At four feet, eleven inches, my Abuela Rigo was a bundle of energy that had no match in my family. She could clean a house, take soup to a sick neighbor, argue with my uncles and still have the strength to take us grandkids shopping all in one day and well into her 80's.
But there was no place like the kitchen for the dynamo that was my grandmother; she could cook like no other. And all her Puerto Rican dishes-from rice and roasts, to potato salad and sweet coconut desserts-were absolutely the best thing our family ever had. Her trademark? Make everything from scratch, and spend the money on the best ingredients you can find.
So, you can imagine what our Christmases were like. When we lived in Puerto Rico, the menu for Navidad included roast pork, arroz con gandules, her own potato salad, glazed ham with pineapple, maraschino cherries and cloves, arroz con dulce (coconut rice with raisins) and the pièce de résistance: Abuela's pasteles.
Puerto Rican pasteles are a type of tamales where the dough (or masa) is made of green bananas, plantains and other root vegetables, filled with pork, garbanzo beans and raisins. Given my grandma's demands for excellence when it came to cooking, making Christmas pasteles usually involved a full day of work with all hands on deck. Cooking what looked like a huge amount of ingredients was not the whole of the project. There was the assembly of the pasteles by placing the masa and its filling on banana leaves, wrapping them in parchment paper, tying them up with kitchen string, and then boiling them in salted water for an hour.
As the years passed, and once we moved to the states, her grandkids became less interested in helping with making pasteles. Why did we want any more food? Our Christmas table enjoyed the addition of American dishes like mashed potatoes, a green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, plus more cakes and pies you could ever eat in a lifetime. "Let's not have pasteles, Abuela. That's a lot of work and we got plenty to eat!" Grandma Rigo would reply with an angry tone, sure to set in the guilt, threatening with the same phrase: "These are the last pasteles you'll ever get from me!"
Still, every year we would get our cherished meat and dough pies thanks to our grandmother who couldn't stand having Christmas (or seeing us have Christmas) without them. The threat went on for about 30 more years, until one Christmas, too frail to initiate the pasteles production line, she helped Mami make them instead. Friends and family came by to help my mom finish up the pasteles, and our Christmas table never looked more beautiful or more delicious. The next year, Abuela made good on her promise, and those pies she helped my Mom with were the last ones she made.
I love that she made "mis últimos pasteles" a family catch phrase. Not just because of the funny finality to her threats (then), but also because those pasteles where her ultimate labor of love; love that was passed on through century-old recipes to generations that were born in a different country. And this year I'm starting my own tradition. These are going to be my first pasteles.
Here's the recipe. Wish me suerte!