What do Cubans eat for breakfast? Come to my grandmother’s house in Miami and her answer is often Entenmann’s pound cake with café con leche—espresso with just the right amount of milk. No matter where you are, café con leche is arguably the most important part of any Cuban breakfast; at my house, sweets are the second most important. “Quieres panatela?” my grandmother will ask as I enter her kitchen, coffee already on the stove, and I almost always say yes. There’s something about that buttery section in the middle of the loaf that I just can’t say no to—1,140 calories of pure goodness. “Está rica?” she asks as I take my first bite. “Riquísima,” I say.
If my Cuban-American tastes were the only ones being surveyed, my answer to the Cuban breakfast question would be café con leche and pastelitos de guayaba, specifically from the window cafeteria at Versailles in Miami’s Little Havana. Versailles, an old-school Cuban haunt, serves the most famous Cuban food this side of the Florida Straits. As for guava pastries, those have Spanish origins and are traditionally a snack, a merienda, but they go just perfectly with the day’s first cup of espresso. Versailles knows how to do those guava pastries just right—warmed, sticky, sweet as can be. Deliciosos.
Back at my grandmother’s house, as she inches closer toward 100, she’s largely traded in her panatela for Pepperidge Farm thumbprint cookies—the type with raspberry jam in the middle. When my grandfather was alive, living out his last 50 years in these here United States, his answer was circular diabetic cookies that came from a box and sat on the top of our refrigerator. Everyone’s morning cookies have always been accompanied by café con leche. If my family were your sample size, you’d think that Cubans eat cookies and coffee for breakfast. It’s not terribly far off. Cuba’s is not a culture built on breakfast.
To be fair, there is a traditional Cuban breakfast: café con leche and pan tostado (not quite cookies, but almost). Imagine the most delicious piece of toast you’ve ever had, and that is pan tostado—Cuban bread slathered in butter and pressed flat in an electric grill. It is crunchy and firm like a baguette, but ironed thin in the pressed heat. It is moist and flaky in all the right places, perfect for coffee-dunking.
Other items you might see in the breakfast section of a Cuban cookbook: a Spanish tortilla or scrambled eggs with ham. Scan the breakfast offerings at a U.S.-based place like Versailles and much of what’s there has an American flair—French toast, pancakes, home fries, and grits—but that’s what you get after 55 years in diaspora. Menus change, cereal is introduced, American brands accepted, but for Cubans wherever they are, café con leche is forever.
In Cuba, when espresso makers aren’t readily available—in the countryside, in poverty, in the 1990s (during the country’s Special Period)—coffee was and is brewed in socks. Water is boiled, grounds are put in the sock, then the hot water is run through the sock; it’s the way to make coffee when there is no other way to get the job done. And the job must be done.
If a typical Cuban breakfast is café con leche and pan tostado, that pairing bends and morphs through time and economies. Café con leche and pan tostado may be the bulb, but the flowers look different depending upon circumstance. Lack of money might yield sock-brewed café con leche; extra money might mean eggs and ham with café con leche; American influence brings pancakes and hash browns with café con leche; my house might mean packaged cookies with café con leche. But always, always café con leche.
In the Cuba of the 1920s my grandmother was a little girl. This was before Castro, before the coffee window at Versailles, before pound cake with her granddaughter in a Miami kitchen. The scene was this: my grandmother, her sister, and their cousin all as children, all starting their days with toast sometimes (she thinks), an oatmeal-like puree sometimes (she thinks), café con leche all the time (she knows). “How old were you when you started drinking café con leche?” I ask. “Not too young,” she says. “About nine.” Café con leche is forever.