Cuban Picadillo

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Picadillo is a classic dish each Cuban holds dear to their heart. Everyone proudly proclaims that their mami’s, tia’s, or abuela’s picadillo is the very best, and they’re all right of course. Cuban picadillo has a multitude of delicious variations, and the one that follows is my mom’s. We grew up eating picadillo a whole lot. It was a weekly staple and a dish my mom could whip up in no time. Picadillo makes me nostalgic for the scents of my childhood- simmering ground beef with sofrito, cumin, and oregano that would fill the entire house and make my mouth water.

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My mom’s picadillo calls for plenty of sliced green olives and plump raisins- the combination of sweet and salty with savory sofrito is sinful. I always aim to make a “perfect bite” with each element present in every spoonful. Picadillo with rice (and platanos maduros!!) is comfort food at its finest- simple and traditional. Whether you’re Cuban or not, you will find yourself craving this Cuban classic time and time again.

Cuban Picadillo with Rice (Picadillo con Arroz Blanco)

  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 1 lb lean ground beef (or ground turkey or a combination of beef and pork)
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 2-3 minced garlic cloves
  • Generous splash Mojo Criollo or water
  • 2 Bay leaves (laurel)
  • ½ tsp salt (or more to taste)
  • ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp sazón completa
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 cup tomato sauce
  • ⅓ cup sliced green olives (or to taste)
  • ¼ cup raisins (or to taste)
  • White or Brown rice for 4 cooked as instructed (do not use jasmine rice)

Prep white or brown rice for four- it will be ready by the time you are done with the picadillo. Heat the olive oil in a pan on medium heat. Cook the onions first until soft and translucent. At this point add the minced garlic. Garlic cooks much faster than onions so add it when the onions are nearly finished.

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Next add the ground beef to the pan- I turn up the heat to 6-7 during this part to really brown the beef. I stir occasionally and ‘chop’ up the ground beef with my slotted spoon. Sprinkle the browned beef with the salt, pepper, cumin, and sazón completa and incorporate. Add the tomato sauce, bay leaves, and the oregano to taste. Turn the heat down to 2-3 and let the stew simmer for about 5 minutes. Now stir in the olives and raisins; add the generous splash of mojo criollo or water. I have also added more tomato sauce depending on my mood. Simmer for another 5 minutes or until the liquid has cooked off and a rich thick stew remains.

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Serve over white rice with fried sweet plantains (platanos maduros), fresh banana, or crumbled up mariquitas. Enjoy with iron beer, materva, or jupiña.

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Cuban Flan

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Cuban flan or crème caramel is creamy, sweet, and silky smooth simple baked custard. I love flan- not only is it easy to make, but it looks beautiful on a serving dish and always impresses guests. Flan, like many other Cuban staples, can be found readily all over Miami- but not all flans are made equal my friends.

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The hardest part of making flan is mastering the sweet amber caramelized sugar that pools on the plate and drips down the sides of the decadent Cuban flan. I prefer my caramel to be light amber, not too light, but still crystal clear. A darker caramel gives a bitter nutty flavor to the flan and overpowers the soft custard dessert.

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After making this recipe countless times, I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly while making the caramelized sugar. I tried my best to walk you through the steps to caramelized sugar perfection below, but practice makes perfect. Flan is perfect for dinner parties, potlucks, and large or small gatherings. Flan can be made a few days in advance, looks stunning when served, and is crazy easy to make!

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Cuban Flan or Crème Caramel 

1 can evaporated milk
1 can condensed milk
5 eggs OR 4 eggs and ½ cup softened cream cheese
½ cup milk
1 cup sugar divided
1 teaspoon vanilla
 
Allow the eggs (and cream cheese if you choose to add some) to get to room temperature. I am convinced room temperature eggs make for a better flan, but go ahead and use them straight out of the fridge if you insist. Make the caramelized sugar coating for the flan first since it needs to cool before you can pour in the custard mixture.

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Add a ½ cup of the white sugar into the flanera. I have never made flan in anything but a flanera (easily found at any grocery store in Miami- likely not so easy to find elsewhere). I have seen that people make flan in all sorts of containers, but I swear by the flanera since the lid and locks allow the flan to also steam on the inside of the device. Put the sugar on low to medium heat and have a spoon handy to stir.

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Do NOT, I repeat, do NOT try to taste the sugar as it is caramelizing. The sugar will be molten hot and will surely burn your tongue and your skin if you touch it. Little sections of the sugar will start to caramelize faster- gently stir the sugar so it doesn’t burn and mixes evenly. The caramelized sugar should be completely clear when it is done. The sugar will be a little cloudy as it melts, and it is not finished until it is crystal clear and a lovely rich amber hue. This part is easy to mess up and burn the caramel. You can still technically use it, but it might not taste as great as a perfectly done caramel. Once the sugar is done caramelizing, hold the flanera with an oven mitt and gently rotate the hot caramel around making sure to coat the sides well. Allow this to cool for 30 minutes or so.

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Now preheat the oven to 350. Before I got the KitchenAid (which I am thoroughly obsessed with) I used to simply toss all of the flan ingredients into a blender until well mixed. I have whisked the ingredients together, but now I just use the KitchenAid with the whisk attachment and let that baby run for a few minutes. You can literally dump all of the ingredients into a blender, bowl, or KitchenAid. Blend well making sure there are no yellow wisps of the egg yolk or unblended egg whites in the mix. Now place the flanera in a larger 13 x 9 pan and pour the custard mixture into the flanera. You can hear the hardened caramelized sugar cracking as the cool liquid is poured in. Fear not- that is just fine. Now place the flanera lid on and lock in place.

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Place the pan and flanera in the middle of the oven and pour water into the pan half way to make a Bain Marie or water bath. You can choose to add the water earlier, but it is difficult to hold the sloshing water bath and gently place it in the oven. Bake for one hour. You can carefully remove the flanera lid and jiggle to see if the custard has set. There should be some soft jiggle, but not a liquid center.

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Remember as the flan is cooling with the lid on it will continue to cook through and become more firm. Allow the flan to cool on the countertop until you can handle the flanera with bare hands. Place the flan in the fridge overnight. I have tried to serve this dessert within 6 hours of making it, and it was simply not cold enough. Make this dessert a day or two in advance!

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Before serving run a knife or spatula along the edges to separate it from the dish- normally as the dessert cools it will contract and separate from the sides, but it is always okay to err on the side of caution. Place a plate or your desired serving dish over the flan and invert. You will likely hear the flan separate from the bottom with a gurgling noise. Lift the dish carefully and scrape out some of the delicious caramel and pour all over on top. Pause to ooh and aah over the beautiful flan you have just made, slice, and enjoy!

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**Note: Flan de queso is made with cream cheese, and it is denser and a lighter cream color than the traditional flan. I usually only use eggs in my flan, but if I have some cream cheese handy I will allow it to soften and add a half a cup and one less egg for a softer texture. Do NOT use whipped cream cheese- just trust me on this one!

 

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Arroz con Leche

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Arroz con leche is a sweet, creamy, and rich Cuban rice pudding. There are countless varieties on this quintessential Cuban classic, but this is the easiest and very best recipe you’ll find. Evaporated milk, lemon peel, orange peel, cloves, raisins, whole milk, and all the other whosits and whatsits that other recipes call for have no place here. This recipe is no-frills and no-fuss- plus it’s my abuela’s arroz con leche recipe and that makes it the best on this planet.

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Pearl short-grain Valencia rice– in all its creamy starchy glory- is the only kind of rice to use for Cuban arroz con leche. My abuela’s arroz con leche is decadent and homey, and it will have you asking why on earth you ever added all those silly other ingredients in the first place.

As the water boils with the cinnamon sticks and slightly browns, the fragrant warm spice perfumed the air bringing back many a fond memory. I recall eagerly waiting over the bubbling arroz con leche waiting for my abuela’s nod of approval that dessert was finally done. We both stood armed with spoons ready to scrape up the thick and gummy goodness that builds up along the sides and on the bottom of the pot.

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Arroz con leche is made with a lot of love and requires constant stirring. This rice pudding is worth the wait and is a real treat served warm or cold sprinkled with a little extra cinnamon on top.

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Abuela’s Arroz con Leche

2/3 cup Valencia Pearl rice
1 can condensed milk
1 pinch of salt
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon vanilla

Put about 4 or 5 cups of water to boil with a pinch of salt and the cinnamon stick (I made a double batch- hence the extra cinnamon sticks and ingredients pictured). Add the unwashed rice and boil the rice until it opens over medium heat while moving the rice once in a while. Washing the rice removes some of that starch that makes it creamier and wonderfully thick.

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When the rice is ready after around 20 minutes or so, add the condensed milk moving constantly. Continually scrape along the bottom and sides to prevent burning the arroz con leche. Seriously- just stay standing by the stove-top and stir! It can quickly burn and will ruin the entire batch.

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Stir the dessert softly until it is like a cream, and you can temporarily see to the bottom- this takes around 10-15 minutes. In the first picture below you can see that the rice pudding is much too soupy and needs about 10 more minutes of constant stirring over low heat. In the middle picture, the arroz con leche is just right as you can see the bottom momentarily when stirring.

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Stir in the vanilla and remove from heat. Remove the cinnamon sticks from the arroz con leche and discard. Serve the arroz con leche in individual cups, sprinkle with cinnamon, garnish with a cinnamon stick if you like, and enjoy warm or cold. I made a double batch which serves around 10-12 generous portions.

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