Come to The Cuban Table for the food, and stay for the stories.
This new cookbook, out this month, will take you on a journey through centuries of cooking in Cuba, with interesting recipes and fascinating narrative. The photographs lift the veil between past and present. Even if you think you don’t have a taste for Cuban food, come to the table to learn.
The Cuban Table: A Celebration of Food, Flavors and History is written by Cuban-American food writer Ana Sofia Peláez, who grew up in Miami, and features the images of noted cookbook photographer Ellen Silverman.
It was Silverman who lit the flame: She visited Cuba in 2010 and 2011 and was particularly captivated by the island’s kitchens and marketplaces. She sought a writer to join her in creating a cookbook devoted to tracing the roots of the island’s cooking traditions. Silverman met Peláez, and the flame became a fire.
In researching The Cuban Table, Peláez pored over battered old cookbooks, family journals and faded recipe cards. She talked to home cooks and professional chefs in Cuba, Miami and New York. She and Silverman traveled city streets and country roads. Peláez chopped and stirred and tasted and baked. All to track down authentic versions of quintessential Cuban foods, along with the stories of how they came to be.
The cuisine of Cuba is a tapestry of the tastes and techniques of many cultures. Cuba’s pre-Columbian indigenous people started the island’s love affair with native produce such as root vegetables and corn. Caribbean, Spanish, African, Chinese, even French cooking contributed to the feast.
The island’s geographic isolation was both limiting and liberating for its cooks. Cuban cooks, like others in the Caribbean, have used tropical ingredients with admirable creativity. A norteamericano might never dream of putting bananas into a savory stew or omelet, yet Cuban cooks have always done this – and much more – to use available ingredients and add variety to their fare.
Some of the recipes in The Cuban Table are scarcely practical for our hurried lifestyle of today, but that doesn’t diminish the pleasure of learning about them. The array and number of ingredients, the immense quantities prepared, the story of how traditional dishes evolved over time: These recipes are a delicious experience whether you cook them or not.
Peláez credits ajiaco, a robust and spicy stew, with being the oldest-known Cuban recipe. The Cuban Table’s recipe for Ajiaco Criollo con Casabe (Creole Stew Mixed with Yuca Bread) calls for five types of meat totaling almost four pounds, three different root vegetables, yellow and green plantains, and two varieties of squash. Then there are eleven ingredients in the sofrito. And don’t forget making the yuca flatbread.
What’s a sofrito? It’s from the Spanish verb sofreir, to fry, and Peláez describes it as “the trinity of chopped onions, peppers and garlic that forms the basis of many Cuban dishes.” It’s an easy sauté preparation that adds flavor and complexity. The technique is used throughout the Caribbean and varies from recipe to recipe as different herbs and spices are tossed into the skillet. A bold sofrito turns a boring can of tomatoes into a finished dish.
After journeying from cover to cover, coast to coast, and reading all the recipes in The Cuban Table, I succumbed to the gentle allure of baking.
Pan de Media Noche
Many otherwise accomplished cooks are afraid to bake with yeast. They find something mysterious about tiny granules that contain living organisms.
Then there is the mistaken perception that yeast baking is extremely time-consuming. It isn’t. Yes, there are periods between the various stages in a yeast recipe, but these intervals actually help maximize your time. You can get a lot done in the hour it takes for dough to rise, or in the four hours it needs to be refrigerated before baking.
And remember, we’re not our great-grandmothers who had to knead by hand. We can dance and sing while our shiny stand mixer works the dough on the other side of the room.
Pan de Media Noche is the eggy, yellow, torpedo-shaped sweet roll used in making the midnight sandwich. Its pillowy sweetness balances each savory bite of meat and cheese. This bread is almost cakelike in flavor and texture. It’s a simple recipe that would be a good choice for a first-time baker.
The generous amount of sweetener in the recipe (it has both white sugar and honey) assures that this dough could never fail to rise. Sugar makes yeast very, very happy. My dough doubled in bulk in a scant hour.
In gathering your ingredients, be sure to get rapid-rise yeast. I also suggest having some extra half-bread, half-plain flour blend standing by in case the dough isn’t firm enough. If the dough doesn’t start to pull away from the side of the mixing bowl as described in the recipe, gradually add a bit more flour. I found I had to add another cup.
And don’t be alarmed if it’s a sticky, goopy dough that’s awkward to handle and shape into rolls. Keep your hands and work surface dusted with flour and cajole those rolls into shape.
I made six medium-sized media noche rolls to test on my Cuban-American friends at work, who said they were just right.
The dough was so very sweet that I cheated and made a dozen cinnamon rolls with the rest of it. (These were not in the cookbook. I rolled out the dough, sprinkled it with cinnamon and sugar, rolled it back up, sliced it into 3/4-inch rolls, dunked them in melted butter and baked them in a glass pie pan for 25 minutes at moderate heat.) The cinnamon rolls turned out beautifully, proof that this pan de media noche recipe is an easy, versatile, basic sweet dough.
Peláez tells the story of the Panque de Jamaica, a pound cake originally sold in 1912 in the town of Jamaica, Cuba, by José María and Pilar Cruz. The word panque is a phonetic Spanish pronunciation of the term “pound cake.” Made in muffin tins, these little pound cakes, or panquecitos, are made today in the Jamaica Bakery in Hialeah still owned by members of the Cruz family.
The panquecito has gained celebrity status because of its charming size and rich butter flavor. Peláez’s recipe is not the original Jamaica version — that’s a secret — but hers has definite star power.
The recipe calls for two cups of flour and says to sift it together with the other dry ingredients. I measured the flour first, then sifted it with the baking powder and salt. The resulting batter was rather thick, with a frosting-like consistency, and the finished cake was a touch dry. Next time, I’ll measure after sifting, and have a bit of milk on hand to add a few drops.
I usually ignore when a recipe specifies unsalted butter. However, to achieve the legendary panquecito butter flavor, I played by the rules and used unsalted butter. I did take the liberty of reducing the sugar to one cup. The sugar I omitted was not missed at all.
The batter is chilled “for at least two hours or overnight” before baking. Because I had two sets of six muffin cups, I decided to experiment. I baked six panquecitos immediately and chilled the batter for the other six as directed. What a difference. The panquecitos from the chilled batter had a crown almost a half an inch higher than those baked immediately.
Both versions were delicious, but the cakes made from chilled batter had a nicer texture. Buttery and fragrant, pretty panquecitos could run the gaudy, overdressed cupcakes so popular today right out of town.
The Cuban Table isn’t meant to be an encyclopedic reference book. It’s a textbook that casts the kitchen table as the stage where Cuban history has been played out, and where Cuban culture passed from one generation to the next.
There’s a workaday section called “foundation recipes” with bread, broths, condiments, the ever-present sofrito and mojo criollo. Once you’ve savored this mojo, you will never again settle for the bottled stuff.
The Cuban Table also is not about eating light, healthy or low-cal. Cane sugar is used with an especially lavish hand; many recipes will be much sweeter than our modern diet is accustomed to. And, other than parsley and cilantro used as seasoning or garnish, a leafy green vegetable makes a real appearance in only one recipe, caldo gallado, which has collard greens that help balance the richness of ham, beef, bacon and salt pork.
Such grand abundance has vanished from most kitchens in Cuba today. The largesse of the past and the austerity of the present are in stark contrast.
Peláez writes of a 2011 visit to Cuba: “People were excited to hear about my project and talk about the foods they loved. But it soon became clear we’d mostly be talking about food... Even a modest meal required planning, and I was careful not to overstrain anyone’s resources.”
Silverman’s photos tell the same story. There is a humble poignancy to the kitchens she has captured, clean and tidy rooms with touches of beauty despite their cracked and peeling walls or shabby furniture.
“Years of subsistence living and a dearth of even the simplest supplies and equipment have forced Cubans to adapt and improvise,” Silverman writes. “In particular, my eye was drawn to the natural, organic arrangements in Cuban kitchens: A spoon casually left on the counter, an empty Coca-Cola can used as a toothbrush holder, or a bunch of green bananas waiting to be fried hung on a nail against a pink wall.”
Before I read The Cuban Table, I thought I understood the mourning of Cuban exiles for their homeland. I have contemporaries who were children when their families fled the Communist regime in the early 1960s. The Cuban-exile dialogue has been a dominant factor in local political discourse all my life.
And yet, until I read these stories and learned how cooks on the island and in the United States keep tradition and hope simmering on the stove, I hadn’t truly grasped the sadness.
This book has a place in every kitchen. Come to the table for the food, and stay for the discovery.
By the Book is an occasional feature that checks out recipes from new cookbooks. Ibby Vores last wrote about The Real Food Cookbook.
The Cuban Table
A Celebration of Food, Flavors and History
Author: Ana Sofia Peláez
Photographer: Ellen Silverman
Foreword: Maricel Presilla
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
On sale: Oct. 28
Panquecitos (Miniature Pound Cakes)
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 large whole eggs, at room temperature
1 1/3 cups sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (optional)
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature, plus 2 tablespoons for greasing the mold
Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt in a medium mixing bowl; set aside. In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the eggs on medium speed for 1 minute, until frothy. Gradually add the sugar and continue to beat until the yolks are pale yellow and form a ribbon, 5 more minutes. Stir in the vanilla extract if using. Gently fold in the flour mixture in batches, alternating with the butter and ending with the flour, until it is just incorporated. Do not overmix. Place a piece of plastic wrap on the surface of the batter so it does not form a skin and refrigerate until chilled, at least 2 hours or overnight.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan and generously butter a 12-muffin pan. Place about 1/4 cup of the batter in each muffin cup. The batter will spread as it bakes so do not overfill. Set in oven and bake until a tester comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to rest 10 minutes in the pan then transfer to a cooling rack. Unmold and set upright on the rack.
Note: The batter can be poured directly into the prepared mold and chilled altogether before baking. The panquecitos can be kept in an airtight container up to 3 days or frozen up to 1 month.
Pan de Media Noche (Midnight Rolls)
Makes 8 large rolls or 16 small rolls.
3/4 cup warm water (110 to 115 degrees)
3/4 cup warm milk
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
3 large eggs, well-beaten
2 tablespoons honey
2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature, plus more to glaze rolls
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Combine water, milk, sugar and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer. Let stand until it begins to foam, about 10 minutes. Using the paddle attachment, add the eggs and honey to the yeast mixture and stir at low speed until well incorporated, 1 to 2 minutes.
Combine flours and salt in a large mixing bowl. Switch to the dough hook attachment and add the flour mixture, one cup at a time, alternating with the melted butter, until both are well incorporated, 3 to 5 minutes. Increase the speed to medium and continue to beat until the dough is smooth and elastic and pulls away from the side of the bowl, 8 to 10 minutes. Pour the dough onto a lightly floured surface and shape into a ball.
Lightly oil a large mixing bowl. Place the dough in the greased bowl, punch it down, reshape it into a ball, and turn it over once. Cover the bowl with lightly oiled plastic wrap and place in a warm, draft-free place. Allow to rise until it doubles in bulk, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Punch down the dough again and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight.
The following day, bring the dough to room temperature, about 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 13-by-18-by-1-inch baking sheet with parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces if making large rolls or 16 equal pieces if making small rolls. Shape each piece into a roll with slightly tapered ends. Transfer the rolls to the prepared baking sheet. Brush the tops of the rolls with egg wash. Bake until golden brown, about 30 to 35 minutes (for large) or about 25 to 30 minutes (for small). Remove the rolls from the oven, take them off the baking sheet, and let them cool on a wire rack. Brush the tops with additional melted butter while they are still warm.
Mojo Criollo (Garlic Sauce)
6 large garlic cloves, peeled and mashed
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup freshly squeezed sour orange juice or equal parts lime and orange juice
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, thinly chopped
1/2 cup best quality lard or olive oil
Using a mortar and pestle (or a food processor), mash the garlic, salt and black pepper to form a smooth paste. Whisk in the sour orange juice and oregano until well combined. Place the sour orange mixture in a medium saucepan with a tight-fitting lid.
Place the lard or olive oil in a separate small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Away from your body, lift the cover of the larger saucepan only enough to safely pour the lard or olive oil inside in one smooth motion, then replace the cover immediately. This should be done carefully because the liquid will bubble and spurt. Leave covered until the popping sound subsides, 3 to 5 minutes. This sauce should be used immediately. Makes 1 cup.
Cuban seasoning relies heavily on the trinity of green bell peppers, onion and garlic, which can also be made in advance. Makes 1 cup that can be refrigerated in a well-sealed container for up to 5 days.
4 large green bell peppers, stemmed, cored, seeded and cubed
4 large yellow onions, cubed
1 head of garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Combine all the ingredients in a food processor or blender and pulse to form a textured purée. When ready to use in a recipe, sauté the sofrito in olive oil and proceed as directed.