When I was a child, most of the family on my father’s side lived in Brooklyn. I have fond memories of Sunday dinners at Abuela and Abuelo’s apartment and running around with my cousins to visit other family members who lived in the same building or down the street. After dinner, we’d watch Mutual of Omaha, followed by The Wonderful World of Disney. When my uncles were in Vietnam, we’d record messages for them on the reel-to-reel tape machine and, when they sent tapes back, we’d all gather to listen to them over and over.
The biggest family gatherings usually happened the first weekend of December. Not because it was a holiday or special occasion but that was when the women of the family made pasteles. My mother would wake me up at 5 am and we arrived, bleary-eyed at Abuela and Abuelo’s apartment, ready to work. No one was spared… everyone, from child to adult, had a task. From peeling green cooking bananas which left our fingernails black, to making the savory filling of pork and garbanzo beans, to hand grating all the bananas, yautia, potatoes, calabaza and other root veggies that made up the masa. Grating by hand sometimes meant grating your fingers, if you weren’t careful, but that was OK… a few drops of blood in the masa gave it extra flavor, or so my aunts would say. Then came the task of assembling and wrapping all the pasteles… hundreds of them so each family left with at least 2 dozen. Whatever was left over after Christmas and New Year’s Eve was usually consumed with white rice and a liberal dose of pique (hot sauce… NEVER ketchup!)
Most of the family moved to Puerto Rico and, with them, the big gatherings and pasteles assembly line. So there were no pasteles for many years unless we visited someone who made or bought them. Until I got the recipe from my mother and decided to make them for my family. Food processors were accessible and affordable but I was warned not to use them in place of hand grating- “the texture is NOT the same”. Can you imagine how much time it takes to make 4 dozen pasteles (I’d give some away as presents) by oneself? I did it a couple of years then, for a couple of years, my daughter helped which cut down the time but only by a little. The last time I attempted to make pasteles by myself was when a friend’s promise of a dozen for Christmas Eve fell through. So I ran around, on December 23rd, buying all the necessary ingredients and supplies and woke up before the crack of dawn on Christmas Eve, figuring that one dozen shouldn’t take too long. Umm… wrong. I was tying up the last ones around mid-afternoon.
So now I buy the pasteles but it’s not the same and, of course, everyone makes them differently so it’s a hit or miss. But it’s such a traditional dish… Christmas Eve dinner seems lacking without them. Maybe, next year, I’ll convince my kids and their spouses to make our own assembly line.
So, for those who want to try their hand at making pasteles, here’s the recipe. Recruit family and friends and have a fun day… and don’t forget: a few drops of blood in the masa gives it extra flavor.
1 cup Olive Oil
2 tbls Achiote (Annatto) seeds
Heat the oil and annatto seeds in a small skillet over medium heat just until the seeds give off a lively, steady sizzle. Don’t overheat the mixture or the seeds will turn black and the oil a nasty green. Once they’re sizzling away, pull the pan from the heat and let stand until the sizzling stops. Strain as much of the oil as you are going to use right away into the pan; store the rest for up to 4 days at room temperature in a jar with a tight fitting lid.
For the pork stock:
2 pounds pork bones
Half a small onion, peeled
1 bay leaf
Fine sea or kosher salt
For the meat filling:
2 pounds pork, preferably Boston butt, cut into ½-cubes
¼ cup Achiote Oil (see above)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
1 bay leaf
1/3 cup each Recaito and Sofrito
1 can (15 oz.) chick peas (garbanzos)
1 tsp. red pepper flakes (more or less to taste)
You can also add hot peppers, olives or capers to taste
For the Root Vegetable Filling:
8 pounds green bananas, peeled
¾ pounds yautia, peeled,
¾ pound calabaza, peeled
1 small green plantain, peeled
1 small (about 7 ounces) russet potatoes, peeled
1/3 cup Achiote Oil (see above)
1 cup (or as needed) Pork Stock (see above)
2 teaspoons fine sea or kosher salt
¾ cup milk (I use condensed milk)
¾ cup broth from the pork stew
You will also need:
1 pound banana leaves, cut into twenty-four 7-inch squares
½ cup Achiote Oil for assembling the pasteles
24 pieces (12 x18) parchment paper
24 whole small hot peppers, such as cayenne or bird peppers
24 thirty-inch lengths kitchen twine
Make the pork stock: Preheat the oven to 400° F Toss the pork bones, onion, and bay leaf together in a roasting pan large enough to hold them comfortably. Roast, stirring once or twice, until well browned, about 45 minutes.
Transfer the bones to a 5 or 6-quart pot. Pour in enough water to cover the bones. Add a big pinch of salt and a dozen or so peppercorns. Bring to a boil, then adjust the heat so the liquid is at a lively simmer. Cook, skimming off any foam or fat that rises to the surface, 1 1/2 hours.
Make the meat filling: Put the pork in a 4-quart pot. Add the achiote oil and bay leaf and pour in enough cold water to cover the pork. Bring to a boil. Cook 45 minutes.
Stir in the sofrito, recaito, cilantro, red pepper, chick peas and salt and continue simmering until the pork is tender, about 45 minutes.
When the pork stock and pork filling are ready, set them aside. Gather the twine, parchment, achiote oil, and banana leaves together before making the root vegetable filling.
Make the root vegetable filling: Grate the root vegetables by hand on the finest side of a box grater. Don’t be tempted to do this in a food processor. Stir in the achiote oil, pork stock, salt, milk, pork cooking liquid and broth. The mixture should be the color of a sweet potato and the texture of a sticky muffin batter.
Oil the center of a sheet of parchment paper and place a banana leaf over the oil. Oil the leaf lightly. Spoon about ¾ cup of the masa over the center of the leaf. Make a little well in the masa and spoon about ¼ cup of the pork stew and some juice into the well. Top with an olive and piece of red pepper from the alcaparrado. Also a whole cayenne.Spoon the masa from the edges over the meat and vegetables. Fold the top and bottom sides of the leaf over the filling. Fold the bottom of the paper over the leaf so the two long edges meet at the top. Make two folds along the long edge so the pastel is wrapped nice and tight. Make a 1-inch fold along one the short ends, then bring that end of the paper and banana leaf over the filling. Repeat with the other short side. You now have a pastel made up of the filling tightly wrapped in both banana leaf and paper. Set it aside folded side down on a baking sheet and repeat with the remaining filling, leaves and paper. Tie the pastels: Fold one length of string in half and set it on your work surface with the loose ends closest to you. Center a tamale folded side down over the string, about 4 inches from the folded end. Bring each half of the string outward slightly so it is sitting near the ends of the folds. Bring the loose ends of the string over the packet then under the loop in the string. Keeping the string centered under the folds, pull the loose ends up and out. If this all sounds too complicated, simply tie the folds tightly with shorter lengths of string.