The holidays are about spending time with family and friends, and all about eating. This seems especially true when I visit my parents for the holidays. Each year I go to Miami for Christmas and spend the majority of my time there visiting family and cooking and eating tons of food (with most of the time spent with the food). My mom has always cooked and baked, whether it was a holiday or not, but it seems that as the years go by, the types and amounts of dishes she makes increase exponentially. Since I am the only child of hers who enjoys cooking and baking, I find myself as the chef’s assistant.
The great thing about spending the holidays in Miami, besides spending time with my family, of course, is that I get to make and eat special Cuban dishes I don’t get year round. All the cooking we do culminates in a huge dinner and celebration on Christmas Eve, or Noche Buena, with leftovers to be eaten on Christmas Day. Roasted pork, or lechón, (either a whole pig or portion) is the main course and eaten with arroz con frijoles, yucca, pan cubano, and plátanos maduros. And the desserts! Oh those desserts! So many it’s hard to pick which to eat (especially after you’ve stuffed yourself with pork and all those side dishes). Torrejas, flan, buñuelos, turrones, decorated sugar cookies, gingerbread cookies, cake, pecan pie, pastelitos de guayaba y de guayaba y queso, coco rallado….my blood sugar level is rising just by writing this.
So below I share with you some items from my annual holiday Cuban food fest for your viewing and reading pleasure. Spending time with your family at the holidays is special, but getting to spend it cooking and eating Cuban food with them that one time of the year makes it priceless (and delicious).
This is a requirement of any Noche Buena dinner (or most Cuban gatherings). People roast either a whole pig or una pierna (which I found translated as “pork shoulder”). The important things to remember about making lechón is that it needs to be marinated well, using Cuban mojo. This marinade is the main one used in Cuban cooking and is a must for any lechón. It’s also used to marinade other types of meat as well. The main ingredients are garlic and sour orange juice, made from the Seville orange. Black pepper and salt are added, with some variations including cumin, oregano, and other spices. Now there are some mojo recipes that call for the addition of oil. Having grown up in Miami eating perfectly marinated pork and beef, I am a mojo snob and somewhat of a purist. I have never eaten mojo that had oil in it at home and when I did have it once, it was awful (Porto’s I’m talking about your mojo marinade for your pork). I think it just makes the meat oily and unappetizing. In doing some reading about mojo used in different recipes, the addition of oil is recommended for meats that are not very fatty, like chicken. For pork, no oil is needed because of the fat the meat contains, so you don’t need to add it.
This year my parents made a pierna because there weren’t too many of us coming to dinner. They seasoned it the day before using their own mojo recipe and roasted the pork shoulder in the oven for most of the day. When it was done, the skin was browned and crisp (and perfect for eating) and the meat juicy and tender.
After eating the main course and washing it down with various libations, it’s time to move on to the desserts. My mother loves to bake and tries to find any excuse to do so. During the holidays, I’m her assistant and also an official taste tester (best part of the job). We make lots of different desserts, sometimes so many that there is no space left on the kitchen table or counters because they are covered with what we baked.
Different kinds of cookies are always made using homemade icing in various colors to decorate them.
We also make lots of other desserts…
As with most families, we have some Cuban dishes that are only eaten at Christmas. For us, it’s 2 desserts. One of the dishes is torrejas, or Cuban style French toast. Now I love French toast of any style, but these are particularly good. Some people eat them cold, but I like to have them warm. Below is a recipe for torrejas from a Cuban cookbook my mom has by Nitza Villapol called Cocina Criolla.
1/2 kg. of bread loaves
300 ml. condensed milk
2 tbsp. dry cooking wine
2 egg yolks
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/4 kg refined sugar
1/2 cup of water
480 ml. oil for frying
Mix milk with water, dry cooking wine, 2 egg yolks, salt, cinnamon, and vanilla. Dip the bread into the mixture for about 2 to 3 minutes. In a separate bowl, beat the 4 eggs. Take the soaked bread and cover both sides with the beaten egg. Heat the oil (on medium heat) and fry the bread until it’s golden brown on each side (makes 8 servings).
After cooking, you pour syrup all over the torrejas and let them soak in the syrup a bit before eating them. We don’t use maple syrup like you might with regular French toast, but we use almíbar (light syrup) made from sugar and water, with vanilla, cinnamon sticks and star anise added for flavoring.
Bring water and sugar to a low boil, stirring constantly for about 10 minutes. Add star anise, cinnamon sticks and lemon juice. Continue cooking on low heat, for about 30-40 minutes, until mixture thickens to a honey or maple syrup consistency. Remove from heat and add vanilla.
But none of the food we eat on Noche Buena comes close to the one sweet pastry we all wait an entire year to eat…buñuelos. These lightly fried pastries, made with root vegetables and drowned in almíbar, are the highlight of the meal. When they are brought out, a feeding frenzy ensues with everyone running to grab their share. Guests bring their own Tupperware to the dinner to take some home. They are really labor intensive, which is why my mother only makes them at Christmas (and that’s also when they’re traditionally eaten), but all that hard work is so worth it. I love to eat them right after they come out of the frying pan, so I always volunteer to fry them. My mother’s recipe, which she has written on these small pieces of paper that are beautifully worn and stained from so many years of making these, is a secret so I cannot share it with you. But I found this great blog post with a recipe for them (and some wonderful photos of the dessert) which is similar to my mom’s recipe. Even though I can’t give you my mother’s recipe, I can share the experience of how she makes them, shaping and frying each buñuelo with love for those of us who have waited 364 days to eat them.