Celebrate Christmas with savory homemade pasteles — a Puerto Rican holiday tradition.

By Ramona Cruz-Peters
December 01, 2020
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Growing up in my Puerto Rican family, so many of my holiday memories revolve around food. Any time a group of us got together, we always spent a lot of time in the kitchen preparing and eating our favorites, like tostones (fried green plantains), arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), habichuelas guisadas (stewed beans), pernil (roast pork), and tembleque (coconut pudding). During Christmastime in particular, when we had the ingredients, time, and manpower, another delicacy was included in our feast: pasteles!

Pasteles for the Holidays: It's a Family Affair

Pasteles are a type of tamal made with a masa of plantain and yuca (instead of corn like traditional tamales). They are a traditional dish, especially around the holidays, in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean cultures. Like tamales, making pasteles is a family affair.

Pasteles are melt-in-your-mouth delicious, but preparing them involves multiple steps and requires a sort of assembly line to put them together. Though it’s not just the delicioso flavor of the pasteles that makes the effort worth it; the memories made together as a family are even more special. I have years and years of dear memories of my Abuela leading my parents and a crew of us grandkids in her pastel preparation techniques, followed by my father (Papa Cruz) grabbing the reins to teach his kids and grandkids. What stands out in memory are the jokes made between all of us, the mishaps, the laughter, and the precious time spent between generations of our family as we connected over a shared task. Pasteles are so much more than a meal; they represent a lifetime of family holiday memories.

Pasteles a la Papa Cruz

This is my father’s recipe for pasteles, along with some of his cooking tips. Like many family recipes, his has been adapted over the years, and I expect it will continue to adapt as I make them with my own sons and, if I’m fortunate to be an Abuelita one day myself, my future grandchildren. Makes 2 dozen pasteles.

INGREDIENTS:

For the Picadillo Filling:

½ cup achiote oil

½ cup sofrito

3-4 pounds pork shoulder cut into small chunks (about ½ inch), include some of the fat

2 cups water

1 15-ounce can garbanzo beans, drained

1 8-ounce can tomato sauce

½ cup chopped green olives with pimiento

2 envelopes of ham flavor concentrate (from a 1.41-ounce box)

1 tablespoon oregano, chopped fresh or dried   

1 tablespoon salt, or to taste

1 teaspoon black pepper

For the Masa:

12 very green bananas (it is very important that these be very green)

4 very green plantains (this too is very important)

3 pounds Yautia (taro root)

3 pounds Yuca (cassava)

1 ½ pounds kabocha squash

2-3 medium potatoes

1 to 1 ½ cups reserved picadillo sauce

½-1 cup achiote oil (to oil the wrapping paper)


Other Supplies Needed:

Parchment paper or pasteles wrapping paper

Banana leaves

Butcher’s twine

DIRECTIONS:

Preparing the picadillo:

  1. Heat the achiote oil in a pot. Sauté the sofrito in the oil for about a minute, then add the chunks of pork and continue sautéing until the meat is browned.
  2. Add the water, garbanzo beans, tomato sauce, olives, ham flavoring, oregano, salt, and pepper to the pot and stir. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes.
  3. Drain the liquid from the picadillo, separating 1 to 1 ½ cups of the liquid from the sauce to use for the masa later.
  4. Let the picadillo cool and set aside.

Preparing the masa:

  1. Peel all the green bananas, green plantains, Yautio, Yuca, kabocha squash, and potatoes and cut them into small pieces (note: yuca is very hard). Tip: Keep the pieces in cold salty water to keep them from darkening while waiting to be grated. Dry the pieces before adding them to the food processor.
  2. Grate or finely shred the vegetable pieces using a food processor adding some of the reserved picadillo sauce while grating.
  3. Empty the grated masa into a large bowl and keep grating the rest of the vegetable pieces. Stir the masa in the large bowl as you add new batches to make sure the ingredients are proportional throughout. If desired, you can add more sauce or achiote oil to the masa for added coloring.

Stuffing the pasteles:

  1. Cut parchment paper into 12x12-inch or 12x18-inch pieces (if not using pre-cut pastel wrappers). Rub a little achiote oil in the center (about 5-inch square) and place a banana leaf of about the same size over it. Rub a little oil on the leaf as well.
  2. Place ¾ cup of the masa on top of the leaf and spread to approximately cover the leaf leaving a small indentation in the middle.
  3. Place ¼ cup of the picadillo in the indentation at the masa center. Tip: Make sure the picadillo is drained or the liquid will run out of the pastel while you’re wrapping it.

Wrapping the pasteles:

The idea is to wrap the pasteles securely so that water does not get inside during the boiling process. Here is my father’s explanation of his method: 

  1. Fold the paper (with the masa already applied) by grabbing the long ends and bringing them up to touch and align with each other. The masa will have overlapped the picadillo filling, sealing the filling inside the masa.
  2. Fold both edges of the paper together tightly and fold once again tightly (about 1 ½ inch folds). The last fold should bring the paper over the now elongated pastel masa.
  3. Fold the two remaining ends individually twice tightly towards the masa; the fold should rest on top of the masa when done.
  4. Snugly tie a string of butcher’s twine lengthwise around the pastel and secure in the center leaving enough string to wrap around the waist of the pastel. Tie the ends of the string snugly around the pastel and tie into a bow or knot. Cut the ends short. Tip: If you’re not sure one string around the waist is secure enough, wrap two strings evenly spaced around waist of the pastel instead.
  5. The pasteles may be frozen raw until needed.
Wrapped pasteles a la Papa Cruz
| Credit: Ramona Cruz-Peters

Cooking the pasteles

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add salt until you can taste it in the water. Place the tied pasteles in the boiling water. Boil for 1 ½ to 2 hours, making sure the pasteles are fully immersed in the water at all times, and rotating the pasteles occasionally with tongs to make sure they all cook evenly.

For more, check out our collection of Puerto Rican Recipes.

Ramona Cruz-Peters is the author of Pressure Cooker Cookbook for Beginners and the founder and writer of Fab Everyday®, a lifestyle website and social media presence that reaches over 2 million people per month. Keep up with Ramona and all her recipes and lifestyle tips on Allrecipes (as @fabeveryday), on FabEveryday.com, and @fabeveryday on social media.