WHAT ARE PASTELITOS AND WHERE TO FIND THE IN MIAMI
Little Havana is not so little. Everything about it is bigger than life. It’s a sprawling neighborhood that stretches from downtown Miami and goes on for miles and miles. And it’s not only that the area is widespread. The residents are a gregarious and rambunctious lot, ready to levy their sweet yet outsized personalities right on to you. The artworks are bold, vibrant and practically leap off their canvases to relate a long provocative story of lives lived and hearts broken. The territory’s bustling street fairs can be heard from far away. Yes, it can be said that Little Havana has outgrown its name, and perhaps something grander sounding should be formulated to match its magnetism.
But there is no better measure of this vicinity than its food. The huge, omnipresent platters of Cuban comfort food served constantly day and night, reverberates and reinforces the locals consistent passion for traditional cooking. One of those hallowed recipes is a pastelito or as it translates, small pastry. Any Spanish word that ends with ito or ita means something is miniature. However, adhering to the theme that Little Havana really isn’t pint-sized, these “one is enough for two people” generous, adored flaky turnovers will keep you more than satisfied, that is until you want another soon enough. The puff pastry is typically sweet-filled with guava, guava and queso ( like cream cheese), or just queso, or savory-filled with beef or ham. You can identify which filling is in a pastelito by its shape. Triangle-shaped ones are usually filled with guava and queso, square ones hold just guava or just queso, and round ones are meat-filled.
A pastelito is one of the items that is best bought from a Little Havana bakery versus a supermarket, as they need to be eaten fresh and slightly warm. Get there early, as Cuban bakeries can have lines that snake around the block. In the neighborhood, bakeries are more like dining rooms. You can order your pastelito, grab a stool and share counter space with a friendly resident over morning coffee. While they are eaten in the early hours, pastelitos can be enjoyed at any time. As you bite into your pastelito, you’ll be tempted to swat away the many crispy crumbs that are sure to cascade right down onto your shirt, but don’t! It’s considered a badge of honor to be so fortunate to have eaten such a pleasurable treat, so let it show you’ve eaten it with much gusto.
Like most Cuban foods, there is always a backstory to how it came to be- in fact there are three tales. The first account is that a Lebanese man in Cuba was trying to replicate baklava, a Middle Eastern dessert with sweetened nuts encased in a flaky crust, and when he could not find Mediterranean ingredients, he substituted guava and cheese for his pastry filling instead. The second theory is that the pastelito was invented by slaves working in the Cuban sugar mills. And the third legend is that it originated in Cuban households as a dessert or appetizer to round out the meal. Whatever anecdote you wish to believe, just believe it’s one of the most scrumptious pastries that Cuban cuisine has to offer.
For such amazing flavor, the pastelito surprisingly has only a few ingredients. Basically for the sweet ones, slices of guava paste and cream cheese are just placed on top of sheets of puff pastry with more puff pastry placed over the filling to enclose it all into a triangle or square envelope. A quick egg wash and a little sprinkle of sugar tops the package and then it’s baked until golden brown. Savory ones are simply filled with Cuban picadillo, a ground beef mixture made with tomatoes, onions, peppers, garlic, olives, raisins and flavored with bay leaf, cumin, oregano, black pepper and red pepper flakes or with slices of ham and cheese. Once the pastelito is stuffed, they are cut into round shapes and then brushed lightly with a sugar syrup, giving the pastry the best of both savory and sweet worlds.
But don’t feel guilty that you might have broken your diet regime, as there is a little silver lining for your waistline when indulging in a pastelito. Should you choose a pastelito de guayaba ( guava), you’ll be dosing yourself with some healthy vitamin C. Guava, the greatest tropical fruit ever created, is loaded with the stuff. In fact, most people associate Florida with oranges, the long held king of vitamin C. In reality guava should really knock oranges from that title as proportion to proportion, it has four times the amount of vitamin C. And it’s three times more fibrous to boot.
The only proper way to know what kind of pastelito to try, is to try them all! So be that wide-eyed youngster who peers into the pastry case and sees only possibilities. Remember, spending time in Little Havana is all about living large.
By Robyn Webb