It all began with a cappuccino and a cookie. Not just any cookie; a flaky butter cookie with just the right amount of bite to crumble and with a flavor that suggested sugar without the insulin shock delivered by most cookies. Maybe the butter-wrapped sugar molecules were able to float through my system without the usual chemistry. If this was how Cubans baked and cooked, I wanted in.
We were staying at the Hotel Saratoga in Havana Cuba. It was March 2013, before Obama normalized relations and Trump sunk them. My friend and guide, Cynthia Carris Alonso, coached my daughter and I to not so much as breathe a word of politics or mumble an anti-Castro thought. We were behind one of the few iron curtains left in the world. We had no access to money, to diplomacy, to credit, or to cell phones. We had internet in the hotel only. The thought that I was out of my mind to travel to Cuba for a week was only made worse by the fact that I had brought my 15-year-old daughter. The bleak admonishments from Cynthia only confirmed my worse suspicions, this trip had to be a bad idea.
But then there was that cookie. Sitting alone on the plate, it was part of the coffee service. I didn’t need more coffee, but I really needed more cookies. We were in Havana to tour the art world and to travel with Cynthia’s Cuban-born husband’s family. They lived in a small town outside Havana, San Antonio de los Banos, and they would end up joining us for long, loud, festive meals in the Paladars of Cuba. They didn’t speak English and I knew no Spanish. It gave our meals together something of a game show quality. Cynthia became my life line as she conversed alternately in Spanish and then English. My daughter didn’t need to speak Spanish to communicate just fine with Cynthia’s adorable stepson and nephew.
We ate breakfast at the hotel and lunch and dinner at Paladars which are private restaurants in people’s homes. This country confused me. These were businesses run by entrepreneurs who loved food and knew how to cook it and serve it. Yet, everyone pretended they didn’t really exist. They catered to tourists from all over the world because only the USA was in an economic stand-off with Cuba, everyone else happily came and went. There were art galleries selling art and paladars serving food. But these establishments were tucked quietly into people’s homes. The street scene was devoid of advertisement or retail. In a country with no resources, there was no take-out because there was no packaging. My Starbucks addiction was at risk. This led me back to cappuccinos at the hotel Saratoga at every opportunity; and the cookie. No matter how much I had eaten at lunch and dinner, I still wanted more cookies.
“Can we meet the baker?” I asked Cynthia. “I need to know what’s in this cookie.”
“Of course,” she said and she asked the maitre’d if the baker would join our table. Within moments, a woman wrapped in a white apron and white head covering was sitting with us happily chatting in Spanish with Cynthia.
“Ask her what’s in it. Ask her how she makes them,” I practically begged, my anxiety overflowing that she would hide an essential ingredient or step. I didn’t know until later that the chefs and bakers are proud to share their recipes and thrilled to be asked. In a country without supplies, there was no pen or paper to write anything down. Cynthia took out a small square of paper and a pen and she began to write.
“1-kilogram butter, 1-kilogram sugar, 1.4 kilograms flour, egg and salt,” Cynthia wrote as Olga spoke to her.
“Any instructions?” I asked.
Cynthia shook her head. This seemed to be it, the end of the road of instructions. This was what I had to work with, and work with it I did.
When we returned to New York after a week of adventure, I began a baking odyssey that would lead me to markets all over Manhattan that specialized in Latin American ingredients. Was it their butter? Salted or sweet? Cultured or not? Butter and lard combined? Butter was so expensive that maybe the baker preferred butter but stretched it with cheaper available lard. Was the flour was cut with cornstarch? How many eggs and what size did she use? I had questions without answers. So, I just kept baking cookies, filling the house with buttery smells and filling my doormen with cookies. Each time I made a batch, I sent a few to Cynthia. “What do you think?” I asked. “Delicious,” she always said, “But not exactly right.”
It’s been five years, thousands of cookies, and the testing of an entire cookbook worth of recipes of Cuba’s paladars and I am still seeking that cookie. It’s still delicious and still not quite right. Too crunchy, too sweet, too hard are all adjectives I would apply to my results.
I am going to Cuba in June. First stop is the Hotel Saratoga and the baker who is now in another location. I need to figure out this cookie, I need to move on with my life.
Aphorism: Anything worth doing is worth doing right
Recipe: Page 68 of A Taste of Cuba
- 14 ounces sweet cream butter, cold and cut into pieces
- 1 scant cup white granulated sugar
- 2 1/2 cups white flour
- 1/2 beaten egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla (I use vanilla paste for its intensity of flavor)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
Combine butter and sugar in a mixer or Cuisinart just until crumbly. Add flour and salt and pulse or mix again just until crumbly. Add egg and briefly combine by machine or hand.
Gather the dough on a board or table and press into a crumbly cake. If necessary, wet your hands to keep the dough combined. Roll between two sheets of wax paper until 1/2 inch thick and using a small circle, cut out cookie shapes.
Bake at 350 on parchment lined cookie sheets for 13 to 15 minutes until just browned.