Category Archives: Cuba

Las Voces de Cuba

It was one of those perfect moments that I shall never forget.

A sweltering hot summer night in Matanzas. The windows of the Biblioteca Gener y del Monte open wide to the city spread out below. Birds soared above in the rafters, their voices joining those of the members of the Coro de Camera de Matanzas, an absolutely brilliant choir whose purity of vocalization and musicality was awe inspiring. We sang that night as well, but it is the voices of these young Cubans, singing Shenandoah as I have never heard it sung before, that I will remember most of all.

Cuban Bread (Pan Cubano)

No matter where we ate in Cuba, the bread was delicious – almost always freshly made, even warm on occasion. Sort of a cross between French and Italian, sometimes like a heavy sandwich bread, sometimes more like a baguette. Then of course, there were those little bite size rolls at El Guarjirito… Needless to say, I came home itching to make bread.

A weekend visit to our cottage in the Endless Mountains was the perfect opportunity for bread making. I have only one cookbook there – The New York Times Cookbook (c 1961)– and as always, it came through, with a recipe for – would you believe it? Cuban Bread!

I don’t know if it’s an authentic recipe or not – I’ve since found others that use a sourdough-type starter. I do know that it indeed tasted a lot like bread I ate one afternoon at a restaurant in Havana. It made us some wonderful sandwiches and toasted up beautifully.

Warning – I am truly a novice bread maker. This post is more a report of my experience and not a lesson in bread making. To hang out with folks who really know what they are doing when it comes to bread making, head on over to The Fresh Loaf or let Bittman show you how he does it (and does it again).

Cuban Bread (Pan Cubano)

This recipe was modified from the James Beard Cooking School. I further modified it because Claiborne did not tell me what to use to grease the bowl (I used Olive oil) and because I did not have corn meal.

1 package yeast
2 cups lukewarm water
1 1/4 tbsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
6-7 cups flour
Olive oil (I assume)
Corn meal

Dissolve the yeast in the water and add the salt and sugar, stirring to dissolve thoroughly, until it starts to foam. Add the flour, one cup at a time, beating with a wooden spoon, until you have a stiff dough. Knead for about 10 minutes till no longer sticky, then shape into a ball and place in a greased bowl and grease the top.  Cover with plastic wrap or a clean dishcloth and place in a warm spot (I used the porch railing in the sun) until it is doubled in bulk.

Turn the dough out onto a floured board and shape into two long, french style loaves or round, Italian style loaves. Arrange on a baking sheet heavily sprinkled with corneal and allow to rise for 5 minutes (I did not have cornmeal, but wish that I did. I love that texture on the outside of bread).   Set a pot of water on the stove to boil while the bread does this last rise.

Slash the tops of the loaves with a knife or scissors, brush the tops with water and place in a cold oven. Set the oven to 400 degrees fahrenheit and place the pot of boiling water on the bottom of the cold oven. Bake the bread until crusty and done, about 40-45 mins.
Pan Cubano Around the Web

  • Andrea Meyers tells us that my recipe is a “quick” Cuban bread, (as oppoesed to the more traditional method using a starter) and makes a very similar recipe ifrom Memories of a  Cuban Kitchen.
  • Taste of Cuba has the traditional recipe that uses a starter
  • Plantanos, Mangos and Me makes my recipe but in a food processor and with an egg wash. Looks gorgeous!
  • Dino Grrl (does she know Dino Doc?) makes a whole grain bun version.
  • Watch Libby make Cuban Bread in this You Tube video – Nice Job
  • Klaus Tenbergen tell us that authentic Cuban Bread is baked with a palmetto fond atop. (See Lydia’s photo for an example)
  • The Fresh Loaf has a nice thread with lots of Cuban Bread recipes
  • MyBig Fat Cuban Family shares her mothers recipe for use in a bread machine


Bardiac said…

Wow, that’s interesting that you put water in a cold oven. I wonder what that does? Keep the crust from drying too much?

Now I want to make bread and eat it slathered with butter. :/

AUGUST 07, 2010

Nale said…

I like all sorts of bread. This is new for me, and I will try it. 😉

AUGUST 08, 2010

rlbates said…


AUGUST 08, 2010

Cuba – The Food

If I were Ruth Reichl, I’d give Cuba one and a half stars. Because when the food is good, it is very good. And when it is not, the meat and fish are overcooked as to be unrecognizable, or as my friend John called our hotel mystery meat one night  – “some kind of beef”. 

Of course, eating in large hotels and restaurants in groups of over 100 people is not the way to sample a nation’s cuisine. What I was longing to do was convince one of our guides to take us home to their Mom and get me a Cuban home cooking lesson.  But that was not happening on our tight schedule, and it’s not like I had Batali and Bittman to show me around…

It’s also important to remember that this was Cuban food seen through the eyes of an American visitor enjoying the privileges of a four star welcome and with money to spend. For native Cubans, who must live with rations and an extremely limited income, it’s a whole different story. (I”ll be talking about agriculture and food supply issues in an upcoming post.)

All that said, I had some memorable meals in Cuba. Enough for me to know that I did not begin to scratch the surface of Cuban cuisine on this trip. Maybe next time....

Cafetal Buenavista
Las Terraces Eco-Village
This restaurant occupies the remains of Cuba’s oldest coffee plantation, and is located in Las Terrazas, a restored eco-system in Pinar del Rio. (More on that in a later post..) 
The remains of the terraces where they dried the coffee give the grounds the feel of an old Mayan temple.

At Buenavista, we were served a delicious traditional Cuban meal of fresh fruit, salad, chicken, rice and beans and a crispy fried vegetable – was it potatoes, Plantanos, Yucca? I forgot to ask! 

That’s because I was too preoccupied listening to the music. We were serenaded during our meal by Grupo Polo Mantanez, named for the late Cuban singer-songwriter who was the house act at las Terrazas’ hotels until his tragic death in 2002. The group continues to sing his songs today, and the current female lead singer was amazing. (Click below and enjoy while you read the rest of this post.)

Buenavista’s small kitchen is housed behind the restaurant. 
The views are phenomenal, lending the restaurant it’s name.

This was my favorite meal of the trip.

Don Lorenzo
Acosta No 260-A e/. Habana y Compostele
Habana Vieje. Tel 861-6733

This restaurant was a gift from a local on a hot Sunday after a long morning spent at the Craft Market. A simple request for a recommendation for a quick bite, and we were led on a ramble through the streets of Habana Vieje to an unmarked doorway, where small but well-maintained stairs led us up to this lovely rooftop restaurant. Our volunteer guide waited downstairs for us as we ate, so as to lead us back to our starting point – in exchange, of course, for a peso or two, which we were more than happy to give.

We were down to our last pesos that day, my friend, but the warm weather kept our appetites small enough to fit our wallets and the spontaneous little meal we shared was one of the best of the trip.

First, a mango, decorated with a small umbrella and a sprig of mint. Then bread with assorted accompaniments – in our case, we chose a simple light tuna salad and a tomato salsa. Washed down with cold agua con gas, it was a delightful small repast on a very hot summer day.

We had the place to ourselves that afternoon, and the service was personal and attentive, despite the fact that we warned the waiter up front how little we had to spend. One day, we’ll return to sample the more extensive Afro-Cuban offerings of the wonderful little restaurant.

We so enjoyed the rooftop glimpses of neighboring homes, each a little vignette of life on this island so close, yet so far far from our American shores.


La Domenica Restaurant
O´reilly y mercaderes. 
la habana vieja. 860 2918

Located near Plaza de la Catedral in the beautifully restored section of Habana Vieja, La Domenica has been called the best Italian restaurant in Habana. We stumbled upon it, attracted by the outdoor tables shaded by white umbrellas and an amazingly cheap patio menu. (The indoor menu is much pricier.) The umbellas came in handy when the afternoon’s regular downpour occurred halfway through our meal, an event that did little to spoil the meal.

The tuna salad appetizer was perfect, served with the traditional cuban salad of shredded carrots, cucumber, tomato and cooked cold green beans. A few olives reminded us we were at an Italian restaurant, and we washed it down with sparkling lemonade.

The chicken was another Cuban leaning dish, served with rice and beans, at the ridiculously low price of 6 pesos! But the best was the small pizza – unlike any I’ve eaten before, spiced a bit differently and made with a bread that was crisp, light but thicker than the brick oven pizzas I’ve eaten here in the States – Perhaps a little Cuban bread crust?


El Gaujirito 
Zulueta #658, 2nd floor near Apodaca
Habana Vieja
A bit kitchy, but the service is excellent, and the pulled pork is the best I’ve ever eaten. (It tastes nothing like what we’ve been eating for years at La Caridad here in NYC.) The Cuban rice and beans (Arroz Congri) was also delicious.  The seafood soup was simple – lots of fish in a tomato based spicy broth – and could have been good, but the fish was overcooked, as it was also in the seafood entree. But the bread ! Bite-sized soft balls served along a sombrero brim, with garlic oil for dipping. Enjoy it with a Cuban beer.
You’ll have trouble finding the restaurant, but the cab drivers know it, and will escort you into the unmarked building and upstairs.
Pause and enjoy the art gallery just outside the dining room, and if you’re lucky, you may catch a floor show on the stage there. Don’t let the waitress talk you into ordering too much food, as we did. The portions are large enough to share, so do so.

El Patio
Plaza de la Catedral, Habana Vieja

Our final night celebration dinner was a feast served to us in Plaza de la Catedral by El Patio, one of Cuba’s most famous restaurants.  Even the downpour that chased us from the square into the restaurant could not spoil the gorgeous setting.  The truth is, I don’t remember much of the meal beyond the mojito, the delicious appetizer – a tower of mango and lobster- the wonderful conversation and the moving speeches and singing. Most memorable moments – singing U2’s MLK – “If a thundercloud passes rain, so let it rain” (and it did…) – and the heartfelt Bawo Thixo Somandla (For you, Sherry…).
Any Mango Tree 

The mango everywhere was incredible, and the highlight of our daily breakfast. But when we found this mango tree at las Terrazas, we knew we had hit the mother load.

Go ahead – Grab a ripe one down, peel it and enjoy the best fruit you’ll ever eat!  Or, eat it like a native – roll it back and forth between your hands to soften it, then bite off the end and suck out the juices.

Up next – I try my hand at Cuban Bread

Cuba on My Mind

There is no simple way to describe Cuba to you. Every image, every encounter, every experience evokes a rush of conflicting emotions, because it is a country of such incredible contradiction.

It amazes me to think I actually visited a country whose government suppresses free speech and restricts the freedom of its citizens, and while I enjoyed unlimited internet access (when the router was functioning), Cuban citizens do not.

What amazes me more is that this same government affords these same citizens universal, free medical care, with an infant mortality rate and life expectancy equivalent to ours, a literacy rate of 100%, and an education system so excellent that they are exporting doctors and scientists across South America.

We exit the airpot to see anti-American billboards,

and yet everywhere we go we are welcomed by the people of Cuba with open arms, music, warm hearts (and a Mojito…). 
Cuba’s cities are an ecelectic mix of mid-century and centuries old architecture in colors that brighten the soul,  
and yet many of these same buildings are literally crumbling before your eyes, bringing forth a great sadness. 

It is a place where one cannot get something as simple as an Excedrin, where bathroom attendants dole out small rations of toilet paper like precious jewels and flush the toilets with buckets of water because the plumbing system is unreliable. But the food system is working, and Cuba is now one of the world leaders in successful urban gardening and sustainable agriculture.

We were forced to change our Havana concert venue twice because air conditioning broke down, and the union hall we ultimately performed in, never designed for musical performance but graciously offered for our purposes, had both an out of tune piano and poor acoustics. And yet, in that hall, I heard a flute solo I shall never forget and some of the most beautiful voices I think I will ever hear.

I was told that Cuba was an anachronism, a country trapped in the mid-century, epitomized by the many antique cars we saw on the streets. And while it is true that there are pockets of the past, they exist mostly in the architecture and the automobiles. The people I met were very much citizens of the 21st Century, in many ways poor by our standards, but in some ways rich. Those I met were doing important work in medicine, science, agriculture and the arts, despite what for us might be a crippling lack of resources. And while I remain confounded and disturbed by the harsh realities of their political system, and frustrated by their crying needs for so many of the things we take for granted here, it is the strength, warmth and talent of the Cuban people that I will recall most when I think of my visit there.
Up next – Cuban Food. 

(Note – I initially wrote maternal mortality up there and meant to say infant mortality. Cuba’s maternal mortality rate is higher than the US’s, but they are aggressively working towards lowering it)

Hola de Habana!

I’m here in Cuba on a concert tour with the Yale Alumni Chorus. (No, I did not go to Yale, but when you sing, you meet some amazing folks who extend some amazing invitations…)

Internet access is too unpredictable in our hotel and our schedule is too jam-packed for more than an occasional brief post, but I promise I will tell all when I return next week. I will tell you that last night’s joint concert with the small but brilliant local Coro de Camara de Matanzas was an experience I will never forget.

In the meantime, a little taste of Cuba –

Oh yeah – Zippy’s Here

Zippy* managed to get through customs (maybe he has relatives here?) and is having a marvelous time. He does want Dr Rob to teach him to drive when he gets home.

He also says to tell you all that he loves the Cuban kids – they always have a smile!


*For those of you who don’t know him, Zippy the Lobster is a crustacean on a mission to see the world and raise money for Children’s Brain Cancer Research, thanks to the efforts of his adoptive father, Dr Rob.  If you’re reading this post, why not donate a few pesos to Zippy’s cause? Maria and Zippy raised over $200 last week when Zippy visited her in New York City. Let’s see if we can top that!