Her Name Was Isabel

But we called her Tita.  I wrote about Piti in the Chewing Gum and Friendship blog post.  Tita was Piti’s mother.

Tita was a beautiful woman without artifice.  She was trustworthy and reliable.   She was direct and there was nothing hidden behind her eyes.  Nothing but love.  Strong, steady, quiet, love.

For a girl like me, growing up surrounded by adults who never feared expressing strong emotions  and who could be dramatic and eccentric, Tita was a safe haven. Her home was a place where the spirit could be at rest.

Some of my favorite memories are of eating lunch at Piti’s house.  Tita was a born homemaker.  She could sew, embroider, knit, and keep a beautiful home, and she could cook and bake like the best.  We would sit around the table, Tita, her husband Felo (Rafael), her younger brother Rafi, Piti and I, enjoying every bite of our food while Felo delighted in making us laugh and Tita pretended to scold him for not letting us eat.  I loved feeling like a part of their family in those days before we knew we would be torn asunder.  Those days I was anchored by love, understanding, laughter, the company of my friends, and Tita’s cooking.

Tita and her husband Felo (Rafael) died in exile- away from their home on San Mariano Street in Havana.  They left their country with their two young children and came to the U.S. where they worked indefatigably until they succeeded in remaking their lives and providing their children with a secure future.  Just recently I found out that Tita and Felo had offered to take me out of Cuba with them, proving once again the extent of their love for me.  My family didn’t let them, and I was never told.  But I am unspeakably grateful to them for their heartfelt gesture.

Tita nursed Felo  through Parkinson’s disease before she died. She left us a few years ago, leaving many wonderful memories behind as well as some really good family recipes.  I wanted to share some of them with you, so you can get a little different taste of Cuba before the Revolution, before the Russian spam and the scarcity that now plagues the island.

Enjoy!  They are GREAT!  From Tita’s kitchen, to yours.


(Caramel Custard)

12 egg yolks 1 cp sugar for caramel

4 or 5 egg whites

1 ¼ cp sugar

1 tbspn vanilla extract

4 cps milk

1 cinnamon stick

In a medium pan boil the milk with the cinnamon stick (just to the boiling point) and let it cool.  Remove the cinnamon stick and discard.

To make the caramel –

Add 1 cup of sugar to the pan* and cook on the stove over medium low heat to melt the sugar, moving the pan so the caramel doesn’t stick.  After the sugar has been melted, make sure that the entire pan is covered with the caramel.  It is best to do this over the sink for spills.  Be very careful when it’s hot, DO NOT TOUCH, it burns!  Let it cool.

To make the flan –

Separate the egg yolks and add the 4/5 egg whites, then using a fork mash them slowly and add the sugar.  Check the boiled milk to see if it has cooled down.  If so, add cooled milk to the yolk mixture carefully stirring constantly.  Add the vanilla.

Using a colander, pour all this into the caramelized pan.  Put the pan inside a larger pan with water (Bain de Marie) and put it in a 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes to 1 hour.  Do not cover.  Check it after 45 minutes to see if it is cooked by inserting a toothpick or knife in the middle.  If it feels too soggy, it needs additional time.  Most of the times that I’ve made it, it takes at least an hour or longer to cook. I think that is because the meatloaf pan I’ve used is deep.  If you have flat pan that holds the same amount of liquid as the meatloaf pan, and it fits into another with water for the baking process, it will probably be cooked in 45 minutes to an hour.  (This is just a guess….)

Let it cool and cover it with Saran Wrap and refrigerate at least 5 – 8 hours**.  I usually make it the day before I serve it so I can be sure it is cold.  Invert it into a platter and serve.  Bon Appetite!

*Be careful with the pan you use to make the caramel.  Don’t use a Pyrex type pan over the stove or a non-stick one either.  Since it’s difficult to find one that can be used, I usually cook the caramel in one of my regular small pots and pour the caramel very quickly into the baking pan.  When you do it this way, add extra sugar (maybe ¼ cup).

**If you plan to bring it to someone’s house, keep it in the pan where it was baked and then transfer it to the serving platter there.

This is Abuela’s recipe.  It’s my favorite flan recipe.  However, in these days of trying to eat healthy, 12 egg yolks is probably too much.  So, I’m adding Tia Lina’s recipe too.   It has less amount of eggs.

Flan de Tia Lina

5  eggs

1 can condensed milk

1 can evaporated milk

1 tspn vanilla

Pinch of salt

  • Mix all the ingredients in a blender until they are mixed well.
  • Pour into pan already coated with caramel and place it into a larger pan on the middle oven rack, and pour lukewarm water into the outer pan, reaching two thirds of the way up the side of the custard.
  • Bake @ 300º for 1 1/2 hours.  Insert a cake tester in the center to see if it is set.
  • If so, remove from the oven and cool it on a rack to room temperature.
  • Cover it with Saran Wrap and keep it in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours.  It’s best to bake it the night before.
  • When you are ready to serve it, run a knife around the inside edges of the pan, invert it into a serving plate and spoon the caramel over it.

For the caramel:  ¾ to 1 cup of sugar

  • In a small saucepan over medium heart, cook the sugar, stirring after it starts to bubble, until it caramelizes (6 to 8 minutes
  • Pour the caramel into a 2 quart ovenproof mold, swirl to coat the bottom and sides.  Let it cool a bit.

I have seen on TV some chefs putting a few drops of water into the sugar too.  I’ve never done it but might try it.  Use your judgment there, start with one and increase it if you think it should be.

Do not grease the pan before adding the caramelo!!!!

As I wrote in Abuela’s flan recipe, Tia Lina says that this was Abuela Charo’s recipe.  It is very good too and very easy to make, but I prefer Abuela’s recipe.  Just a matter of taste…

Bread Pudding – Cuban Style  – Serves 12

½ lb regular sliced bread* 1 cup sugar to make “caramelo”

2 cups milk

4 eggs ¼ tspn nutmeg

1 cp sugar ¼ tspn ground cinnamon

4 tbspn butter, melted ½ tspn vanilla

2 tbspn dry cooking wine ½ tspn almond extract

½ cup raisins ½ cup toasted almonds

1tbspn flour to add to the raisins and almonds just before you add them to the mix.  Stir.

Preheat oven to 350.  Cut the bread in small pieces and mix it in with the milk.  Set aside.

Make the “caramelo” by adding the sugar in a heavy pot stirring frequently until it melts.  Keep your eye on it. If it burns you will have to start over. It just needs to melt that’s all. (The following is from the Internet – the non-stick pan instructions I’ve seen say not to use it on top of a stove… “Using a non stick pan will cause the caramel to just slip off the pan when pouring – easy to clean later”. – makes sense to me…  Also, do not use Pyrex pans on top of the stove either).

Have ready a baking dish that holds about 6 cups (I use a square baking dish but it can be done in a meatloaf type dish).  Add the melted “caramelo” immediately into the mold, and swirl it around to cover the bottom and sides of the mold.  Work this in quickly because the “caramelo” will harden as soon as it starts cooling off.   Set aside to cool.

In a separate bowl beat the eggs with the sugar, melted butter, and wine.  Mix the cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and almond extract, the soaked bread, raisins and almonds with the egg mixture.  Add this mixture to the caramelized mold and bake it “al baño de Maria” (Place the baking dish with the bread pudding into a larger rectangular pan that is at least 2 inches deep, adding water to this large rectangular pan almost to the top).

Bake for approximately two hours checking to see if it’s done by inserting a knife in the center.  If it is stil soft, let it cook longer until the knife comes out clean.  At least 30 minutes before the two hours, check to see if it’s getting too brown on top – if so cover loosely with foil.

Remove from the oven carefully and let it sit on the counter until it cools.

*I use any type of white or wheat bread, including French or Italian bread and/or a mix of all of them.  I don’t mind the bread crust but some people prefer it without the crust.  The bread should definitely be stale.  I usually save old bread in the freezer and when I have enough to make a bread pudding, use it.

This is not Abuela’s recipe but from the cookbook, “Cocina al Minuto”.  I’m including it because Abuela used to make it frequently in Cuba and in New York, and I think this recipe reminds me of hers.  I think the only difference is that I don’t think she made the caramelo.  She probably skipped that and lightly greased the baking dish before adding the mixture.  She then made a simple syrup and sprinkled it over it when she served it.  When I was a little girl in Cuba, I hated raisins and always tried “very hard” to scoop them out without Abuela noticing, but I didn’t succeed most of the time, and yes, you know the rest, she made me eat the raisins!  I like them now….

Galleticas Nena

(Nena’s Cookies)

2 ¼ cp all purpose flower

¾ cp Crisco shortening.

1 cp sugar

1 egg

1 tspn baking powder

Guava paste (small box or can)

I use a food processor to make these cookies.  If you don’t, it takes a lot longer because you will have to mix the dough with one of those pastry blenders or two forks.

  • Mix all the dry ingredients plus Crisco in a food processor bowl and pulse a few times.
  • Add the egg and pulse a few more times until it’s mixed well.  Don’t knead it, just get it to hold it together.
  • I start by putting the mixture in a large bowl and take about half of the mixture first (repeating it until you run out of dough) and put it in between wax papers that have been lightly floured, and roll them with a rolling pin.
  • I try not to roll the dough too thin, but that is matter of preference for the size of the cookies.
  • To cut them I use the top of a large spice jar.  I’ve tried cookie cutters and others, and that’s the one that works best for me.  You can make them larger if you like.
  • Put the cookies in an ungreased cookie sheet.  I line the cookie sheet with parchment paper to avoid washing the cookie sheet.  They also cook nicely using it.
  • I use guava paste for the center because that’s what the original recipe called for, but when we first came from Cuba we couldn’t find it, so we used any type of jelly.  You might be able find the guava in the Hispanic section of the supermarket, Publix?
  • Cut very small guava squares and place them in the center of each cookie.  The guava is kind of messy and sticks to your fingers, so I always have a small bowl with water to loosen it up.
  • Bake them at 375 for 8/10 minutes till they are just lightly brown.
  • Cool them on a wire rack.

This recipe was Abuela’s sister’s Nena’s recipe.  She used to make them for many years, quite possibly in the 1930’s or 1940’s when Abuela and her sisters lived in La Vibora, in a house right next to Bibo and his family.  I don’t know the real name for these cookies, except for “Nena’s Cookies”.  During our first Christmas in Chicago, I was feeling homesick for our family and friends in Cuba, and Abuela suggested I ask Ina to send me the cookie recipe.  Ilse was kind enough to send it to us and it has been a tradition to bake them at Christmas every year.


  1. Ah… Cuban cooking before the disaster! The ingredients were so fresh and varied. I was blessed with a grandmother who cooked with recipes like these: directly from Eden. I can close my eyes and focus in a spot just behind and between them and I can smell the aromas of caramel-flan, pudín de pan, arroz con leche, empanadas de guayaba, picadillo, fricasé de pollo, mojo de ajo y naranja agria… At least we have the memories, Yolie. How sad that the last few generations of kids in Cuba will not have memories like these when they are old! Hopefully many of them will at least get a taste of it before they die.


  2. I hope they do! Martin can comment on this, that even his generation had no idea how bountiful our island was before the disaster. When the elders talked about the before cooking, the younger generations thought it was all the product of addled brains…And how quickly it all disappeared, Yolie! It didn’t take them very long and there we were with ration cards in a land that grew anything so effortlessly then…We were fortunate indeed, and I cannot wait to hug you and share a “batido” with you in Miami.


  3. This is a beautiful childhood memory and thank you very much for the recipes!

    These were the days of “abundance” in the Cuba of the past, when most people did not worry about cholesterol or triglycerides.

    Emy Botet


  4. The recipe for Nena’s cookies is very similar to one of my favorite childhood treats. They are called “Torticas de Moron” and like you said, the center had guava on top. Great writing! Great recipes!


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