Cubiletes de Amalia - Foods from Asturias

Behind every family recipe there is love. Pure, simple love. And fond memories. Cubiletes have been a long tradition at ours and it is one of the most coveted recipes I have. Every year, on December 23rd, Amalia and my mum would make cubiletes and casadielles for Christmas Eve. The roles in the kitchen were always the same: Amalia led, my mum followed and I observed.

Amalia was generous enough to share her family recipe with my family some +30 years ago. She started giving some of these treats to my dad –back then her neighbour- on Christmas and when he got married, she taught my mum how to make them. She was one of the most loving, caring, humble and respectful people I have ever met. She wasn’t my grandmother, but I love her as if she was. It breaks my heart that today we will be doing the cubiletes without her, that we don’t have her warm smile, her loving words, her advice and experience leading the baking session. But the thing about family recipes is that they keep the essence of the person who passes it on long after they are gone. She isn’t here, but somehow she is.

Los cubiletes de Amalia

Merce, Amalia’s daughter, has been kind enough to let me share her mum’s recipe with the world and I will always be grateful for that. You are a lucky bunch, trust me.


Cubiletes, a step by step recipe

Yield: 24
You will need cup-shape moulds

Ingredients for filling
250g ground almonds –if you can toast and ground them on the same day much better-
250g sugar
2 eggs, beaten
8 tbsp white wine
powdered sugar to decorate

Ingredients for the pastry
500g flour
2 tsp baking powder
160g sugar
1 egg, beaten
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
250g unsalted butter at room temperature
3 tbsp white wine

Cubiletes

We will prepare the filling first as we need to let it rest while we make the pastry.

In a medium bowl, mix all the ingredients gently until well incorporated. Once you have a soft paste let it rest while you make the pastry.

In a medium bowl, add flour and baking powder. In a big mixing bowl, mix sugar and egg until well incorporated. When you have a yellow paste then add unsalted butter, white wine and olive oil. Once all the ingredients are mixed thoroughly add slowly the flour and baking powder mix and stir with a wooden spoon. You will know that the dough is ready when it isn’t sticky and you can handle it with your hands.

Cubiletes

Preheat the oven at 180C.

Take a little ball of dough and place it into a cup-style mould. With your hands, shape the ball of dough into a thin layer, stick to the mould. The thinner the better. Then add the almond filling with a spoon. The filling will expand while baking so leave some space on top.

Cubiletes

Bake for 15 – 20 minutes keeping an eye on them to avoid burning.

Let them cool and then dust with powdered sugar.

Cubiletes
 
 
Traditional Asturian frixuelos / Foods from Asturias 01

L'Antroxu and the Frixuelos

L'Antroxu is the Asturian carnival and frixuelos -together with pork meat- are the stars of the menu

Lee en castellano


During Antroxu (as carnival celebrations are referred to in Asturias) the staple dessert in every Asturian home is frixuelos. Although recipes vary by the area where they are made (some add milk, some don’t, some add anisette, broth...), frixuelos essentially consist of a very thin pancake (the thinner, the better), fried in just a dash of olive oil, golden in colour and tender. They are very similar to the French crêpes but smaller in diameter –some even say the Asturian are the precursors of the French ones-.

Although just a few years ago it felt as if the art of making frixuelos was about to disappear, only kept alive by home cooks, nowadays almost every chef in the Principality has rescued them from oblivion and it is easy to find them in most menus across the region.

Traditional Asturian frixuelos / Foods from Asturias 02

The origins of the Antroxu celebrations are far from clear. It has been traditionally believed that, just like carnivals, they can be traced back to the Greek and Roman festivities held to honour Pan and Dionysius, with some authors arguing that carnivals have their origins as far back as 5,000 years ago, around the time of Egyptians and Sumerians. Etymologically speaking, most agree that carnival is derived from the Latin “carnem levare”, which means something along the lines of “neglecting the flesh”. In Asturian language, l’Antroxu and its variations (antroido, antroiro, antroyu, antrueyu or entrogio) also have a Latin root, introitus, which means entry.

As well as carnival, Antroxu also refers to the parts of the pig which during carnival are given as presents to neighbours that have helped with the seasonal pig’s slaughter or to those who haven’t done it themselves. After all, Antroxu is all about eating well and in abundance in order to endure the forthcoming sacrifices of Lent, which starts the day after, on Ash Wednesday.

In Asturias, Antroxu’s classic menu would consist of pork in its many incarnations, such as Asturian stew (chorizo, bacon, black pudding et al) or a full pig’s head. For in Asturias, the nose-to-tail movement heralded by many like Fergus Henderson from London’s St. John, has been performed for centuries.

Traditional Asturian frixuelos / Foods from Asturias 03

In my granny’s village in Western Asturias, the menu was invariably pig’s head (presented on the table in all its glory) with sides consisting of baked potatoes (named cachelos, the same as in neighbouring Galicia) and cimos (parsnip’s sprouts) and for dessert, you guessed it, frixuelos.

It was a custom in some villages in Western Asturias to make a scarecrow named Don Carnal or Antroiro, dressed up in rags, his head a parsnip. As my dad remembers it, everyone regarded Don Carnal as a folk who ate a lot, kind and smiley. Traditionally, it was the guys in the village who would build Don Carnal and put it up next to some other neighbour’s door or house. It was them who decided what neighbour would be awarded Don Carnal based on who was the grumpiest, the one who couldn’t take a joke and would make a scene, therefore embarrassing himself in front of the rest and being laughed at for the next few days.

Nowadays every town and municipality holds its local parade and celebrations where carnival-goers dress up and sing and have fun, for that is what Antroxu is all about. The cities where Antroxu is said to be more popular these days are Gijón and Avilés.


Asturian Frixuelos, a step by step recipe

I still have a vivid memory of the first time I tried preparing frixuelos - it was a complete disaster. I was in London and Pancake Day celebrations were in full swing, which are on the same day as Antroxu Tuesday. This was the day that frixuelos would be had almost religiously back home, and I just decided to give it a go. The problem was that my little North London kitchen had too much nostalgia but not a decent frying pan. And that was the recipe to my sad disappointment, making me almost give up forever on the art of making frixuelos and leaving my work colleagues without the treat of trying the Asturian Pancakes I had been annoucing for so long.

To avoid all this, it is crucial that the dough is left to rest for at least one hour, as is having a decent non-stick frying pan. My mum -who stood by my side on the other end of our skype call listening to my whining- even went as far buying me a special dedicated frixuelo frying pan in an artisan's market in Vegadeo, Western Asturias, which I hold very dearly. It is basically a cast iron pan, very thin and flat and, I can't stress it enough, non-stick.

Traditional Asturian frixuelos / Foods from Asturias 04

Ingredients

Yield:  between 12 and 15 frixuelos / 6 people

4 medium organic eggs
500ml whole -ideally fresh- organic milk
200g flour
Zest of one lemon (optional)
1 tbsp anisette La Asturiana (optional)
2 tbsp sugar (optional)
A pinch of salt

Fillings (whipped cream, sugar, honey, chocolate spread, jams, confitures...)

In a big bowl, beat together the eggs and milk and add the sugar and salt until incorporated. Sieve the flour –to avoid lumps- and whisk it in and mix well until they are well incorporated. Then add anisette (you can buy La Asturiana's here) and lemon.

All the ingredients are well mixed when you get a soft, runny and lump-free mix. Cover and let it rest for at least one hour, ideally longer. (This will make dealing with frying the paste much easier).

To fry the frixuelos, heat a non-stick pan to medium heat and while you wait, whisk the batter slowly to make sure there are no lumps. Add a dash of olive oil and spread it across the pan with a brush or rolled kitchen roll (I use the latter). When warm enough, ladle the runny batter into the pan (3/4 tablespoons, the amount is pretty intuitive).

At this point being fast and a calm multi-tasker is key. Hold up the pan and swirl to make sure the runny batter covers the base of the pan and doesn’t get stuck in the centre. As soon as you see the rims turning golden, you can flip it to cook on the other side. I use a flat wooden spoon, some people use tongs or slotted spoons. It is very delicate and each person needs to find whatever works best. Tilting the pan usually works and prevents the paste from sticking. My grandma used to flip them over in the air, just by swinging the pan, but everyone knows that grandmothers are in a different league.

Each frixuelo takes under a minute to make on each side. Usually frixuelos are piled-up in a single plate where they keep warm. Continue with the rest of the batter, whisking it before ladling if needed. 

You can serve them warm or cold -they reheat very well- and they are super versatile. You can have them on its own or fill them with almost anything. From whipped cream, to sugar or honey, jams and confitures, lemon curd, chocolate spread… you name it. In Asturian kitchens the pile of frixuelos is presented on the table in one single plate and each person takes its own and fills it with whatever they like the most.

 
 

Tortos with Picadillo and Eggs

Tortos with Picadillo and Eggs are one of the staples of traditional Asturian cuisine. The best place to indulge in them is up in the mountains, at pig's slaughter season

Lee en castellano


Corn brought about a social revolution to Asturias. The exact date in which the cereal was introduced in the region is unknown. Until recently it was believed that corn had been brought to Asturias by Gonzalo Cancio y Méndez Casariego in 1604. Nevertheless, a will dating from 1598 states that a farmer left their heirs corn and millet, proving that corn had been in Asturias for longer that it was originally thought. 

In 17th Century Asturias, corn became the epicentre of a social and economic revolution. It grew exponentially, especially compared to local rye, spelt or wheat, and therefore it meant more food for people to eat. Unfortunately the puzzle of pellagra ended that bonanza. Pellagra, which comes from the Italian "pelle agra" (sour skin) is a vitamin deficiency disease. It is caused by a lack of niacin and is common in people whose diet is based on untreated corn.  Casal, an Asturias-based physician, was the first one to connect the disease with the corn in 1735, calling it "mal de la rosa" (malady of the rose) and US Dr. Joseph Goldberger the one who solved the puzzle: pellagra was the consequence of a faulty diet.

The disease was rare in Central America where corn was widely available, but relatively common in Europe and the United States. This was because Aztecs and Mayans used to soak the cornmeal in an alkaline limewater-solution to make it edible. That process liberated the bound niacin and the important amino acid tryptophan, from which niacin can be formed, making its digestion easier. Colonists took the corn home but didn't notice the method to treat it and that knowledge wasn't transferred to the Old World, decimating an important part of the population by mid 18th Century. 

These days, according to the Principality of Asturias Government's statistics, the production of corn in the region is decreasing, from over 3,600 tonnes in 2001 to 850 tonnes last year.

Despite the recent production decrease, corn is still very present in the traditional gastronomy of Asturias and tortos con picadillo and eggs is one a many corn-based dishes. It is also one of the humblest foods you can come across. The main ingredients are corn flour, minced pork meat and eggs. 

This dish is still very popular in rural areas and those who like myself spent endless summers in the countryside as kids, surely keep cherished childhood memories of playing hide-and-seek in fields of corn, non-GMO corn.



Tortos con Picadillo and Eggs

Serves 4  (8 medium-size tortos)

For the tortos

200g yellow corn flour

50g wheat flour (or if you don't eat gluten, rice flour)

250g lukewarm water

1 tsp of salt

Olive oil for frying

 

For the topping

200-250g picadillo (minced pork meat)

8 eggs

 

The most difficult part of this recipe is to coordinate the timing so that you end up having the tortos, picadillo and eggs ready at the same time. To make the tortos, mix both flours and salt and add slowly the lukewarm water while you remove the dough with a wooden spoon. The tortos can also be made using only corn flour, the white flour is added for consistency. You know the dough is ready once both flours are well combined and consistent. Leave it to rest for at least one hour.

My grandmother, whose recipe includes 1/3 of wheat flour instead of 1/4 as I recommend here, used to make golf-ball-sized balls with the dough, leaving them to rest for a couple of hours covered with a linen cloth. Michelin-starred chef Nacho Manzano, whose tortos are among Asturias' most celebrated ones, recommends to leave the dough to rest in the fridge for 6 to 8 hours. 

Once the tortos dough is ready to start shaping it, heat olive oil in a medium size pan over low-medium heat and place the picadillo so that it cooks slowly while we are sorting the tortos. Stir it every now and then. 

Divide the tortos dough into 8 portions (or among the tortos you would like to get). Form a ball with each portion and flatten it with your palms as much as possible without breaking the dough. To prevent the dough from falling apart or sticking to your hands, the best is to place the linen cloth between the dough and your palms.

 

Heat olive oil in a medium size pan over medium-high heat. It is important that the oil is very hot and that there is enough to cover the tortos. When so, tip the torto into the pan and allow to cook around 1 minute, until its surface is golden and some little bubbles appear. Flip to the other side and cook it for under 1 minute. Remove from pan and place them on paper towel that will absorb the excess oil. 

If you are cooking this on your own and you are good at multitasking, try to fry the eggs while you fry the tortos. It is challenging because seconds can make the difference between a golden torto and a burnt one. If you don't want to risk it, frying the eggs once the tortos are done should still allow you to serve the final dish warm enough. You can leave the picadillo on a low heat until the eggs are ready. To serve, first goes the torto, on top of it the picadillo and then the eggs.

As with everything, use the best ingredients you can afford. My favorite Asturian corn flour so far has been that of Molinos de la Veiga, processed in the traditional way in a water mill in Pravia and grown in Asturias, therefore GMO-free. Organic/free range eggs are easy to find in most places, including in Asturias. If where you are you can't find picadillo, shredded chorizo could do. 

Vegetarian version coming soon!