Spanish and criollo (those of Spanish ancestry born in the New World) leaders had been hotly debating the fate of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata for a week, ever since receiving word of the instability and turmoil that had spread throughout Spain at the hands of Napoleon and his army. By Friday, the people of Buenos Aires, the colonial capital, were anxious for some answers. Women balanced baskets of warm pastelitos for sale on their hips as they circulated among the rain-drenched, expectant crowds gathered in the plaza outside the Cabildo, the government house. Later that day, it was announced that Viceroy Cisneros had resigned and a new local government, the Primera Junta, was established. The historic events of May 25, 1810 set Argentina on the path toward independence from Spain, and indeed, just a few years later on July 9, 1816, Argentina declared independence from the mother country.
And so, the pastries known as pastelitos became inextricably linked to the celebration of Argentina’s May Revolution, or 25 de mayo. Popular legend has it that the pastelito sellers hawked their treats with cries of “¡Pastelitos calientes para las viejas sin dientes!” (Hot pastelitos for toothless old ladies!) I suppose that was a selling point back in colonial times, but it’s hard to imagine they’d have much success with that pitch nowadays!
Made from a flaky, fried puff pastry, cooks typically fill pastelitos with dulce de membrillo (quince paste) or, occasionally, dulce de batata (sweet potato paste). Traditionally, pastelitos are fried in lard, but many cooks opt for vegetable oil (usually sunflower oil) these days. When submerged in the hot oil, the dough separates into many layers, giving the pastelito its classic look, which resembles a flower.
While pastelitos are traditionally enjoyed on May 25th and other patriotic holidays, they’re actually quite popular year-round. During the summer, down at the beach or at Parque Miguel Lillo here in Necochea, men sell six-packs of pastelitos for mateadas (mate drinking sessions with friends). With Argentina’s Independence Day just around the corner, perhaps you could try your hand at making some pastelitos.
This recipe for pastelitos is adapted from a Maizena (a popular brand of cornstarch) recipe booklet published in 1956. I found the booklet tucked away in a corner of my husband’s grandmother’s kitchen.
Pastelitos de Dulce de Membrillo
For the dough:
4 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup cornstarch
1 tsp. salt
12 Tbsp. [1½ sticks] butter, softened
cold water, amount necessary
5-6 oz. dulce de membrillo [or dulce de batata], cut into small squares
vegetable oil for frying [or lard, if you’re so inclined]
For the sugar syrup:
1¼ cups sugar
1/3 c. water
sprinkles for decorating
Making the dough:
Sift together the flour, cornstarch and salt onto a clean work surface. Add one stick of butter (8 Tbsp.), cut into pieces, to the flour mixture. Work the butter into the flour mixture with your fingertips, until a loose, crumbly dough begins to form. Add water, a little at a time, and knead the dough just until it becomes relatively smooth and uniform. Allow the dough to rest, covered, for 10 minutes.
Roll out the dough into a large rectangle with a thickness of 3/8 inch. Spread 2 Tbsp. of butter over the dough and then lightly sprinkle it with flour. Fold the dough in half like a book, and then press down lightly on the dough with your hands. Give the dough a quarter turn. Spread the remaining 2 Tbsp. of butter over the dough and lightly sprinkle with flour once again. Fold the dough in half.
Place the dough on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, and let it rest for 15 to 20 minutes in the refrigerator.
Roll out the dough rather thin (between 1/16 and 1/8 inch thickness), and cut it into 4-inch squares.
Assembling the pastelitos:
Place a cube of dulce de membrillo in the center of a square of dough. Wet your finger lightly with water, and trace a circle around the cube of dulce de membrillo. Place another square of dough over top of the first one, lining up the corners. Press down firmly to seal the two pieces of dough. Lightly wet the top of the pastelito, and pinch together the corners of the square.
Alternate method: Instead of aligning the corners of the two squares of dough, place the second piece on top, oriented to create an 8-pointed star. Pinch together four of the corners. You will get a different look with this method.
Making the sugar syrup:
Place the sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring the sugar to a low boil and cook the syrup for five minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Gently heat the sugar syrup when you’re ready to dip the pastelitos in it.
Frying the pastelitos:
The key to cooking pastelitos is to fry them at two different temperatures. Fry them first at a low temperature to open up the layers of puff pastry, and then increase the heat to finish the cooking and brown them. You can also have two separate pots with different temperatures of oil, but obviously, this method uses more oil and makes more of a mess.
Heat a medium-sized pot filled with oil to a temperature of about 300ºF. Place 5 to 6 pastelitos in the oil. Spoon oil over the pastelitos and move them around a bit with a wooden spoon to encourage the puff pastry to open. Once the layers have opened, increase the temperature of the oil to about 350ºF, and continue frying the pastelitos until golden brown on both sides. It’s best to remove the pastelitos from the oil while they’re upside down so that excess oil doesn’t get trapped in the center. Drain the pastelitos on paper towels.
Remove the pot from the heat in between batches to let the oil cool down to the proper starting temperature.
Glazing the pastelitos:
Dip the pastelitos in the sugar syrup while they’re still hot so they can absorb it better. Allow excess syrup to drip off. Decorate the pastelitos with sprinkles.
Serve warm or at room temperature.