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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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.