When my husband and I first met, I fell in love with his spontaneity. I was teaching middle school and the day before I left Brooklyn for Thanksgiving at my parents’ house, we got a beer at the bar we met in and I asked, “Want to go camping in February?” We’d practically just met at the time and without pause, he said, “Yes!” A true testament to his sense of adventure.
We ended up flying to a tiny island off the east coast of Puerto Rico called Culebra. Home to locals and lots of expat American hippies, it’s quiet, accessible by ferry (fly to mainland Puerto Rico, ferry leaves from Fajardo) or prop plane and for $20 a night, you can pitch a tent on Flamenco Beach. Here’s a picture that Mark took of me on that trip. I’m the one in the rented, VW Thing.
Culebra doesn’t have much in the way of infrastructure and its just perfect in that way. At the campground, it took hours to make percolated coffee over charcoal on the breezy mornings. I still remember how good that coffee tasted.
Next to the airport, and by airport I mean paved strip with a windsock, there is a small bakery in which I discovered guava & queso emapanadas. Maybe it was because I was camping and living on grilled shrimp and four-hour coffee, but these warm pastries were the best thing I’d ever eaten. Remember, I was teaching. This was before culinary school, back when I was the peasant.
Its six years ago now and we haven’t been to Culebra since and I have been craving a reminder of those times. Sure, some versions are available in New York City, but nothing compares to what I had near the equator. So I decided to make my own. This has been quite a process, one that is still not done yet, but has given me a new-found appreciation for recipe testing.
One of my preternatural skills is in recipe writing and concept development. To take on the test kitchen role of fastidiously keeping track of how many times I open the oven door, was it 2 teaspoons or 1 tablespoon of filling? For that, I outsource. I’m an ideas person and rarely do my ideas fail completely. Until I’m going to a party, promising to bring guava & queso empanadas and things go terribly wrong. Unswayed from my want to taste of the past, I spent all day yesterday actually testing recipes with the following results.
Start with the dough. I have made tons of my own dough. Its time consuming, messy and while delicious, I have discovered the ethnic freezer section of my nearby grocery store and found in there piles of these little darlings:
Ingredients? Flour, shortening, water,and salt. Simpler than mine.
Then, for filling, my fresh cheese, (fresh cheese recipe here) about 2 teaspoons smeared on a circle of dough to about 3/4″ from the edge, and about the same amount of guava jelly.
Fold the circle in half, using a little water on the still-exposed dough edge and press tightly to seal. You can use the tines of a fork to go around the edge to ensure proper closure, or, you can follow Rick Bayless’ instructions for making the authentic roped edge. Essentially, and this makes way more sense when you are actually doing it, hold the dough in your left hand if you are right-handed with the straight fold against the crotch of your thumb and forefinger. Then, starting at the corner closer to your wrist, pinch the dough so that it comes into the pads of the thumb and forefinger of your left hand, then fold that pinched dough back onto the pastry like a little wave crashing on a doughy beach. Move around the edge of the pastry, one fingerprint-width at a time, until you have something like you see in the pictures.
Next decision: cooking process. To bake or to fry? The first failed attempted, I baked at 350º waiting for the dough to brown. I ended up with guava filling everywhere and hollow shells. On this attempt, I cranked the oven up to 450º thinking being that the filling doesn’t need to cook, just the dough. I left one the way I had done the previous batch. The other, I poked some vent holes in thinking that perhaps it was steam that cause the explosion. Answer? Kind of:
The one on the right is how the entire tray that I was supposed to take to the party looked, except at 450º, the rogue filling burnt. The one on the left was poked with a few vent holes, to release steam from the heating jelly and while not exactly the golden brown I was going for, at least most of the filling stayed put. It took about 20 minutes to get any color and what browning I did get was uneven and ugly.
Inside these two looked like this:
In the upper picture, the jelly has turned quite runny. You can imagine that biting into that might be a bit messy. The bottom one is worse, as all of the guava has cooked out onto the baking sheet.
Well, in the kitchen as in life: when all else fails, deep fry.
Clearly the winner in the looks category. I fried this one in 375º canola oil for about 5 minutes, flipping it halfway through. There were no vent holes, as I didn’t want the filling to leak out into the hot oil (fire hazard) or the oil to soak the filling (gross.)
The jelly is still firm, the cheese is warm and the crust is crisp and delicious but didn’t flake apart everywhere, like my homemade version does. Nutritionally speaking, these are no mung beans, but my brain must have burned off some calories doing all this thinking, right? Or maybe I need to grab my tent, hop on a plane and find that little bakery at the airport.