I’ve never dealt with changes in my life gracefully. Like many humans, I scratch and bite when my existence is interrupted by something as mundane as a change in my routine. I’ve navigated traumatic events blindfolded and by the skin of my teeth, wishing I was more resilient. But this year’s experience (or, “this trying time,” as we like to say now) is different.
Over the last several months, many, many of us have experienced overwhelming grief. It would be difficult to avoid these feelings considering the daily, collective processing of trauma playing out on our social media feeds, in the media, and in the streets. On top of that, we must reckon with the fact that we’re actually not all in this together—the pandemic is further widening existing racial and economic disparities perpetuated by inadequate policies.
Back in March, when Washington, D.C., locked down and we were finally awakening to the reality of COVID-19 and the frightening ways it would upend every aspect of our lives, I was craving togetherness. In the “before times,” I felt more than comfortable being alone or spending quiet time with just my husband. But this same alone time that previously made me content was quickly taking on the weight of melancholy. As I struggled to adjust, I found that spending more time in the kitchen meant less time stuck in my feelings. I wanted my mom’s food. I wanted to make something a little fussy. And I didn’t want to do it alone.
I immediately thought of a dish my abuela and my mom barely ever made and yet is as much a part of my culinary lexicon as black beans and rice: pastel de pollo, or Cuban chicken pie. So, in late March, I spent sixteen hours filming myself making my family’s recipe and convinced my sister and my best friend to join me.
We made the pies in the home kitchens that would become even more central to our lives over the months that followed, filming every step with our phones and the help of our bewildered partners. We Zoomed each other for tips and to celebrate our success. Weeks later when I was viewing and organizing all the footage, I laughed when Kat tried to explain our twenty-year-long friendship in five different takes, interrupted by her attention-seeking dog, and when my brother-in-law RJ kept forgetting to record the videos in landscape mode. Seeing it all edited together, I love seeing the unique flair each of us had while attempting the same dish.
Pastel can mean a lot of things, but in Cuban Spanish it specifically refers to what people in the United States would call a pie: a filled pastry with a top and bottom crust. In this case, it’s filled with what my abuela described as “basicamente un fricasé, sin papa, con menos líquido, con aceitunas, pasas, y huevos duros.” “Basically a fricassee, without potato, with less liquid, with olives, raisins, and hard-boiled eggs”—that was the extent of her recipe. The short crust-type pastry is heavy with lard and melts in your mouth. Its origins, like many classic Cuban dishes, are clearly Spanish, with its combination of spices, raisins, olives, capers, and roasted red peppers.
The likely origin is the Galician empanada, or empanada gallega. Many Galicians made their home in Latin America in the late nineteenth century and had a huge impact on the cuisine. The dough for these pies is yeasted and soft—very different from pastel de pollo. But one typical filling, though made with tuna, is very similar to the chicken filling I’m used to. In Maricel E. Presilla’s recipe in her opus Gran Cocina Latina, you could replace the tuna in the recipe and end up with essentially the same filling as the recipe below. There are variations, of course. In Cocina Cubana, by Raquel Roque, the filling is, bafflingly, chicken, onions, and parmesan.
When my mom was growing up, her abuela on her mother’s side made pastel de pollo often, and my mom and her siblings loved it. As her abuela got older, they would find tiny bones in the pie, but it was still a treat. The recipe below is based on my abuela’s recollections of her mother’s pie. When she was in college, my mom offered to transcribe all my abuela’s recipes as a Mother’s Day gift (“like a moron”). She hand-wrote everything. She found my bisabuela’s crust recipe in an old notebook of Abuela’s. But the filling recipe was more of an oral tradition, and my mom only recently attempted to develop something more codified.
Most of the time I ate pastel de pollo growing up, it was not homemade, at least not in my abuela’s home. It is a labor-intensive dish. In Miami, it is far more likely that when you have pastel de pollo, it was purchased from a lady who makes and sells them out of her home who you found by word of mouth. Sometimes, it’s the only dish she makes to sell.
In the 1960s, many Cuban women arriving in Miami could not drive. They also were less likely to have vocational skills than men, and many did not speak English. Cooking and selling food from home was a chance to earn money, and many of the women who did this work realized that making pastel de pollo, while expensive up front due to the ingredients, would net greater profits. It was rarely found in the city’s many Cuban bakeries, so making and selling it set these home vendors apart and they could charge more money for it. It was (and probably continues to be) a path toward upward mobility for the women who made it.
My abuela, upon arriving in Puerto Rico after fleeing Cuba in 1960, made pies and sold them out of her home but could not afford the ingredients to make pastel de pollo. The dish is also less popular in Puerto Rico, where there are fewer Cubans.
Until she passed away in 2018, my abuela would always order a few pies before my mom or her siblings visited. It became a special dish to them because they only had it in Miami, where my abuela moved when I was a baby. She would order them frozen and pop them in the oven as needed. My mom would bring at least one frozen pastel de pollo home for us as well. Despite it being a treat for her kids, my abuela would refer to it as a “saca apuro,” Cuban Spanish for “saca de apuros” or a “get-out-of-trouble” dish. When someone visits and you have nothing prepared, all you have to do is throw it in the oven, so it gets you out of trouble. I can’t help but feel the altered significance of this expression in the time of COVID-19.
We always, always had it when visiting Miami. While I loved the crust, I would throw a fit about it having raisins and olives, two of my least favorite things to eat. If I was lucky, someone had convinced the pie lady to make one without the offending ingredients so I would eat it without complaint. Though raisins in cooked food still don’t do it for me, I do find they serve an important purpose in this dish, so I don’t cry if I find them in the pie anymore.
Though a slice of pastel de pollo makes a perfect meal on its own with a side salad, it’s often more of a party food, served alongside croquetas and tamales. Obviously, party season is canceled for the foreseeable future, and, if you’re like me and trying to limit trips to the grocery store, a slab of pie is dinner because you haven’t had salad in your fridge in weeks. Making a large party dish for two, which is what Kat, Anita, and I each did, seems a little indulgent right now. But making it “together” was important to me. I felt a sense of connection to my community and family, and together we remembered those before us who experienced upheaval and survived, recipes intact.
Since making pastel de pollo, we’ve figured out how to see our friends and families safely, and I’ve even gotten to eat my mom’s ropa vieja. But there are still (many) days when I’m floundering, just like many of you. Making pastel de pollo isn’t going to heal the world. But you can make two and store one in the freezer as a saca apurowhen you’re too sad to cook. Or you can give one to a friend that might need some help getting out of trouble themselves.
Pastel de Pollo
Makes one very large pie. You can cut the crust recipe in half and end up with a deeper dish pie or make two smaller pies.
2 pounds flour
1 pound shortening or lard
4 cold eggs, beaten
4 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 tablespoon salt
3/4 cup cold water
Whisk together dry ingredients: flour, sugar, baking powder, salt.
Add room temperature shortening and mix. You can use an electric stand mixer or your hands.
Add water to beaten eggs. Add the egg mixture to the dough and mix well.
Divide the dough in two halves, or four quarters if making two pies. Flatten into discs, wrap in plastic, and chill in the fridge for at least an hour or overnight.
2 1/2 pounds bone-in chicken breasts or thighs
~1 cup white distilled vinegar
~1 teaspoon garlic powder
Salt and pepper
Oil (olive oil or another vegetable oil is fine)
1/2 large onion, diced
1/2 large green pepper, diced
1/2 teaspoon ground garlic
1/4 cup white cooking wine
1/4 cup orange juice
1 (8 oz) can of tomato sauce (or tomato puree or blended tomatoes)
1 tablespoon ketchup
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
1 bay leaf
15 green olives, chopped (small ones, like Manzanilla)
1/2 tablespoon capers
1 1/2 tablespoon cilantro, chopped (optional)
1/4 cup raisins
1 roasted red pepper (jarred or fresh), chopped
1/4 teaspoon hot sauce (or more)
2 hard-boiled eggs, cut in wedges/slices
One egg, beaten with a little water – about 2 tablespoons (for the egg wash)
Marinate the chicken for a few hours with salt, pepper, garlic powder and vinegar.
Heat some oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium high and add the chicken until a little brown on both sides. Take the chicken out of the pot.
In the same pot, sauté the onion, pepper, and garlic until softened slightly.
Add the rest of the filling ingredients except for the eggs.
Add the chicken back in, cover, and turn down to simmer. Cook until the chicken is ready (about half an hour, but it depends on the size of the pieces).
Turn off the heat and take the chicken out to cool down. In the meantime, cook the sauce down if it seems too thin for a pie filling.
Remove the chicken skin (if present), debone, and shred into bite-sized pieces.
Mix the chicken back in with the sauce and cool filling down.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Using a rolling pin, roll one of the dough halves to the size of a large rectangular mold (my mom uses an 18-by-13-inch sheet pan, but you can also make two smaller pies). Make sure it’s big enough to cover the sides of the pan/mold. This dough is very forgiving, so you can patch it as needed (it will be needed).
Add the filling and distribute it evenly. Decorate with wedges/slices of hard-boiled egg.
Using a rolling pin, roll the other half of the dough to the needed size and lay over the filling.
Pinch the bottom and top layers of dough to seal them together.
Brush the top crust with the egg wash. Poke a few holes into the top crust to allow steam to escape.
Bake until it is nice and golden all over, about an hour.
Once cooled completely, you can freeze the pie, whole or in portions, wrapped in aluminum foil. Pop it in the oven at 350 degrees F for 20 to 30 minutes until heated through. Reheating time will depend on the size of the pie.
Leftovers reheat fine in the microwave, though the crust will be softer and less flaky. I prefer leftovers heated in the oven (or toaster oven) by the slice for a few minutes at 350 degrees F.
Cecilia Peterson is the digital projects archivist in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections. Between looking for a snack, feeding her sourdough starter, and filming her latest cooking project for the ’gram, she has spent more time in her kitchen in six months than in the last decade combined.