cultures abuela recipe book mobile
Dasha Burobina for PureWow

After Her Death, I Cooked My Way Through My Abuelita’s Recipe Book

This piece is part of a franchise called 'SZN It,' where we highlight the importance of food in the Latinx community. We chatted with three abuelas about their signature recipes and how it continues to be a staple in their culture.

My family always joked that my abuelita would outlive us all. Charmingly stubborn, whip smart and impressively loud, Mimi had much fire packed in her pint-sized body. She survived the loss of her soulmate, vision and mobility over decades, yet carried on with vigor and an almost impossible-to-grasp level of faith. So, when she passed in 2019 at 101 years old, I found it a tough reality to reckon with.

On the one hand, I was eventually grateful that she went without suffering and wouldn’t be subject to the chaos and fear that came with the pandemic just months later. On the other, I was somehow in disbelief that the day had come—a new chapter of my life without fuzzy rumba blasting on her older-than-me radio, forced rosary circles and passive-aggressive-yet-precious voicemails, lightly scolding me for not calling enough.

abuela recipe book: collage of family photos of toddler and abuelita
Dasha Burobina for PureWow

In the days following her death, my dad’s childhood friends offered condolences and stories about visiting their tiny apartment on Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens back in the ’70s. Above all, her hosting prowess and food dominated their memories. “I remember a visit to your home after camp one year and your mom baked the most delicious lasagnas for all your friends,” one wrote in a Facebook comment. (Despite being Cuban, my dad’s side has a serious thing for pasta…and I’m not complaining.)

Soon after, I found her tattered recipe stash, a yellowed marble notebook stuffed to the brim with handwritten instructions, nary a measurement in sight. I searched for her lasagna. It wasn’t included (it’s a risk for an abuelita’s most coveted recipe to be written down, no?), but I did find a treasure trove of other dishes begging to be prepared. My grandma was blind for most of my life, so I don’t remember her cooking or having eaten her food. With so many of her favorite recipes on hand, perhaps I could taste her fare for the first time by cooking it myself.

abuela recipe book cultures: old handwritten composition recipe book with photo of ropa vieja
Dasha Burobina for PureWow

I started with her famous flan de leche, which I added sweetened shredded coconut to just because. (She adored coconut ice cream and coconut cream pie, so I figured she wouldn’t mind.) My dad used to rave about her flan, along with her arroz con leche. Never having made the dessert before, I found the process to be a bit anxiety-inducing but ultimately rewarding, much like the experience of having a worry-wart abuelita who makes it her job to tell you all the potential risks of any life decision, albeit out of love. Consider the caramel-coated reveal of a remarkably intact flan a metaphor for things working out, despite her greatest fears.

Next, I tackled Cuba’s national dish, ropa vieja, a shredded beef stew made with long strips of onion and bell pepper in a tomato-based sauce. It’s arguably my dad’s signature dish, but he always used *her* recipe. The aroma alone took me back to high school, when I would invite my crush du jour to my dad’s apartment for dinner. Before getting to dig into a mountainous pile of congrí, dappled with gems of caramelized chorizo and crowned with ropa, they’d need to shake my abuelita’s hand—the easiest way for her to judge someone’s character without seeing them or speaking English—and bask in a flurry of bendiciones (Dios te bendiga was her second favorite phrase, only surpassed by si Dios quiere).

I was also eager to try her salsa fuerte, a supercharged, Caesar-like sauce starring mustard, egg yolks and anchovies. The recipe neighbors pescado asado in her recipe book, but I took the liberty of serving it alongside fried red snapper instead. At first bite, I recalled devouring my first whole fish in San Juan, Puerto Rico. If you haven’t had the pleasure, here are my tips: Beware of teeny-tiny bones, using a fork and knife is for the birds and call your abuelita to rave about it once you finish.

The most nostalgic of the bunch for me was her dulce de leche cortada, an underrated dessert that can be tough to find at even the best Cuban restaurants. Our usual sweet treat when she’d visit was Maria cookies slathered with cream cheese and a thick slab of guava paste. But if we were celebrating, dulce de leche cortada—a curdled, semi-solid version of dulce de leche—took centerstage. (Don’t knock it ’til you try it, compa).

The last time I remember eating it with my abuela was after my high school graduation. We went to our favorite local Cuban spot, and it was her first time out of the house in years. A few dapper servers flocked to the entrance to walk her to her seat at her own pace. Unbeknownst to us, there was also a live band playing that afternoon. My grandma, unable to see and decidedly sin vergüenza, was enthusiastically calling out song requests (OK, mostly “Guantanamera”) at the top of her lungs throughout their set. Teen me was mortified, until the singer came over during the intermission to kiss her hand, tell her how much he appreciated her being there and to ask her—jokingly, we think—to marry him.

abuela recipe book cultures: collage of old photos of abuelita
Dasha Burobina for PureWow

It was immensely moving for me to see firsthand how cherished older people, especially abuelitas, are among Latinx folks. In so many cases, they’re the designated familial keepers of traditions, recipes and peace. They are the ancestral glue that anchors our generation to those before us, and the reason we listen to the songs we do, eat the foods we eat, dance beyond what our feet can handle and waste no morsel or blessing.

By cooking some of my abuelita’s favorite foods that she was never able to serve me, I gained a more intimate understanding of what people loved about her, even a former version of her who existed before me: her warmth, her hospitality, her inexplicable penchant for using bay leaves, her dedication to nursing a two-ounce pour of vermouth rosso at every dinner party, just because she thought it was classy.

Through her recipes, I had the privilege of reliving so many of our special moments, a temporary balm for the void she left behind.

taryn pire

Food Editor

Taryn Pire is PureWow’s food editor and has been writing about all things delicious since 2016. She’s developed recipes, reviewed restaurants and investigated food trends at...