When I bite into a pastelito, the crumbs roll down my face and clothes and the syrup makes my hand sticky but I don’t care. I want to achieve the perfect balance between pastry and filling in every bite. These star-shaped puff pastries born in Argentina and eaten to celebrate the birth of our nation are filled with quince paste or candied sweet potato puree and drizzled with light syrup and sprinkles. The pastry is crispy outside and flaky inside.
Making pastelitos is labor-intensive. Many Argentinean cooks take a shortcut and buy the ready-made squares of puff pastry – masa hojaldrada — and assemble the pastelitos in much less time than it would take to make the dough from scratch. Now that I live in the United States, I don’t have that luxury. If I want to eat pastelitos, I have to knead and roll out the dough myself.
The French epicure and gastronome Brillat Savarin famously said, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” Food is part of our identity both as individuals and as a nation. The food of our ancestors makes us who we are. It is a way of asserting our national identity. As a young nation, we needed to find elements that set us apart from la Madre Patria, the Argentine motherland, Spain. The myth of pastelito-eating citizens gathered outside the town hall the morning of May 25th in the rain is about self-determination, who we are as a nation. We needed to create our own traditions, heroes, culture. Food is part of that. The pastelitos dulces belong at the intersection of history, tradition, and national identity.
Argentineans serve pastelitos as part of the May 25 celebration, marking the end of a week-long series of battles in 1810 that ousted Spanish authority and established a local, self-determined government. The Revolución de Mayo, the foundational act of Argentinean identity, happened as the direct consequence of international conflict and internal power struggles in the Viceroyalty of the River Plate (Virreinato del Rio de la Plata in Spanish, which comprised modern-day Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay.) As Napoleon held King Ferdinand VII of Spain captive, the Spanish provinces and colonies created juntas that ruled in his name.
Some thinkers in Buenos Aires argued that in the absence of a central authority, sovereignty and the right to self-rule devolved upon the people. During the week of the 18 to the 25 of May, the representatives gathered in the Cabildo, the colonial seat of government, to argue and discuss the matter of self-rule. On May 25th, the representatives decided to oust the viceroy and create the Primera Junta, which would initially rule the fledgling country. Meanwhile, some citizens were waiting outside to hear the news. Later artists, historians, and textbook writers picked up this image of crowds gathered outside the Cabildo as representative of that day.
While the actual independence of Argentina wouldn’t be declared for another six years, we celebrate this day with an afternoon merienda of pastelitos with hot chocolate or mate, herbs made into tea and drunk out of a hollow gourd with a silver straw called a bombilla. The Spaniards introduced the habit of drinking hot chocolate in colonial times, but after emancipation from Spain, mate slowly displaced it as the hot beverage of choice and became our national drink. As for the pastelitos, their origin is shrouded in mystery. Many people believe, me included, that they are a criollo invention. However, the use of puff pastry and quince are part of the Spanish culinary legacy.
Temperatures in the southern hemisphere begin to drop in May. It is autumn, a round of mate with friends and a tray of pastelitos bring comfort on a gray day. It’s deeply rooted in the Argentine collective memory that it rained on May 25, 1810 even though no one can actually say for sure. No written records survived to document the weather conditions of that day. May isn’t even rainy season in Buenos Aires, yet paintings depict the events that took place at the Plaza Mayor, now called Plaza de Mayo: crowds gathering under leaden skies, men carrying umbrellas and African slaves selling pastelitos .
In 1910, the federal government commissioned paintings of that day’s events to celebrate the first centenary, asking the artists to give their paintings an aura of heroism. Perhaps enduring bad weather in the name of patriotism represents that quality. What really happened and what we now think happened have become intertwined. Thanks to the artists’ renditions of the gathering outside the cabildo and the stereotyped image of African slaves as street food sellers, the pastelitos came to be intrinsically connected with our history and culture.
The actos patrios, or school plays, that celebrate important dates, cemented this connection between slaves, food and historical events. Every year, schoolchildren and teachers around the country prepare a pageant for the 25 de Mayo. This usually consists of a reenactment of the events of that day based on the historical record as well as the centennial celebration paintings . what went down that day. Or what we think happened that day since our view of the events is to a degree influenced by those paintings.
The scene repeats more or less the same in every school: a backdrop with the image of the cabildo, the representatives debating inside — or rather, to one side of the stage — and men carrying umbrellas and top hats, women with wide skirts and tortoiseshell combs, African slaves hawking their wares. I still remember the nerves, the feeling of walking onto a brightly-lit stage, the cold floor under my bare feet, the eyes of students, teachers, and parents on us, the fear of forgetting my lines, the relief at the end of the play. This would happen again and again throughout my school years.
In those school plays, the stereotypical image of the street vendors is that of barefoot male slaves selling candles and female slaves with long white skirts and kerchiefs balancing a big tray of pastelitos on their heads. At the time, African slaves accounted for a third of the population. Disease, the independence wars, the end of the slave trade, and extensive European immigration practically wiped them out, so to portray those slaves, we blackened our faces with burnt cork. We didn’t see this as offensive but rather a practical solution, like the girls at my single-sex school playing male roles. The practice wasn’t unique to my school; Argentinean historian Felipe Pigna wrote a very evocative description of the Revolución de Mayo, Argentina’s foundational event, as “a bittersweet memory of pastelitos, burnt cork, and street vendors.”*
To me, pastelitos represent a link to the past, both my own and my country’s. They are not only a sweet treat, but when I make them at my house in the United States, they become a link to my culture, my people. I’m not alone.
I made a batch of pastelitos the other day. Just because. On the work surface, I made a volcano with the flour and placed butter and water inside the crater. I tried to mix the ingredients the way my grandmother taught me, but I failed miserably and made a floury mess. I eventually managed to achieve a decent dough and let it rest, covered with a kitchen towel. It was a familiar sight that took me back to my mother’s and my grandmothers’ kitchens.
There is something soothing about kneading cool dough. It provides a connection with our ancestral roots, and chance to be with one’s own thoughts. The mechanical movement of our hands frees our mind and it wanders. Musings about current affairs in Argentina. I wondered what my parents were up to that Sunday. Did my mother gather the family around the dinner table, like my grandmothers used to do? A stab of homesickness, of longing for my land. A very specific childhood memory of a 25 de Mayo long ago, playing in the back garden with my brother and sisters and looking forward to merienda time. Back then, my mother used to bring out the good china and, being of Spanish descent, served hot chocolate together with the pastelitos. We are still a mixture of Spanish and criollo.
The smells and flavours of Argentinean food I cook in my home in Texas stir feelings and sensations that, on the one hand, bring comfort, and, on the other hand, make me long for all that is dear to me and I left behind.
While the dough was resting, I microwaved some quince paste with a splash of water for about one minute. Then I mashed it with a fork to obtain a smooth filling. Its sweet smell invaded my kitchen. I put that aside and started to roll out the dough. I spread soft butter on the dough, folded it and rolled it out again. Spread. Fold. Roll out.
Using a ruler, I marked straight lines and cut 2 inch by 2 inch dough squares. Then I placed some mashed quince in the center of each, dipped my finger in water, moistened the dough along the sides and covered it with another square, forming a star. After a while, my right index finger got a bit sticky. Now came the tricky part: shaping the pastelitos by pinching up the corners. They should look like a pillow-y star. I made some wonky ones at the beginning that looked a bit squashed, but practice makes perfect.
According to the recipe, the secret to puffy pastelitos lies in frying them in warm fat or vegetable oil first for the layers to open, then transferring them to a pot of really hot fat or oil. It didn’t work out quite like that for me; the layers of puff pastry didn’t separate as expected. I used vegetable shortening, which gave off an acrid smell that lingered in my kitchen for the rest of the afternoon. Afterwards, while talking to my mother on the phone, she said I should have fried them in very hot vegetable oil instead of the two-step method. The voice of experience. Ultimately, what worked perfectly was boiling the pastelitos in a pot of syrup for a minute or two. They were sweet but not overwhelmingly so. My pastelitos turned out heavy, almost stodgy. There was no crunch but the flavors were there: the neutral flavor of the pastry balanced out the sweetness from the syrup and the tartness from the quince.
All in all, my pastelitos didn’t look quite traditional. I don’t think they would have sold well in the streets of colonial Buenos Aires. However, the flavor was just right. They tasted like Argentina.
Pastelitos del 25 de Mayo
Pastries For May 25th
1 package La Salteña tapas for Pastelitos, or 24 small squares of puff pastry
6 oz. quince paste (also called dulce de membrillo)
vegetable oil, for frying
small cup of water, for sealing the edges
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
sprinkles for decorating
The premise is simple, but there’s a trick to fold your pastelitos. In the center of one tapa (or puff pastry square) place a half inch square of quince paste. Wet the edges and lay another square on top, but turned 45 degrees, so you’re making a star shape. Pat down the dough, then fold up the corners like you’re making a boat. Lost yet? Here is a video (start at 4:25) of the technique.
Place a few of the finished pastries in hot oil, but be sure it’s bubbling. As it turns golden in color, turn gently to cook on all sides.
In a separate pan combine the sugar and water and heat on low until it thickens.
Drizzle the thickened sugar on the cooked pastelitos and decorate with sprinkles.
* Pigna, Felipe, Los mitos de la historia argentina, Buenos Aires, Grupo Editorial Norma, 2005: “Así atraviesa nuestras vidas el hecho fundador de nuestra nacionalidad, como un recuerdo agridulce de pastelitos, corcho quemado y vendedores ambulantes” (Page 217).
About Ana Astri-O'Reilly
Ana Astri-O’Reilly is a travel writer and blogger from Argentina but she currently lives in Texas, U.S.A. She writes about the places she’s visited and the impact they've had on her. Ana is fully bilingual and writes in English as well as in Spanish on her travel blogs. Ana’s keen on food and history as well, which she tries to weave into her pieces as much as she can. Travel websites like Traveling Thru History, Matador (en Español) and Wanderlust and Lipstick have published her articles. She's @anaoreilly on Twitter.