Pasteles: A Puerto Rican Christmas Tale

For many, food is the centerpiece of the holiday season.

This Thanksgiving, I couldn’t help but visually feast on Facebook images showcasing a diverse range of traditional and non-traditional fare. From pictures of good ol’ turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes to tables covered in pernil, arroz con gandules and platanos made every which way.

As I sat there scrolling through posts, I couldn’t help but think of the significance food plays in our lives. I fondly recalled the nostalgia certain foods conjure up for me and I immediately thought of one of my childhood favorite, pasteles de yuca (cassava).

Growing up in a Puerto Rican household, pasteles were a big part of my Christmas tradition. I remember my mom pulling them out of the freezer, one stacked on top of the other and tied with what looked like kite string. She’d wait patiently all day for them to defrost and then plop them into a larger than life pot on the stove bubbling over with water that would get an orange film on the top when they were close to being done.  A delicious meat filling made with a combination of pork shoulder, bacon, raisins, potatoes, chickpeas and olives all seasoned with bay leaves, sofrito, tomato sauce and annatto oil. I could literally live off of this meat stuffing alone.  Pasteles de yuca are made out of a grated yuca masa and then the aromatic meat is “stuffed” inside.

In my house, a Christmas without pasteles was like Thanksgiving without turkey. They were that important.

Even though they were such a cherished part of my childhood, I admit, I have yet to make them in my house. It’s not because I don’t love them (that’s ludicrous), but because they’re a lot of work (I mean A LOT of work) and more often than not, I just don’t have the time.

But this Christmas, I vowed to give this family tradition a place in my home. I vowed to make the time and share one of my most beloved childhood memories with my own girls – making pasteles with loved ones for loved ones.

And so it went.

As I sat at the table with my extended family after our Thanksgiving feast, I proclaimed my intention out loud. ‘Pasteles de yuca will be on my Christmas menu this year.’ However, my moment of excitement quickly turned to panic as I sat there listening to my sister-in-law, who’s mother was the Latina Betty Crocker in our family, go on and on about what an undertaking it is to make these culinary jewels.

I wondered if I could really pull this off. At one point during the conversation, I googled how to make pasteles de yuca and a huge sense of relief washed over me, when I learned there are pages of instructional videos on the topic. Yay, thank goodness for the Internet!

But then, I noticed that my excitement slowly turned into self-reflection. I’m not sure why I never ventured to make pasteles with my girls before? I soon remembered that the past is the past and I can only change the future. I want to be sure that I pass down Christmas traditions from an island they unfortunately don’t know as much about as I did at their age.

By the time I was eight, I’d been to Puerto Rico multiple times. I’d experienced the salty, deep fried delicious bacalaitos fritos after spending a day at Luquillo beach with my cousins. My little baby teeth had already chomped on the fine bits of ice expertly shaped like a snow cone (piraguas) with jugo de parcha (passion fruit) or grape (my personal favorite), or tamarindo that my brother David used to get. Our little hands covered in the icy sweet syrup.

I remember being a child and pulling the delicious greasy bits off the pig that we would roast in our backyard and I had acquired a taste for malta Goya, a sweet molasses soda that tastes like a nonalcoholic dark beer. Like all other Puerto Rican kids I was raised on this stuff and to this day that taste instantly takes me back to my grandmother’s kitchen and places me on a beautifully upholstered oversized chair wrapped in thick plastic I used to sit in when I was younger.

I’ve taken my girls to Puerto Rico only once and of course, we walked the Paseo de la Princesa in Old San Juan and I took great pride in buying them their first cherry piraguas, which I remember eating with my family at the same age.

I am excited about our pasteles undertaking and excited to bring more of the Christmas culinary traditions from the island to our kitchen table this year. That is the beauty of being an enye (ñ) and being able to reconnect with our cultural roots and share the beauty of our Latino culture with our loved ones.

If you love your recipe for pasteles de yuca, I’d love to check it out. Please leave it in your comments below.

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