By Mercedes Ibarra
Photos and editing by Marcela Aguayo
Inspired by and adapted from Cocina al Minuto: Selecciones de Recetas Favoritas, published by Ediciones Cubamerica
When I was a little girl, my parents would spend an entire two days preparing food for birthday and holiday parties. All the “parentela” would be invited to come over. Because my parents left their families behind when they each left from Cuba alone in the 1970s, my mother from Havana and my dad from Santiago de Cuba, they created a new “family” with the Cuban refugees they met. This is the “parentela.” Some of the parentela were like my godfather, men who cut sugarcane with my father in order to earn permission to leave Cuba. Some were Cuban refugees they met in Spain, their first host country when they left. Some of they met here.
To me, they were all my uncles, aunts, and grandparents.Their children were my cousins. Much like most Cuban gatherings, these parties were loud, jovial, and full of tons and tons of food.There was “congri” (red beans and rice cooked together), fried plantains, yucca with garlic “mojo” sauce, meat dishes like “lechon asado,” and trays and trays of empanadas, both savory and sweet.The savory ones were either filled with “ropa vieja” or “picadillo,” (both meat dishes), and the sweet ones were my mom’s invention for my childhood tastebuds: strawberry or grape jam or jelly.I remember sitting in the kitchen as my father assembled the empanadas and my mother fried them to crispy perfection.I would always ask for one, or three, and she would eventually get annoyed with my pestering and shoo me away.I would dance away happily with the last one my father snuck into my hand.
A lot of my mother’s cooking was inspired by one cookbook Cocina al Minuto: Selecciones de Recetas Favoritas (selections of favorite recipes). This was like a Cuban-American kitchen bible. It contained for almost everything Cuban and even for some “American” foods like lobster bisque or guacamole. However, I recommend sticking to the Cuban recipes. Only Cubans would really think a guacamole recipe should automatically include pineapples and thanks to this book, I grew up thinking “arroz frito,” or fried rice, was actually a Cuban dish.
When I was finally an adult and began creating my own parentela, I wanted to figure out how to recreate some of my favorite childhood foods. One day I walked into a Borders and there it was, sitting on the bottom shelf of the international cuisine bookcase the Cuban-American kitchen bible itself!I bought it and planned a friend’s birthday dinner.I made chicken, congri (Cuban rice and black beans), plantains and ropa vieja (Cuban shredded steak)empanadas.That first batch of empanadas was delicious, but downright ugly. I thought I could prep them at my house and then transport them without frying so that they could be fried before being served.The raw dough got stuck to the trays and made holes in the empanadas which I tried to cover by stretching the remaining dough over and that worked somewhat, but the appearance left much to be desired.But they were so good!No one seemed to care they were ugly. So I started a mission to perfect my empanadas. They are a real labor of love, emphasis on the word labor.However, that labor is worth it.If you love making food for those you love and you love seeing your food disappear quickly, this is the ultimate recipe for it. I always have a very mixed reaction to spending hours on trays and trays of empanadas and watching them disappear in five minutes.I’m not kidding.I timed it once. Forty-eight empanadas vanishing in five minutes is my record.I shed two tears that day, one of pride and one of longing for more empanadas. The moment my brother-in-law imitated a chorus of angels singing and raised an empanada to the “heavens” was the day I knew I had made it as an empanada expert.
The recipeis the original recipe found in Cocina al Minuto, with my own additional tips from my years of empanada education. This is a sweet empanada recipe, made with guava and cream cheese, a favorite flavor combo for Cubans and very popular among the non-Cubans as well.It is obviously a more sophisticated sweet filling for adult palates, but one day I will make myself a strawberry jelly empanada for old times’ sake.And I will dance around while I eat it.