Monday, January 20, 2014

Cuba Norte

This would probably stress normal people out, but I kinda love it when my foodie friends text me and say that they are experimenting with Cuban cuisine, and that I should come for dinner...and bring dessert.  Naturally, I accepted the invitation without a moment's hesitation. But my reply was that I would come, and I would make dessert, but it wasn't going to be fancy, and I didn't want to have to go to the store.

So working with what I had in my fridge and pantry, I ended up making not one but TWO simple, but traditional Cuban desserts. First off, I prepared some creamy, luscious Arroz con Tres Leches--that's rice pudding to us Americanos, but sweeter and with a flavor like caramel or dulce de leche thanks to the inclusion of three different milks that are cooked slowly with the rice.

To make the pudding, first, prepare two cups of short-grained rice (I used arborio) in four cups of water with a pinch of salt, a cinnamon stick, and the rind of a lemon (removed with a peeler). Rinse the rice three times, drain, add the water and other ingredients, cover, bring to a boil, lower the heat, and barely simmer for 20 minutes--no peeking!

Remove the lemon peel and cinnamon stick, then toss the steamed rice into your slow cooker and stir in a can of evaporated milk, a can of sweetened condensed milk, and a cup of whole milk. Cook this on high for about two hours (or low for four) until the rice absorbs the liquid and is creamy but not runny, stirring every 30 minutes to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the crock pot. Of course, you can simmer this on the stove top, but you'll have to keep a much closer eye on it to prevent scorching. That's why the slow cooker is a big help here. However you cook it, when it's done, add two teaspoons of vanilla extract, and serve warm with a sprinkling of ground cinnamon (or chill for a couple/few hours first if you like it cold).

I wasn't sure how people at the dinner were going to feel about rice pudding (some people are not keen on it...inexplicably), so I also baked a batch of Polvorones, tender almond shortbread cookies that are quite similar to Russian tea cakes or Mexican wedding cookies. The word "polvorone" has the same linguistic root as the English word "pulverize," and the cookie is meant to be delicately crumbly inside, even after it bakes.

The only changes I made to the recipe I referenced was to use butter instead of lard, and then to roll the cookies in powdered, not granulated, sugar with a little cinnamon mixed in. My friends couldn't stop eating them, and one of them said they tasted like "really good Snickerdoodles." LOL! I guess it was that bit of cinnamon in the powdered sugar that I also dusted onto the cookies after they had cooled, mostly to make them look pretty.

(Source: adapted from Three Guys from Miami)

1 cup creamy white lard (non-hydrogenated leaf lard)--I used two sticks of softened butter
2 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup finely ground almonds--I used almond flour/meal
1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 375º F.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the lard or butter and the egg yolks with the sugar and vanilla. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, almonds, and salt. Add this mixture gradually to your creamed ingredients until you have a dough that is slightly crumbly. Shape the dough into small balls in the palm of your hand, then flatten slightly. (I used a regular cookie scoop and got 27 cookies.) Rolls the balls in white sugar (I used half a cup of powdered sugar mixed with 1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon), and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. 

Bake for approximately 12 to 14 minutes until just starting to turn golden brown on top. Cool on a wire rack and dust with the remaining cinnamon powdered sugar if desired.

Oh, and one last photo before I wrap this up, a picture of the wonderful Cuban meal that my friends Domenica and Jaime made, which included Ropa Vieja with Rice, Stewed Black Beans, and Tostones (Fried Plantains).

It was all FANTASTICO! And it sure beat driving all the way to Montreal in the dead of winter to search out interesting ethnic food, as we so often must do. *sad trombone*

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