry cutter until little pellets form, or until you have a sand-like consistency.
4. Beat the egg yolks, whole egg, oil and cooking wine together.
5. Add to the dry ingredients and mix together with a fork until well blended.
6. Pat out the dough and divide into two parts.
7. Put one of the parts on the bottom of a greased, 9" glass pie plate.
8. Spread half the mustard on the dough.
9. Place the ham, pork, turkey, cheese and pickles in layers.
10. Spread with the remaining mustard.
11. Repeat the ham, pork, turkey and cheese layers.
12. Top with the second part of the dough.
13. Brush the egg wash over the top of the dough.
14 Seal the edges with a fork and cut holes in the middle of the top dough to let the steam cook out.
15. Cook until golden, approximately 50 minutes.

Makes 8 servings.

Pastel de Medianoche

Yes, as in a midnight Cuban sandwich.
Yes, as in a midnight Cuban sandwich pie.
---End of blog post---
When I first read through all the recipes in the book, I read this and took a double take. You first build your own dough for the top and bottom crusts, from scratch, and then build a medianoche sangüiche (midnight sandwich) in between.
It’s scary. It really is. And as you’re going through the process the first time, I’ll advise for someone to hold your hand, or help you balance on one leg because that dough is soft, mushy and very hard to handle.
But when it’s baked to crispy golden perfection and the smell of the hot swiss cheese, ham, turkey and Cuban pork come wafting out of your oven – you know you just have to sit down and realize what you’ve just accomplished.
You’ve achieved absolute homemade Cuban greatness.
Recipe #416: Pastel de Medianocheingredients This recipe starts with a visit to your grocery deli and an incredibly sweet attitude. You’ll need the sweetness because when you ask the deli person what you need for them to do for you, they may not be so customer service friendly.
Luckily, the Publix at Dadeland has a deli person named Julie that is beyond sweet. I’ve done this to her twice already and even after she helped me the first time, she still says hi and helped me out a second time when I made this recipe for my cousin’s baby shower a few weeks after making the pastel the first time.
If you don’t go to the Dadeland Publix and have Julie to help you, then simply write what you need on a piece of paper and just give it to the deli person with a smile. Maybe you don’t need to do it this way, but since I’m a super nerd when it comes to my food prep, this is how I ask for the ingredients:
Hi! I’ll need four different types of bags for my ingredients. They’re all ½ pounders, except for one that’s a ¼ pound. They’re all sliced thin, but not see-through, rippable thin. The slices need to not rip.
The ½ pounders are: sweet ham, swiss cheese and Cuban roast pork.
The ¼ pounder is smoked turkey.
See, simple. Julie helped me find the best way to ask for my order. At first, I was scared to ask her because I actually wanted to make two of these pasteles for a Christmas dinner so I had six ½ pounders and two ¼ pounders…but see, then I start getting complicated.
Leave the order as above and just make one pastel. At least make just one the first time. Then, you can show off and make this your signature dish at baby shower buffets!
Once you get the deli bags home, put everything in the fridge and get the ingredients for the dough out.
You start by sifting flour, sugar, salt and grated nutmeg with Polvo Royal. Polvo Royal is double action baking powder, not gelatin powder like I first thought. That would have made this a real disaster. Thanks to a little asking around and some help from a cashier’s at Sedanos, I found out what Polvo Royal was. And, it seems that in Cuba they didn’t have double action, but only single action, so since this recipe calls for two teaspoons of Polvo Royal, you cut it by half to one teaspoon.
Once you’ve sifted all the dry ingredients, you add a stick of butter, a tablespoon at a time, and mix it well with a pastry mixer. I actually bought mine randomly a few weeks ago at Publix and couldn’t believe it was coming in so handy for this recipe. i had never even seen one in person before - only on Food Network.
boronilla Once you have the butter mixed in, you should see a grainy texture, kind of like sand, or like little tiny pellets. Then, you add in the wet ingredients – egg yolks that you have beaten into a whole egg BEFORE you put them into the mix (oops), dry white cooking wine and vegetable oil. Make sure it’s all mixed in well, using a spatula or wooden spoon. Then, knead the dough with your hands, just a little.
Here’s the weird part – the measurements Nitza gives makes this dough too wet to handle easily. It doesn’t drip, but it sticks so much to your hands, you’ve got to work quickly. I learned the second time, that if you divide the dough in half and wrap each half immediately with plastic wrap and throw it in the fridge until you can breathe again, it helps.
I won’t say the measurements are wrong, however, because the end result is just perfect; I’m just saying this masa (dough) is a bear to handle.
While the masa is chilling so it behaves when YOU’RE ready, take out a round 9" glass pie Pyrex. Grease it up with butter, of course. Ack, my arteries.
Get one of the wrapped halves of masa and take it out. Pat it while still inside the plastic wrap. Why? Because Ms. Chef here didn’t own a rolling pin. And when did I realize it? Right at this moment in the recipe.
Why can’t I remember to really read through the whole recipe? Nitza doesn’t even mention a rolling pin. I read over "rodillo" and didn’t even think twice that she was talking about a rolling pin.
But, guess what? The dough is so sticky, the rolling pin I now own – my beautiful Kris Kringle gift from Williams Sonoma that matches the red in my kitchen (thanks, Sandra!) – doesn’t work with this. The dough sticks tooooooo much!
So, you pat it out, into the bottom of the greased Pyrex, with your hands. In the baking, I promise you that all the imperfections get erased. Just make sure you have the bottom fully covered and up the sides fully covered as well. That’s the bottom crust for your pie. It will be fine without being perfect.
bottom masa Think of this as a rustic dish!
Then, the fun part begins…the layering of the medianoche sangüiche guts. You squeeze out some zig zags of mustard all along the bottom and spread gently (gently!) with a butter knife (or non sharp knife). Now, let your inner obsessive compulsions run free as you lay down the first layer of ham, round and round right on top of the mustard. Then, layer the turkey, then the pork, then the swiss cheese.
round and round And then some more mustard and…the pickles. Slices of kosher dill pickle, just like the ones in the sangüiche you know and love. You can make this half pickles and half non-pickles if you've got picky eaters.
half pickles Another round of layering and you end with the ooey gooey swiss cheese, right before closing the pie with the top masa lid. You know that top cheese is just going to seep way, way down and melt all the flavors together.
Now, take the second masa out of the fridge. If you have one of those bendable, thin plastic cutting boards, use it here so that you can pat out the masa with your palms to the size you need to cover the pie. If not, use parchment paper and gently lay the dough over the pie while still on the parchment paper.
on the parchment paper still on parchment Remember that this dough is very forgiving (it better be for the pain it is to work with) and you can actually fix the top if it didn’t land exactly how you wanted it to land.
Then, with a fork, you crimp the edges and with a sharp knife, you make slits on the top, like a real fancy baker would do.
fancy baker And that’s it. You put it in the oven that had been preheated to 375 degrees and let it bake for 50 minutes.
first slice Other tips that I’ll share, now that I’ve made three of these pasteles –
Don’t offer to bring this as an appetizer, unless you trick yourself and say that your party starts two hours before it really starts. Either that, or just have this served with the main dish. Each time I’ve taken it somewhere, we end up being late because it takes so long to make.
Watch out with dripping juices. I think it’s the ooey gooey cheese that bubbles over, but make sure you use good oven mitts or kitchen towels to take the pastel out of the oven.
Bring a second one. You’ll find yourself serving 16 pieces to feed the army you call your family and then the 17th person, most likely your abuela, will come and she’ll be left empty handed. You don’t want to do that. Bring a second pastel (after you’ve made just one simple one in the kitchen one day with lots of time and no pressure – ha!). fred
This can be your signature dish. It’s become mine so far. I’ll take this dish anywhere, anytime. Man, I wish the ingredients for Herald Top Chef would have been pickles and sticky dough – I would have taken Top Chef Silvia down for the count!
good product shot

Friday, December 25, 2009

Tia Alicia is Cuban then Mexican

My mother in law’s sister, Alicia, was born in Cuba, along with my mother in law, their two sisters and one brother. All in all, there were five of them. They all left Cuba and came to Miami, with the exception of Alicia. She left to Mexico. And that’s where my Mexican side of the family began.

Although Alicia’s entire grown up life was made in Mexico, she still considers herself as Cuban as the rest of her family here in Miami. Her whole side of the family – daughter, son in law, grandkids, and even her husband consider themselves part Cuban.

Tia Alicia even hangs out with Las Cubanas, a group of Cuban women that were born in Cuba, like her, and live in Mexico. They drink their cafecito Cubano and play Canasta (the card game) every time they get together.

Tia and Tio make it a habit of visiting Miami often. On a good year, they’re here to celebrate the holidays with us. To my good fortune, they were here in 1997, the first Christmas I spent with my husband’s family, while we were still dating.

On Christmas morning, many of us wake up early and dash to the tree to see what St. Nick has left for us. In my husband’s family, everyone wakes up in their respective houses, opens their gifts with their parents, and then continues the dash to my mother in law’s house.

We just recently started gathering at my mother in law’s. Remember, we all took on holidays after Moki’s passing. When Moki was around, we all used to meet up at noon-ish (Cuban time translation = between 2 and 3pm) to open all the cousin gifts.

We place all the gifts randomly around the living room, now set beautifully alongside my mother in law’s Christmas Village that takes a month to build (and take down). As soon as everyone has arrived and set their gifts in place, the almost twenty of us attack and spend a good half hour screaming each other’s names as we read the tags on each gift and hand them to the distracted recipient.

The trick is to grab a gift when you hear your name and start a pile in the corner. Before you know it, you turn around and you’ve got more than ten gifts waiting for you – it’s Christmas morning all over again!

And then, someone leaves their pile to make refried beans. At least when Tia Alicia is in Miami, she’s the one that is in the kitchen before anyone can realize it, cutting up onions and putting shredded cheese on plates as she heats up olive oil in a frying pan.

Out from the fridge comes a huge container of black beans. My mother in law’s black beans. Not the leftovers from Nochebuena. No, there’s usually no leftovers from Christmas Eve. It’s actually a fresh batch she had set aside that she made at the same time as the Nochebuena ones.

Alicia makes frijoles

And into the hot oil they go. Scoop by scoop, in they go, and the mashing begins. Tia Alicia’s got this down to a science. She mashes and mashes and mixes and stirs and those black beans turn to puree and start coming together quicker than I’ve ever seen – and definitely quicker than it took me this first time doing the frijoles refritos without her.

Tia and Tio stayed in Mexico to spend Christmas with their daughter and grandkids. It was the perfect time for me to step in and take another recipe down from The Project.

Or so I thought. When a certain few in my family saw me headed for the kitchen, I got the looks, and comments:

- Are you going to the kitchen? You’re not going to do something from The Project, are you? Are you going to…do Tia Alicia’s frijoles?
- Yes.
- But…why do you have that Nitza book with you? You’re not going to make some crap frijoles recipe from that book are you?
- No. I’m going to make frijoles refritos.
- Tia Alicia’s frijoles?
- Yes.
- But why do you have that book? Does it have pimentos and olives and stuff?
- No.
- But we like Tia Alicia’s frijoles.
- Yes. They’re the same as Tia Alicia’s frijoles.
- But…Tia’s frijoles are Mexican. That’s how they make it in Mexico.
- No. Tia’s frijoles are Cuban and her recipe is from this book. Look, it’s made the same way.

Dead silence.

For a long time.

News flash, family – Tia Alicia is Cuban. Why would it be such a shock to them that my Nitza book has Alicia’s recipe in it?

This was an endless case of round and round but at the end of it all, I still think they thought I was nuts and that Tia Alicia’s recipe was exclusive to her.

Well, Nitza or Alicia, call it what you want, it’s the best thing to do with leftover black beans (if there are any).

Recipe #40: Frijoles Negros Refritos

Nitza says that the first thing you do is put the black beans in a colander/strainer to make them into a puree. I take the beans only (hardly any liquid – only if necessary) and mash them in a tablespoon of hot olive oil with a potato masher instead. You mash and stir the beans constantly until you see them coming together and binding like a thick paste.

They actually come towards the middle of the pan as you stir, and stay away from the edges since the liquid has evaporated and what you’re left with is a hummus-type of consistency.

frijoles refritos ready for plating

You scoop the refried beans on a plate, with chopped white onions, shredded cheese and/or chopped hard boiled eggs on top. I personally like all three on top, but hey, it’s up to you.

Frijoles Refritos served

Easy easy. And, with a little practice, you’ll make your first batch in less than half an hour. You really have to learn how to play with the temperature of the heat you cook the beans over. The higher the heat, the better, but the greater the risk of burning the beans.

So, you play around with it, until you have it down to a science like Tia Alicia. And, before you know it, everyone will forget where the recipe comes from and they’ll think it’s unique to you. Or to Tia Alicia.

Whatever it is, I still don’t think my family believes I really made a recipe from The Project. I believe they think I gave in and made it like Tia Alicia makes it. Which I did, except that Tia Alicia learned how to make it from Nitza and just like all good Cuban dishes, that gets erased and it becomes unique to the cook.

So feel free to call this your own. Your family won’t know any better. Which is really what we all want – dishes to call our own.

And another recipe down. Lots more to go.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Secret Ingredients: Sour Cream & Citrus

I had been hearing about Herald Top Chef for a couple of years now and since I had become a self-proclaimed chef in training and blogger for, I felt it was only proper that I join in on this year’s competition.

Our Executive Editor, Anders Gyllenhaal picked the secret ingredients and they were – sour cream and citrus.

Being the newbie, I assumed you had to use both ingredients (which I still think should be a requirement), and I went home to read every recipe in Cocina al Minuto until I found one that contained both citrus and sour cream.

I read the book for over an hour and could only come up with one.
And, it didn’t even have citrus – it is made with strawberries and pear but for this one time, it was time to alter the recipe and switch out the pear for mandarin orange. And key limes. Key lime makes everything taste better.

To be honest, I had no idea that a Pastel de Queso y Frutas was a cheesecake with fruit on top. I just call it "chiscay" (chees-cay) in Spanish.

Fancy shmantzy Nitza with her pastel de queso. What is this thing supposed to look like?
And this was the recipe I was going to throw my hat in the ring for?

Recipe #420: Pastel de Queso y Frutas

ingredients for pastel de queso y frutas

Four days before the competition, I gave it a dry run at home. There was no way I was going to submit this to a panel of expert judges without at least tasting what it was I was making.

Décor? I’d have to just make it up as I went along. I had a feeling this was going to be one of those fancy glossy Cuban desserts from Tia Glady’s Thanksgiving.

First things first – preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Then, you get a pound of cream cheese – a full pound, and you beat it in your stand mixer until creamy and then you add three eggs to it, one by one. Add the sugar and vanilla extract and let it keep mixing for five minutes.

Five minutes of stand mixing work? I actually got a chance to sit down.

Once it’s light and airy, you pour the mix into a 9" round pyrex and bake it for 50 minutes.
While that’s baking, you beat the sour cream, sugar and vanilla until well mixed, again, in the stand mixer.

first layer plus second layer

Once the first layer has finished baking and has cooled for about 20 minutes outside the oven, you go ahead and pour this second layer over it and bake it again for 15 minutes this time, still at 350 degrees.

Once that’s done, you get started on your fruit topping as you let the pastel cool to room temperature.

You get a bag of frozen strawberries that you have defrosted (yes, Nitza says 1 package of frozen strawberries in her list of ingredients –I almost keeled over when I read that) and put them, along with the juices that are in the bag in a saucepot. You cover the strawberries and their juices with sugar and flour and stir constantly over low heat until it thickens.

with orange slices

When you start feeling resistance while stirring, you add slices of mandarin oranges, along with the juice from one key lime and you mix it all together. Then you mash it really well with a potato masher to get all the fruit pieces broken down.

Once that fruit compote cools, you can add it to the cooled cheesecake.
Nitza then says that you add pears to the topping, but I added mandarin orange slices instead – I needed the citrus. And, it was more Florida of me to add oranges. Pears are so…Oregon.

test cheesecake

I took my test cheesecake to work the next day and shared it with anyone that would pass by. That is, anyone but those in the newsroom. After all, this was a competition and I was not about to let anyone in the newsroom know what it was that I was preparing.

So, not a peep about my recipe on Facebook, Twitter, nada. Hidden cookbook and test cheesecake under my belt, I was ready for the competition.

When Top Chef-eve rolled around, I made mini cheesecakes, as per the guidance of my food stylist, so that the cheesecake wouldn’t look mushy and destroyed when cut. Since it’s a crust-less cheesecake, it doesn’t hold up well as a pie.

I’m telling you, I don’t know what this recipe looked like in Cuba. If anyone has any photos from the past with this "chiscay" in it, please share!

I took my mini cheesecakes to the office in the morning, snuck them into the Advertising kitchen and hid them for the day.

At 4 o’clock, it was time to start the prepping. I topped them with the strawberry orange key lime mermelada (marmalade) and some key lime and orange slices for dramatic effect. I color coordinated the presentation so well, even my food stylist advisor was impressed.

closeup of mini cheesecakes

I took my dish up to the newsroom and was the first to arrive.

Rookie here was freaking out while all the veteran Herald Top Cheffers were taking it all in stride.
After I placed my entry in its proper spot, I stepped away from the tables and kept an eye out for competition. Who would I have to beat out to surprise my coworkers as the blogger that really could cook?

dessert table

Would it be the two-time reigning champion, Lisett, known for her Best in Show desserts and her Orange Brownie with Citrus Cream Frosting?

Would it be Fred Tasker and his Poor Man’s Champagne Punch he was submitting as an entry for dessert?

Fred Tasker? Really? I shouldn’t be in this competition.

Joan Chrissos from Neighbors, Niala Boodhoo from Business. All in the dessert table.

Can I take my "chiscays" back and go home?

The judges showed up and I just wanted to cringe. Not only was David Landsberg, our Publisher, a judge, but so were:
- Beverly Mills from Desperation Dinners (and Anders’ wife);
- Linda Bladholm, Miami Herald’s cook with a deep understanding of global food and culture (oh no);
- Cristina Arencibia, special food contributor to El Nuevo Herald (ay dios mio!)

I put on my best face as they called us dessert contestants to the middle of the floor. When Iron Chef Cheung asked some of us to step forward and I found myself alongside Lisset, I knew I was safe.

When he asked some of us except for Niala, Lisett and Teresa to step forward, I knew I was a gonner.

And I was. And Lisett lost too, which made me feel a wee bit better.

And Teresa won, which made me feel a whole lot better because she was a total sleeper competitor. I didn’t even know she was entering in the competition and she’s such a great person to work with, I was just elated for her and her Torta de Queso Coronada, which, by the way, I didn’t even try because I had only tried the shoe-in, Lisett's Orange Brownie!

And that was the end of my first competition. No consolation prizes, no second places, no nothing. Teresa was Top Chef Dessert and that was it!

teresa's torta de queso coronada

At the end of the day, it was a fun event. Everyone participating had a great time and my dear friend Silvi even won with her total random entry of Cuban Black Beans and Rice with a dollop of sour cream and citrus zest (not that her dish was random, it was her last minute decision to enter that was random). Those beans give my mother in law’s beans a run for their money.

So, at in the end, it was another recipe made, a first experience at a competition and a newfound respect for anyone that has to prepare food to be consumed en masse.

Herald Top Chef I may not be, at least not this year. But wait until the secret ingredient next year ends up being Patagrás cheese and chicharrones – two of Nitza’s most commonly used ingredients. Now we’re talking!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

KFC, Abuela style

pickin chicken menu Photo courtesy of: RetroJason via Flickr

When I sat down to pick my next recipe, I came across this one and realized that it was none other than southern style fried chicken. Rich batter fried chicken. Nitza calls this Pollo a lo Miami, which is confusing because why would anyone think that batter-fried chicken is chicken Miami-style?

Growing up, my husband and his cousins used to go to the beach every weekend with their aunt Bivi and a bucket of fried chicken from KFC, or as Bivi would call it, Pickin’ Chicken. They would play in the beach for hours, come out and eat sandy greasy chicken and go back in the water to play.

Many of us have grandmothers and aunts that – to this day – call KFC, Pickin’ Chicken. Many of us don’t know why, but from what I found out, there was a restaurant in Miami Beach that was called Pickin’ Chicken. Did our grandmothers name KFC, Pickin’ Chicken, just because it was their first experience with fried chicken made this way?

I don’t know, but if anyone does, please feel free to share.

Recipe #166: Pollo a lo Miami

Pollo a lo Miami ingredients
This recipe looked easy enough, I decided I wanted to attack it while in the midst of US1 traffic on my drive home one night. Thanksgiving had taken so much out of me, two weeks had almost gone by without another cooking session.

I called my parents, told them to come on over and we were on our way to eating fried chicken for dinner. There was nothing tricky about this recipe. Nitza had asked that I get a two pound chicken and cut it into eighths. Well, now that I’m fifty recipes into The Project, I knew better and planned for a quick stop at Winn Dixie on my drive home to pick up the pre-cut chicken parts.

The eyes are rolling. I know, I know. There’s nothing quick about any of this, but this time, I swore, it was going to be fast.

I got home (thirty minutes later thanks to rush hour traffic I had jumped out of), plopped the chicken on the counter, took out an egg, milk, flour, salt, pepper and vegetable oil – I was ready. See, easy.

I whisked the egg with the milk, flour, salt and pepper while I heated the oil in a cast-iron skillet (my first skillet and this was a great way to break it in!!).

When I dipped the first piece of chicken in the batter and threw it in the oil for frying, I felt like if I was making a down home southern fried chicken – seriously. Someone pass me a biscuit!

coating chicken in batter

This thing was southern southern southern – and Nitza called it Miami-style?

After cooking each piece for about ten minutes, my family was ready (and starving). Nitza says that ten minutes is all you need, so when I took out the biggest piece and cut into it to check for doneness, I sheepishly smiled at my family and told them to find something else to do for a few minutes. This chicken was raw.

Back in the skillet and about twenty minutes later, we were done.

And, wow. This was some good chicken. Colonel Sanders or Pickin’ Chicken? It’s all the same to me. Down home southern fried chicken – finger lickin’ good!

fried chicken

Speaking of finger lickin’ good, when I went on the KFC’s website to look at their history, I found out that the pressure cooker was introduced in 1939 and that Colonel Sanders used to fry his chicken using one to give his customers fresh chicken, faster.

Maybe I should try that next time – but how would that even work? A pressure cooker with oil? Oh, no, I feel a nightmare about chefs without arms coming on.