Few words cause Hispanic people as much consternation as the word pastel, plural pasteles. Nominally translating to “cake,” this word can apply to anything from sweet flaky filled pastries (very popular in Miami) to ordinary American-style cakes to today’s entry, a meat-filled savory mash wrapped in banana leaves and boiled.
If you’re wondering how the word for “cake” could apply to all those things that have nothing except the vague concept of starch in common, you’re not alone. Essentially any use of this word between people from different Latin American ancestries requires clarification, lest someone expect this recipe and receive a cake. Sometimes the same person uses pastel in multiple ways, alternatives forgotten, and only a heaping dose of adjectives can rescue any sense of comprehension. Is it the American pastel, the Cuban pastel, the Puerto Rican pastel? You turn to your loved ones for assistance and steam issues from their banana-leaf clothing; they too are pastel.
If you’re thinking, “Wait, that sounds like tamales, didn’t Alyssa already put up a recipe for tamales?”, you’re also in good company, and you doorknob, you uncultured swine, tamales are steamed.
What defines the pastel recipe we are about to explore is ideas and individual elements rather than a hard-and-fast recipe. Pasteles are such a beloved classic of Puerto Rican cooking that every family has their own variation, leading to hundreds of versions across the island and its diaspora. Nevertheless, a few elements are common enough that deviating from them means one is making something else that probably has another name. The dough of a pastel is a mix of underripe banana with Xanthosoma sagittifolium (malanga/yautía), both grated to a fine paste. Some recipes suggest adding lard, similar to the mix for tamales. Most recipes suggest guineos, which are ordinary Cavendish bananas peeled while green and underripe, as the banana portion, but others suggest plantains (platanos). In places where X. sagittifolium is difficult to source, related roots are often used, including eddoes and taro, and recipes written in English often mistakenly suggest taro by default. To this core, recipes sometimes make additions as diverse as sweet potato (boniato) and West Indian pumpkin (calabaza), both of which result in sweeter pasteles. The filling is usually shredded pork but could also be ground or shredded beef, and the specific additions and flavorings are distinctive to each chef. Recipes agree on three last points: pasteles are always wrapped in banana leaves, those leaves should be lightly greased with achiote oil, and pasteles are boiled to cook them before serving. The recipe below is a mix of my memories of childhood, what I had handy in my kitchen during my exploratory attempts, and Carmen Aboy Valldejulí’s version in Cocina Criolla, widely considered the authoritative reference for Puerto Rican cuisine.
If you’re thinking, “Wait, that sounds an awful lot like Alyssa’s recipe for alcapurrias,” you’re also in good company, and you dingus, you cuboidal walnut, alcapurrias are fried. But you’re right, pasteles are very similar to alcapurrias in composition. Ratios vary and specific ingredients are common in one and rare in the other, but the two items are definitely of a piece.
The history of pasteles is an illuminating cultural exercise as well. In my recipe for tamales, I imagined that Puerto Rico’s tamales, wrapped in banana leaves as they often are, might count among their descendants several other steamed and fried doughs, including the recipe we are about to explore today. This would have been far from the only adaptation of a Mesoamerican staple in Puerto Rican cuisine, so the idea has an intuitive appeal. Further reading suggests that tamales are quite distinct from these other items and, if anything, the convergence was in the other direction. Pasteles, alcapurrias, and likely some of Puerto Rico’s other filled savory pastries appear to have their most direct inspiration in West African foodways. Ghana, Nigeria, and Côte d’Ivoire all feature variations on a dish called fufu in their cuisines, consisting of a mix of starchy vegetables mashed together and boiled in round loaves wrapped in whatever was handy, often banana leaves. Fufu is itself a conversation between Latin America and West Africa; whatever fufu might have been before the Columbian exchange, it now firmly favors Latin American malanga and cassava alongside Asian bananas. Fufu is hardly unknown in Latin America in its own right, including in Puerto Rico, though it often has other names and Latin American versions are notably different from their cousins across the Atlantic. With these practices already established, adapting the banana-leaf wrap for a conceptually similar dish from Mexico was an easy step.
Food is, as ever, a conversation, and in societies that come together from disparate origins, that conversation gets especially interesting, as does the pattern of informational resources often neglecting Africa’s contributions to Latin America.
This recipe makes 6 to 7 pasteles. Two pasteles is a filling meal for one person. Pasteles, like tamales, can be frozen before or after the last cooking step and served later, which is often beneficial. Pasteles are traditionally made in anticipation of holidays because of the time and effort involved.
For the filling, use a large pan, a wooden spoon or plastic spatula, and your favorite cutting and measuring tools.
For the dough, you will need a large mixing bowl, your favorite cutting and measuring tools, a mixing tool, and a large spoon. Due to the intensity of the required mixing, it is recommended to use an electric mixer; a stand mixer is ideal.
For the wrap, you will need a ruler and a set of kitchen shears.
For final assembly, you will need cooking twine and some spoons. This can be substituted with strips of leftover banana leaf (see below), but this will be more fragile. You will also need a large pot for boiling, the larger the better, and the associated bottom-up heat source. Pasteles are usually served with scissors in addition to a normal complement of dining utensils.
Metric and imperial units used here do not match 1:1 for convenience to the home cook. I used imperial measures while cooking; feel free to vary ratios slightly to suit one’s palate.
- Frozen banana leaves, one 1-lb (454g) package. You will not need even most of this package, but good luck trying to separate and thaw a smaller quantity from one of these packages. The remainder can be re-frozen and used later. If you have access to fresh banana leaves, use those instead.
- For maximum authenticity, make some achiote oil. I usually skip this because I’m bad at it, but it helps.
- Fennel bulb, 1/3
- Green bell pepper, ½
- Red bell pepper, 2
- Cuban oregano, fresh, ¼ cup
- Vegetable oil, 2 teaspoons
- Asafoetida, a generous sprinkle
- Ground beef, ½ lb
- Dried oregano, 1 teaspoon
- Crushed red pepper, 1 teaspoon
- Salt, ½ teaspoon
- Frozen mixed vegetables, 2 cups
- Sour orange juice (jugo de naranja agria), 2 tablespoons. Substitute 1 tablespoon of ordinary orange juice and 1 tablespoon of vinegar.
- Variants: There are as many tamal fillings as there are people and cultures that make tamales. Try a Cuban-style shredded pork filling, the filling I use for alcapurrias, or a Mexican chile-based filling instead, but watch out for the amount needed to match the rest of the recipe. If you are not worried about managing FODMAP risk, add 1 clove of garlic and ½ of a small onion.
- Green bananas (guineos), 5. These are ordinary bananas that are sold deliberately underripe.
- Malanga/yautía (X. sagittofolium), 2 lbs (about three corms)
- Water, 2 cups
- Sazón, 1 tablespoon
- Variants: If you use plantains instead of guineos, use fewer to account for the greater size of plantains. Add lard for a richer dough.
- Water and 6 tablespoons of salt for boiling.
- Hot sauce to taste.
Common Food Restrictions
- Gluten-Free: As written, this recipe is gluten-free if the asafoetida is gluten-free. Pay attention to the ingredients in the filling.
- Ketogenic / Low-Carb: This recipe showcases carbohydrates and cannot be made low-carb.
- Low-FODMAP: This recipe makes several digestion-friendly substitutions, but watch out for garlic and other potential hazards in the sazón.
- Vegetarian/Vegan: Use a vegetable filling or skip filling entirely.
The Night Before
- Thaw the banana leaves in the refrigerator.
- Cut the banana leaves into six or seven 12” by 12” (30 cm by 30 cm) squares, orienting so as to leave torn or damaged parts of the leaves out of the squares as excess.
- Rinse the squares and set aside to dry.
- Reserve the excess for use in patching any damage done to the squares during assembly. Any unused banana leaves at the end of the process can be returned to their package and frozen again.
- Finely chop the fennel. One of the grater settings on a food processor is ideal.
- Blenderize the green bell pepper, red bell pepper, Cuban oregano, and (if present) the garlic and onion.
- Heat oil in your pan on medium-high and add asafoetida. Heat for a few minutes.
- Add fennel from Step 5 to the pot and cook until the fennel shrinks and odor changes.
- Put the ground beef, dried oregano, crushed red pepper, frozen mixed vegetables, sour orange juice, and the ingredients from Step 6 in the pan. The frozen vegetables provide some water that helps the other ingredients mix, in addition to their value as vegetables.
- Continue heating while stirring until the water is mostly gone. Set aside to cool.
- Peel the green bananas. Green bananas do not separate from their skins the way ripe bananas do. I recommend cutting a slit along the curve of the banana and using a thumb to separate the peel from the flesh on the inside, going around the banana and along this slit to complete the separation. Remove any remaining flecks of skin from the bananas.
- Peel and grate the malanga using the fine option on the grater. The goal is a paste, not ribbons.
- Because malanga is so slippery, I recommend peeling about 10 centimeters of the pointed end, grating the peeled portion, and peeling another 10-centimeter segment, repeated until one reaches the scaly (top) end of the malanga. This enables the chef to hold onto the much less slippery skin rather than the flesh underneath.
- Because malanga is relatively floppy, it is important to keep it from flopping too much during grating. If it snaps, grating it becomes more dangerous.
- This is an ideal job for an electric device with a fine enough attachment, if one is available.
- Grate the bananas into the same container as the malanga.
- Add the water and sazón to the banana/malanga mixture and mix well. Hands work well but a stand mixer will do the job faster and with less effort.
Assembly and Frying
- If using achiote oil, apply it to the inner surface of each banana leaf from Step 3.
- Add three to five heaping tablespoons of dough to each square of banana leaf in an oval shape.
- Add one to three tablespoons of filling atop the dough.
- Gently use the banana leaf to help the dough enclose the filling, and then roll it shut. Gently fold in the ends to enclose the pastel. For greater success, gently slide one end of the banana leaf under the dough on the other side during the rolling process. If the wrap split along its length, add a scrap of banana leaf over the damaged area. Carmen Aboy Valldejulí recommends wrapping this parcel in another banana leaf square, which helps keep it intact during later steps.
- Secure the pastel with at least two pieces of string tied in place, one lengthwise, one across its width. For a large or fragile-looking pastel, use more string.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil with 6 tablespoons of salt.
- Add your pasteles to the boiling water and boil for 30 minutes.
- Flip the pasteles and continue boiling for another 30 minutes.
- Remove from the boiling water and serve with scissors and hot sauce.
Part tamal, part alcapurria, and somehow all cake, pasteles are a high-effort, high-reward dish that I have enjoyed exploring, and I hope they serve you well when you aim to impress your friends who may or may not also be cake.