Travel

The Guava & Cream Cheese Pastry That Stole Miami's Heart

An iconic local treat with a Cuban-American story.

April 18, 2019
Photo by Edgar Garcia

Say pastelito in Miami, and almost everyone—Spanish-speaking or otherwise—will know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s like saying “bagel” in New York or “pierogi” in Cleveland.

The Spanish word pastelitos translates to “little pastries,” but in Miami they refer specifically to Cuban puff pastries. Traditionally made with lard (or shortening these days), which makes them extra flaky and incomparably crisp, almost all pastelitos are glazed in a thick syrup that becomes a sticky, sweet glue securing pastry flakes to your lips, fingers, and anything else it comes in contact with.

They are always filled. There are meat pastelitos, chicken pastelitos, ones filled with ham and cheese, and even some filled with pizza toppings. There are also sweet pastelitos filled with coconut or mango. But perhaps the two defining Cuban pastelito fillings are guava and cream cheese.

These pastries originated in Cuba, where they were the stars among the repertoire of intensely sweet Cuban baked goods that blended European techniques with tropical Cuban flavors. In the case of the guava pastelito, this confection combined traditional French puff pastry with a sugary paste made from the pulp of the guava fruit.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“However, the guava and cheese combination is found outside the Cuban and Cuban-American community as well. My parents were from the Dominican Republic, and in Dominican households, guava and cheese is such a traditional pairing it’s known as Romeo y Julieta. I was also served that pairing more than once during a recent trip to Brazil. Yum!”
— Yolanda
Comment

Native to the Americas, the guava is always green on the outside but either white or pink on the inside. The pink variety is preferred in Cuba for making pastelitos and other confections. The flesh, which is sweet and slightly tangy, has an unmistakable perfume that fanatics of this fruit are obsessed with and a slightly grainy texture that someone once compared to the poppy seed filling common in Eastern European pastries. Dispersed throughout the flesh are tiny pebble-like seeds that could easily crack a tooth. In order to create guava paste, the flesh needs to be pressed through a sieve to separate the pulp from the seeds. The pulp is combined with a generous amount of sugar and cooked over low heat until it becomes thick. Because guava contains a lot of natural pectin, the paste can cool to form a solid block or a thick jam depending on how much you reduce the mixture.

Cheese pastelitos, on the other hand, demonstrate more of an American influence in Cuban cuisine. Because of the United States’ role in the Spanish–American War, the U.S. had considerable sway over politics, economics, and culture on the island until the Communist Revolution of 1959. As a result, many urban Cubans got a taste for various American products during the first half of the 20th century, including Philadelphia Cream Cheese. Innovative bakers blended the soft, spreadable cheese with a bit of sugar and a few drops of orange blossom water to create a filling similar in flavor to cheesecake.

As more Cubans started arriving in Miami following Fidel Castro’s takeover of the island, they brought their bakery culture with them. Currently, there are probably more Cuban bakeries in Miami than any other type of bakery. In predominantly Cuban parts of town, like Hialeah, there are even Cuban bakeries across the street from each other. You can say that these bakeries are to Miami what Dunkin Donuts is to Boston.

While these pastries form part of our local food culture in the Magic City, they are still decidedly Cuban and stick pretty closely to the original recipes from pre-revolution Cuba. I specify pre-revolution because the collectivization of foodstuffs under communism meant that luxuries like puff pastry were scarce. After the fall of the Soviet Union, a time referred to as the Special Period, residents of the island experienced severe food shortages, and pastelitos became nearly nonexistent. Some Cubans who lived out their youth during this period only got to sample pastelitos when they moved to Miami, guided by stories their parents or abuelos might have told them.

At some point in time, one innovative Miami Cuban baker decided to make a simple adjustment to the pastelito that would turn it into a Miami original: filling it with guava and cream cheese. The combination of the creamy, salty-sweet American cheese and the tart, intensely sweet guava paste was a seemingly perfect match, and most Miamians—Cubans and non-Cubans, alike—would probably agree.

Marrying these two fillings wasn’t so far-flung, though. Cubans have been enjoying pieces of salty uncultured cheese—called queso fresco or queso blanco—with slices of congealed guava paste for as long as they have been making guava paste and cheese (which is quite a long time). At traditional Cuban juice and snack stands in Miami, such as Palacio de los Jugos, you can find little grab-and-go bundles of guayaba y queso wrapped in plastic wrap. Before Latino products became widely available in Miami, queso fresco was hard to come by. Just like my mother did when she made tallarines verdes, many Cubans found an acceptable substitution for queso fresco in cream cheese. A cracker with a smear of cream cheese and a sparkling, ruby-red cube of guava paste is probably one of the most quintessential Miami Cuban snacks.

The fact that guava and cheese pastelitos were invented in Miami, along with their popularity among almost all of the city’s residents, has made this combination of flavors iconic to the Magic City. In effect, it has transcended Cuban cuisine and has come to represent the flavor of Miami as a whole.

Guava and cream cheese has even broken out of Miami’s countless Cuban bakeries and landed in some unexpected foods. Azúcar Ice Cream Company in Little Havana’s Calle Ocho (8th Street) features a flavor affectionately named Abuelita María (Grandma Maria), which includes swirls of locally made guava paste, cream cheese, and crumbled Maria cookies.

These days, it seems as if no city’s culinary landscape is complete without a trendy donut shop, and Miami is no exception. Amidst the bright colors that are splashed on every inch of wallspace in the Wynwood Arts District, locals and visitors are known to wait for nearly 30 minutes for a taste of one of the shop’s brioche donuts with a swirled guava and cream cheese filling. You can even sample this very Miami combination of flavors in a chewy, freshly baked cookie at Night Owl Cookies by the Florida International University South Campus or at Midnight Cookies in Hollywood.

Guava and cheese isn’t only limited to desserts, though. Local Cuban pizza chain, Polo Norte, features these two ingredients as toppings on a pizza under a layer of melted mozzarella and Gouda.

Perhaps the biggest indication of guava and cream cheese’s status as a Miami thing is how other non-Cuban establishments have adopted it into their own menu items. The Venezuelan community in Miami is renowned for its tequeños—rectangles of queso fresco wrapped in strips of dough and then deep-fried until crisp. Locals and visitors alike can now sample tequeños that feature ribbons of guava paste at their centers to counter the saltiness of the cheese. Some Argentine bakeries are also including guava and cheese fillings in their flaky facturas, along with the more traditional pastry cream and quince paste. A popular local Brazilian confectioner offers a signature creation that pays homage to Miami’s favorite duo: a creamy white brigadeiro (a fudgey, ball-shaped candy), concealing inside it a tiny cube of guava paste.

Such a magical combination of flavors could only happen in a town known to locals as the Magic City.

Have you ever had a guava pastelito? Tell us in the comments below!

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Emma
    Emma
  • D Russell
    D Russell
  • Carmen
    Carmen
  • Debbie Serra
    Debbie Serra
  • Wendellyn Worthington
    Wendellyn Worthington
Comment
I was born in Peru to a Limeño father and a Texan mother. We moved to Miami when I was five, and I grew up in the "Kendall-suyo" neighborhood—often called the 5th province of the Inca Empire because of its large Peruvian population. I've been writing about food since I was 11 years old, and in 2016 I received a master's degree in Gastronomy from Boston University. A travel columnist at Food52, I'm currently based in Hollywood, Florida—another vibrant Peruvian community—where I am a writer, culinary tour guide, and consultant.

20 Comments

Emma May 14, 2019
In NYC even Entenmann's sells guava and cheese stuffed puffed pastries. https://www.entenmanns.com/en/products/guava-cheese-puffs?category=143
 
D R. May 14, 2019
I consider myself fortunate to have a beautiful Ruby Guava tree in my yard in Kona, Hawaii that bears softball sized, yellow-skinned fruit and ruby-colored flesh - one of my favorite tropical flavors. I’ve made guava & cream cheese empanadas but these sound even better because of the puff pastry. I’m always on the lookout for new ways to use the jelly and paste I make - thank you for the informative article.
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. May 14, 2019
oh you are so lucky! I heard the guavas in Hawaii are ambrosial. I hope you make the pastelitos.
 
Carmen May 14, 2019
Could you please share a recipe? Thank you!
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. May 14, 2019
https://www.mybigfatcubanfamily.com/2016/07/pastelitos-de-guayaba-recipe/
 
Debbie S. May 14, 2019
What a mouthwatering article! I first enjoyed guava jelly on a slab of homemade cheese in San Jose de los Ramos, Matanzas, Cuba. I was hooked. I now serve it at dinner parties but had no idea the puff pastry versions are a Miami thing. Can’t wait for my next trip! Thanks for a great article.
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. May 14, 2019
Oh that sounds like such a lovely memory. I am glad you liked the article.
 
Wendellyn W. May 14, 2019
I was turned on to these delicious quava pastries at DI Coffee Bar on Davis Island in Tampa. They are made on site daily by the owner's Cuban mother. They just melt in your mouth, especially with their superb coffee.
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. May 14, 2019
Good to know next time I'm on the gulf coast. Thanks for sharing.
 
Pedro Z. April 23, 2019
You know when i was a small child i remember when my grandma always before bed we would have a peace of quava pastry which i love my grandma for it till this day. Thank you.
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. May 14, 2019
thank you for reading
 
Adriana P. April 22, 2019
The doughnut shop in Wynwood is called “The Salty Doughnut” and it is definitely worth the wait.
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. April 22, 2019
Yes! Sorry for not including the name in the article. It is one of the best doughnut places I have been to.
 
Linda B. April 21, 2019
Any recipes? I have puff pastry, cream cheese, & frozen tamarillo (purchased by mistake) do you think that might work?
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. April 22, 2019
You could easily make a pastry, but you will need to make a thick, very sweet jam from the tamarillo first. cut a square of puff pastry, add a slice of cream cheese and smear of tamarillo jam. Bake as per the instructions on the puff pastry package. It's very simple if you have the puff pastry
 
Joyce April 19, 2019
Cafe' Tropical in Echo Park, Los Angeles, has the best of these. And they have the best Cafe' con Leche to go with AND the best Cubanos!!! Adorable, cozy and friendly little cafe on Sunset and it has never disappointed!
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. April 22, 2019
I've heard of it. Pretty famous on the west coast, and probably one of the few places you could reliably get Cuban pastries. Fun fact: in Miami, nobody ever refers to a Cuban sandwich as a "cubano." That came about after the Movie Chef premiered, but everyone in Miami calls it a Cuban sandwich (or Sandwich Cubano in Spanish).
 
Yolanda April 18, 2019
I love those pastelitos with guava and cheese. I always stop at the Versailles Bakery in the Miami airport on my way home to pick up a cafecito and a guava pastry for the trip!
However, the guava and cheese combination is found outside the Cuban and Cuban-American community as well. My parents were from the Dominican Republic, and in Dominican households, guava and cheese is such a traditional pairing it’s known as Romeo y Julieta. I was also served that pairing more than once during a recent trip to Brazil. Yum!
 
Braless C. April 19, 2019
We eat guava and cream cheese pastries in Puerto Rico too, though there they are called “quesitos”
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. April 22, 2019
Yes. The guava and cheese pairing is popular throughout the tropics on this hemisphere. The pastries, though, are very Cuban, but other Caribbean nations have also adopted the pastry. Colombian bakeries also sell guava pastries, but the pastry, itself, is more similar to traditional French puff pastry