A taste of Cuba: Make classic picadillo and caramelized yuca flan

More often than not, we’ve viewed Cuba from this side of the Florida Straits, where native dishes have been transplanted and sometimes translated, tweaked and, gasp, even “curated.”

The glossier cookbooks tend to emanate from this side of the abstract Cuban nation. So when “Cuba: The Cookbook” (Phaidon, $49.95) landed on my desk this June in all its neon splendor, 432 pages of classics and colorful images plucked from the island, it served as handsome company for the heftier, more showy books on my shelf. Some of its companions, in fact, share its New York and London-based publisher, Phaidon

But the insides of this book, the sweet filling in this empanadilla, begin and end in Cuba. Authors Madelaine Vázquez Gálvez and Imogene Tondre live on the island, where Vázquez Gálvez has worked in various culinary ventures, including a cooking show and a vegetarian restaurant, within the Cuban government structure. Oakland-born Tondre has lived in Cuba for the better part of a decade. 

The recipes they present are simple and hearty in the ways of countryside cooking. 

Here are two of the many I wanted to make asap: a traditional picadillo and a dense, caramelized yuca flan. 

Add a side of fluffy white rice and call it dinner, a lo cubano.   


The following recipes are reprinted from the June 2018 book “Cuba: The Cookbook,” by Madelaine Vázquez Gálvez and Imogene Tondre, with permission of its publisher, Phaidon.  


Picadillo a la Criolla   

Preparation Time: 25 minutes 

Cooking Time: 30 minutes 

Serves: 6  


  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil 
  • 1½ pounds ground beef 
  • 1 large green bell pepper, diced 
  • 6 cloves garlic, crushed 
  • 1 medium white onion, diced 
  • 2 medium tomatoes, peeled (optional; see note) and diced 
  • ½ cup tomato sauce 
  • ¼ cup dry white wine 
  • 1 teaspoon salt 
  • 20 pitted green olives 

For serving 

  • 6 fried eggs, 12 fried sweet plantains and white rice  

Make the dish 

  1. In a large frying pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the beef and cook until it begins to brown, about 4 minutes. 
  2. Add the bell pepper, garlic, and onion and cook until the onion turns translucent, about 3 minutes. 
  3. Add the tomatoes and cook until softened, about 2 more minutes. 
  4. Add the tomato sauce, wine, salt, and olives. Reduce the heat and cook until the liquid reduces, about 15 minutes. 
  5. Serve with the fried eggs, fried sweet plantains, and white rice.  

Note: If you prefer peeled tomatoes, bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Cut an “x” into the skin at the blossom end of the tomatoes and submerge in the boiling water for 1 minute. Transfer to a cutting board to cool, then remove the skin (peeling at the “x”).  


Flan de Yuca  

Preparation Time: 10 minutes, plus 2 hours chilling time 

Cooking Time: 25 minutes 

Serves: 6  


  • 6 tablespoons sugar 
  • 1 cup grated yuca (cassava) 
  • 1 cup simple syrup 
  • 3 eggs 
  • ¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg  

Make the dish 

  1. In an 8-inch round cake pan or baking dish (preferably one that closes hermetically;) stir together the sugar and 1 tablespoon cold water to evenly moisten. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook the sugar syrup until a light-amber caramel forms, 3–4 minutes. Swirl from side to side to coat the bottom with the caramelized sugar. Set aside to cool to room temperature.  
  2. In a bowl, mix together the grated yuca (cassava), simple syrup, eggs, and nutmeg. Pour the batter into the pan on top of the hardened, caramelized sugar and cover the pan tightly. It is very important to cover the pan tightly; if you do not have a pan that closes hermetically, cover tightly with foil, wax paper, or a plastic bag and put a rubber band around the pan.  
  3. Transfer the pan to a pressure cooker (see note). Pour water halfway up the pan. Lock the lid and bring to pressure over medium-low heat. Cook at pressure until a toothpick inserted into the center of the flan comes out dry, about 25 minutes. Quick-release the pressure. Let cool, then refrigerate for 2 hours to chill.  
  4. To unmold, invert a large serving plate over the flan, then flip the pan and the plate together. Lift the cake pan away, leaving the flan and the melted caramel sauce on the serving plate. 

Note: If you do not have a pressure cooker, transfer flan pan to a pot wide enough to hold it, with room on the sides, and pour 1 1/2 inches of water around it. (The water should come halfway up the sides of the cake pan.) Cover the pot tightly and bring to a simmer over low heat. Steam the flan until set, 1 hour to 1 hour 10 minutes. Remove the flan from the pot of water and let cool. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours

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