pastel de medianoche (midnight pastry)

There are certain things I’ve eaten in my life that have lingered long in my food memory. One such thing was a perfect piece of toast: bread, slightly crispy, spread with butter and grape jelly immediately after toasting, the timing being critical to making those two things meld into one for the perfect delivery of buttery and sweet. I was probably nine or ten years old; our families had settled for the week in a caravan of truck-mounted campers along the beach in Mexico, and my friend Pam and I sat in aluminum folding chairs, facing the ocean and eating our breakfast. I can still taste that piece of toast in my mind, and for me it is exactly what toast should be like. 

Another food memory is one I’ve mentioned before; a tuna empanada that my husband and I ate while driving through northern Spain. It had a flaky, olive oil-rich pastry crust with a filling of tuna and caramelized onions; it was wonderful to eat warm but was just as good at room temperature. Every empanada I’ve made since then has been an effort to reach that standard, and though some have been good, none have hit quite the same notes.

Until this pastel de medianoche came along, that is. It’s a Cuban dish, the title translating as “midnight pastry,” and traditionally it’s a pie with a thick bread-like crust that is lightly sweetened with sugar, typically filled with pork, ham, pickles, cheese and onions, and usually eaten like a sandwich. Last week, my husband decided to make this dish, but used some ground lamb we had for the filling, and then a whole spelt flour for the crust. This week, I tweaked it a bit further, adding turmeric to the filling, using a 70/30 mix of whole and white spelt flours for the crust, and adding a little bit of white wine in both filling and crust. I didn’t expect it, but there it was; the buttery, flaky-topped crust, sweetly embracing a fragrant-with-spices filling as its companion. Like that grape jelly toast on the coast, and that tuna empanada in Spain, this pastel de medianoche makes a great food memory.

Pastel De Medianoche
(recipe for crust adapted from Cocina Al Minuto by Nitza Villapol & Martha Martinez)

For the crust:
Roughly two cups/230 grams whole spelt flour
1 cup/120 grams white spelt flour (all-purpose flour would work, too)
1/2 cup/96 grams organic sugar
2 teaspoons/8 grams baking powder
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons/112 grams (1 stick) of unsalted butter
2 large egg yolks/about 36 grams
1 large egg/about 50 grams
1/8 cup/28 grams dry white wine
1/8 cup/28 grams extra virgin olive oil

For the filling:
1 pound/452 grams ground lamb
1 tablespoon/14 grams extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups/320 grams onion, minced
3/4 cup/240 grams roasted red bell pepper, minced
1/8 cup/28 grams dry white wine
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 cup/113 grams tomato-basil pasta sauce
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

For the egg wash:
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon half and half

9-inch round pie pan

Prepare the dough for the crust first. Mix the flours, sugar, baking powder, salt and nutmeg together in a medium bowl. Cut the stick of butter into smaller pieces and add to the flour mixture. Work the butter into the flour mixture with your fingers until incorporated evenly throughout and the mixture is somewhat grainy. This can also be done in a food processor using several short pulses. In a separate bowl, mix together the two egg yolks, whole egg, white wine and olive oil.

Make a well in the center of the flour mixture, and add the wet ingredients. Stir with your hand until all the flour is incorporated; dough will be rough in appearance. Knead the dough briefly until the dough becomes smoother, but not too much; you want the texture of the final crust to remain soft and crumbly when cooked. The consistency of the dough should be like thick cookie dough. Divide the dough into two equal pieces. Roll each into a ball and then flatten into a small disk. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Pre-heat the oven to 375ºF. Heat the tablespoon of olive oil in a heavy 9-inch frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the minced onions and sauté until softened. When softened, scoop onions from skillet onto a separate plate and set aside. Add the ground lamb to the heated skillet by breaking it up into small pieces; cook until the lamb is no longer pink. Clear a spot in the center of the pan, and add the white wine. Sprinkle the spices over the lamb, add a large pinch of salt and several grands of pepper, then stir everything together.

Add the sautéed onions and minced roasted red bell pepper and stir into the lamb mixture. Add the tomato-basil sauce and stir into the lamb mixture. Let everything meld for three to five minutes over medium-low heat, taste, add more salt and pepper if desired, then remove from the heat and set aside.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Butter the bottom and sides of the pie pan. Take one of the halves of dough and, using your fingers, spread the dough until it evenly covers the bottom, sides, and edge of the pie pan. Trim any excess around the edge. Place the pie pan in the oven, and set an oven-safe dish or saucepan that fits inside the bottom of the pie pan in order to weigh the crust down while pre-baking. Bake for 15 minutes until the crust has lost some of its moisture and is a little firmer.

While the bottom crust pre-bakes, prepare the top piece of dough for the pie. Sprinkle some flour over the piece of plastic the dough was wrapped in, and spread the disk, using a rolling pin, into a round circle big enough to cover the entire top of the pie, about 10-inches round. Leave the crust on the piece of plastic wrap as you will use the plastic wrap to lift the dough onto the pie after filling it with the lamb mixture.

Remove the bottom crust from the oven when ready. Scoop the lamb mixture into the pie pan, and spread so it fills the pan evenly, smoothing the top so it is fairly flat. To cover the pie with the top piece of dough, lift both sides of the plastic wrap and carefully drape the top side of the dough over the pie, letting the bottom side of the dough release from the plastic once it is covering the pie. Crimp the edges of the bottom and top crust together using a fork, and cut several slits in the top crust to let the steam escape.

Mix the remaining egg yolk and half and half together in a small bowl, and using a pastry brush, liberally brush the egg wash over the top crust.

Place the pie on the middle rack of the oven and bake for an additional 20 minutes, or until the top crust is a deep golden brown. The edges may be just a little darker. Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 to 15 minutes. Cut into equal slices and serve. You can also let the pie cool until room temperature and serve it that way. Be sure to refrigerate any uneaten leftovers.

Serves 6 to 8 people

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