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.
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Some memories demand to be remade.
One of the few culinary memories I have been completely unable to experience outside of a home kitchen is alcapurrias. This classic Puerto Rican fritter features prominently in my childhood as an occasional treat, especially around holidays, and made for exciting lunches because of their rarity. On occasion, the whole family would get together to make an especially large batch, a rustic experience wonderfully out of place in our big-city home. Posted recipes posit that the alcapurria is a variety of croquette and usually recommend the familiar croquette log or cigar shape, but the ones I knew were round, more like hand-pies or empanadas in size and presentation. Once I left Miami, those memories became more and more distant, and more and more treasured. As a matter of my Puerto Rican pride, I needed to take control of those memories and make them more firmly mine, and that meant learning how to make alcapurrias. And today, I succeeded.
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