No visit to a Cuban bakery is complete without sampling the croquetas – freshly made and sprinkled with lime juice if possible. A deep fried blend of béchamel sauce and ham, chicken or salt cod, these savory treats hold their own among the teeming trays of glazed guava pastries, sugary cakes, and airy meringues that fill the glass cases. Tucked into a pressed Cubano for lunch, the added crunch transforms the classic sandwich into an unforgettable croqueta preparada.
Made at home, all kinds of leftovers and stewed dishes can be added to the blank-slate of white sauce before it’s scooped, rolled and breaded. A little cumbersome at first, they can be prepped well ahead of time then fried just before serving. There are no limits to what goes into a good croqueta but here are a few guidelines to get started.
Choose your filling. Croquetas can be made with cooked ham, roast pork, beef, chicken, fish or vegetables that have been shredded or processed to form a smooth paste. Additional fillings include: cheese, hard boiled eggs, rice, sautéed onions or mushrooms.
To make the sauce, melt the butter, oil or combination of both, in a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir in the flour and cook until golden but not browned, about 2-3 minutes.
Heat the milk to a gentle simmer but do not let it boil. Gradually stir the hot milk into the cooked flour, whisking constantly until smooth. Continue to stir until the sauce has thickened and the whisk leaves trace marks on the surface, about 5 minutes. The consistency is a matter of preference. A looser sauce will have a creamier texture, but will take longer to set. For a heavier blend, cook until the sauce pulls away from the sides of the pot before adding the desired fillings.
Season the béchamel sauce with salt, pepper, nutmeg, pimentón or cayenne pepper. Remove from the heat and add the filling, mixing until well combined. Bring to room temperature. Pour the mixture in a shallow bowl or lined baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until set, at least one hour.
Lay out flour, beaten eggs, and bread crumbs (or cracker meal) in separate mixing bowls. Scoop out one heaping tablespoon of the béchamel mixture and roll in the flour to coat, shaking off the excess flour. Roll into the desired shape then dip into the egg mixture with a fork or slotted spoon, allowing excess to drip off. Dredge in the bread crumbs until well coated.
The croquetas should be completely coated so the filling doesn’t leak when cooked. If needed, dip in the egg followed by the bread crumbs a second time. Transfer to a lined tray or baking dish, and refrigerate until ready to use. At this point they can be frozen and saved for later use.
Add about 3″ of oil to a large, deep pot. Over medium-high heat, bring the oil to 365°F. Working in batches so that they are not crowded, carefully add the croquetas. Gently turn until brown on all sides, about 2 minutes. Bring the oil back up to the correct temperature in between batches.
Carefully remove the croquetas with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towels or paper bags to absorb the excess oil.
Serve immediately as an appetizer with dipping sauce or light lunch with sharp mustard, pickles and crackers.
Recipe: Croquetas de Jamón y Queso
Makes 20 to 24 croquetas
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Inactive Prep Time: 1 hour
Ease of preparation: easy
8 ounces smoked ham, excess fat or rind trimmed, cubed
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup shallots, minced
2 tablespoons plus 1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup grated Gruyere or Emmental cheese
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
Pinch of pimenton (optional)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2 large eggs, well beaten
1 1/2 cups dried breadcrumbs (or cracker meal), finely ground
Sunflower oil, for deep frying
Combine ham and mustard in a food processor and pulse until it forms a smooth paste.
Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the shallots and saute until translucent. Add 2 tablespoons of the flour and cook, stirring constantly until well blended but not browned, about 2 minutes. In the meantime, gently heat the milk to a gentle simmer but do not let it boil. Gradually stir the milk in to the saucepan, whisking constantly to eliminate clumps. Stir until the sauce has thickened and the whisk leaves trace marks in the surface, about 5 minutes. Stir in cheese and season with salt, pepper, nutmeg and pimenton. Remove from heat. Add the pureed ham and mix until well combined.
Bring to room temperature. Pour the mixture in a shallow bowl or lined baking sheet. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until set, at least 1 hour.
Lay out the remaining 1/2 cup of flour, beaten eggs, and breadcrumbs in separate mixing bowls. Scoop out 1 heaping tablespoon of the bechamel mixture and roll each croqueta in the flour to coat, shaking off the excess flour. Dip into the egg mixture with a fork or slotted spoon, allowing excess to drip off, and then roll in breadcrumbs. They should be well coated so the filling doesn’t leak when cooked.
Add about 3-inches of oil to a large, deep pot. Heat over medium-high heat to 365 degrees F. Working in batches, carefully add the croquetas a few at a time. Do not crowd them or the temperature of the oil will drop. Gently turn until brown on all sides, about 2 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels or re-purposed grocery paper bags. Bring the oil back up to the correct temperature in between batches. Serve immediately.
Ana Sofia Peláez covers the spectrum of Spanish and Latin American cuisine on her blog hungrysofia.com. From the rich smells and flavors of the Cuban food she grew up with to modern Peruvian causas, hearty Brazilian feijodas and delicate Mexican flor de calabaza soup, she’s always looking for her next great meal.