There’s just something about the perfectly fried little ovals of crispy-on-the-outside, creamy-on-the-inside deliciousness called croquetas. As anyone who’s ever had them will attest, it’s impossible to eat just one. (Go ahead, try.) A food that inspires a certain amount of addictiveness, croquetas have a presence in various Latin American countries. And while the stuffing may change—in Mexico they’re made with tuna or chicken and bound with potato, while in Cuba ham is bound with a creamy bechamel sauce—the roots remain the same.
Croquetas originated in Spain, an adaptation of the French croquette. One of the earliest fusions in food, Spanish cooks took a classic French sauce (bechamel) and applied the quintessential Spanish technique—frying. Essentially a fritter, they can be made of just about anything; in the croquetas’ Spanish homeland, it’s common to mince left overs from the day before, blend them with the bechamel sauce, and fry it all up in a pan.
In Miami, where famed ventanitas call your name with the aroma of afternoon cafecitos wafting through the air, croquetas are the second most popular reason to drop by a traditional Cuban bakery or lunch counter. Of course, croquetas taste best when you they’ve just been fried so timing your arrival at the ventanita is key. In case said timing is off, or in case you’re nowhere near a decent croqueta, we bring you instructions for how to make your own at home. The recipe below uses ham as its main ingredient, but feel free to replace with chopped chicken chicken, seafood, mushrooms, cheese—just about anything. Simply add a heaping cup of your desired ingredient to the bechamel base and you’ll have yourself a bona fide croqueta.
Homemade Serrano ham croquetas
7 T butter
Half of a small onion, finely chopped (about 1/3 cup)
6 T flour, plus more for breading the croqueta
2 cups whole milk
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
Salt and white pepper
1 heaping cup of finely diced ham (preferably jamon serrano, but prosciutto or black forest will work too)
About 2 cups fine dry white bread crumbs (or pulverized Cuban crackers like these, which can be found at Latin supermarkets)
2 large eggs, beaten
Olive oil, for frying
1. In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and cooking, stirring, for about 2 minutes until they are translucent but not browned. Whisk in the flour and stir continuously to smooth. Continue stirring with a wooden spoon until the mixture thickens and forms a paste, another 3 to 5 minutes. Slowly add the milk, whisking constantly to incorporate and smooth. Add the nutmeg and season lightly with salt and white pepper. (Remember the ham is likely to be salty, so go easy on the salt.)
2. Add the diced ham and stir to combine.
3. Pour the mixture into a well-oiled medium-sized shallow bowl with straight sides. Let it cool to room temperature, then wrap in plastic and place in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or overnight to fully chill and allow the mixture to firm up.
4. Place 3 medium, shallow bowls, one beside the other. In the first, place 1/4 cup of flour. In the second, place the breadcrumbs. In the third, the beaten eggs. Keep them in this order for easy breading.
5. Lightly flour your hands, then using a measuring spoon, scoop up 1 tablespoon of the mixture. Lightly roll it in flour, shaking off excess, then roll it gently in between your hands and shape it into a croqueta form. (You can do the traditional oval or a circle.)
6. Dip the the croqueta in the breadcrumbs, then in the egg, then in the breadcrumbs again. Place on a baking dish. Repeat with the remaining mixture.
7. Once the croquetas are all shaped, place them in the refrigerator for half an hour before you’re ready to cook them. (If you don’t want to cook them all at once, you can also freeze some and thaw when desired.)
8. To fry, line a baking sheet with paper towels. Into a medium fry pan, pour olive oil so that it’s about one inch deep. Heat the oil to 375 degrees. Fry the croquetas several at a time, being careful not to overcrowd the pan. Lower the heat if the oil gets too hot or starts to smoke. Turn the croquetas once to cook on both sides. The whole process should take about 2 to 3 minutes. Drain them on the paper towel-lined baking sheet and serve immediately. Makes about 16 to 20 croquetas.