I have touted “Sopa de Nada” (Recipe 2) as one of those foods that satisfy hunger when the pantry is next to bare. Here is another, and one that is even more ubiquitous across Spain. As always with a poor-man’s delight, the beauty of this food is how efficiently it rings all the comfort bells crispy and salty on the outside with the fatty mouthfeel of a creamy filling. It can be a finger food, one at a time, washed down with a swig of cider or pilsner, or several on a plate with a fork can tide you over till the next meal, or be that meal themselves, if necessary, as there is definitely a threshold at which the experience crosses over from tasty morsel to a full belly. And you control this setting on the dial easily as these small packets of oozey goodness are consumed one-by-one. What you leave behind when you have had enough are readily snatched up by someone else, or yourself later, but they are never at the risk of a plate-scraping when you are done.
In making these, you should probably put out of your mind most croquetas you have ever eaten in an American tapas restaurant, where, as with so many other simple Spanish delights, they have been tarted up beyond recognition in order to justify the high price for a mere tidbit that is required to cover the cost of rent in a chi chi district. Their “croquetas” usually miss the mark and end up resembling the American “croquet” made of chicken or something akin to warm minced ham salad, just a crabcake made in finger size, or these days, overstuffed with some exotic wild mushroom. They are usually doughy and heavy, like the chef didn’t understand that you must chill the filling to stiffen it, so they stiffen it with too much flour. Forget all that. Wipe the slate clean. Let’s return to the original heavenly creamed center, plain, or with just a flavor accent, not filling, such as cheese, minced jamon iberico, chorizo, piquillo pepper, dried cod, or my favorite for demonstrating the economy of the idea: minced parsley.
Although easy to make, the deep fat frying tends to mark croquetas as more of a bar food than a home-made dish in Spain today. For the home they are sold loose by the kilo in the bulk freezer bin. Frozen and firm, they can then be pan-fried in shallow oil without committing to a deep-oil frying set-up. In the U.S., if you want them to be correct, you have to make them yourself. Freshly formed, cooking them requires an immediate quick crisping of the shell in deep oil to keep their creamy goodness from spilling out all over the pan. Finally, since making these is a process that lends itself to larger batches, it makes sense to do just that. Then, you can freeze them for later frying in a shallow pan, or deep-fry them first, then freeze and microwave to serve later. I prefer them right out of the deep-frier, so I freeze them uncooked and thaw before deep frying, but I will usually fry-up extra from the first batch to have them ready to microwave for a quick snack. I microwave them at high setting for about 50 seconds. You will need to experiment with your microwave, but the goal is to get them reheated through, without the steam from inside softening the crunch on the outside. Never a dead ringer for deep-fried, but still very satisfying.
- 4 tbsp. butter
- 3/4 cup white flour
- 1-1/4 tsp. salt
- 2-1/4 cup whole milk
- unseasoned breadcrumbs
- 1/4 scraped nutmeg seed
- minced flavor accent of your choice: jamón ibérico, smoked salmon, reconstituted dried cod, chopped scallion, some exotic umami-rich wild mushroom, parsley, etc.
- cooking oil (olive oil is best, but can use vegetable oils or a blend with olive oil)
In a 10″ diameter sautée pan with min. 1-1/2 sides melt butter at medium low heat. As butter melts add
1/2 tsp. salt and then 5 tbsp. of the flour gradually while stirring with a wooden spatula to form a paste. When all of the butter has melted and all of the flour has been integrated, let the paste begin to bubble slowly, then stir, let bubble and stir again at intervals to let paste cook through without browning. Add about 1/3 of the milk and begin stirring constantly in a spiral from center to edge and then edge to center of the pan to keep the flour mixture from sticking to the bottom and burning. When all of the paste has been dissolved in the milk, add the rest, turn up the heat to medium and keep stirring constantly, avoiding the formation of Bring heat up to medium high if necessary to produce a very slow bubble. Continue stirring constantly.
When the mixture has thickened to a cream sauce, test thickness occasionally by dragging the spatula across the middle of the pan to push away the sauce and show the clean bottom of the pan (like Moses parting the Red Sea). When the sauce has thickened to the point at which it does not fall back into the cleared swathe immediately behind the spatula, remove the pan from the burner and keep stirring continuously until cool enough so that the sauce will not burn when left still on the bottom of the pan.
Before the mixture cools too much, as it will stiffen quickly and stirring will form lumps, scrape in the nutmeg, add your minced flavor accent and stir evenly into the sauce. Transfer sauce to an 8-inch square baking pan. Level the sauce and smooth the top surface. Cover and refrigerate well, until it has fully stiffened enough for the next step:
Have a shallow bowl of each: the remaining flour, 2 beaten eggs and the breadcrumbs, to which the remaining salt has been added, lined-up on the counter. Remove chilled cream sauce from refrigerator, free it from the edges of the pan with a knife and then make five evenly spaced slices in one direction and three in the other to form 15 oblong croquetas. Lift each one from the pan with the side of the knife, cradle it gently in your upturned hand and roll it in the flour with your fingertips to coat all sides. Use your fingers to dip it in the egg and then roll it in the breadcrumbs to coat all sides. Once coated in the breadcrumbs, the warmth of your hand will have softened the croquet just enough to gently squeeze the long edges in a cradle of your fingers to round out the shape. This pressure will make the short ends bulge nicely and you can round them out with your thumb and forefinger to get that classic croqueta look. The finished croquetas will fit on a dinner plate.
The croquetas can be kept in the refrigerator or freezer for later frying. Frozen ones should be thawed, but not warm before use. To fry, heat 3-inch deep oil in a 6″ diameter saucepan at medium high. Lower each croqueta into the oil on a slotted spoon and leave to float and fry. It will cook quickly and you can pick it up with the spoon to check done-ness. Its shell should be crisp and golden brown. To check for correct cooking temperature, test the first one by cutting into it. (You get to eat this one right away!) The center should be soft, creamy and hot. If the first croquet has browned before the center is done, you may need to reduce the heat some. But, the oil must be at least hot enough to crisp the shell before melty, hot cream leaks out. Cook them one at a time. It is quick enough and you can manage each to perfection that way. If you are doing larger batches in a larger pot or a deep-fryer you can do several at time. Croquetas are best right out of the frier, but typically they sit out on the bar counter ready to be ordered as tapas one or two at a time and eaten after a quick microwave reheat. A full order or half order (media ración) is usually fried to order. As a plate or side dish at a meal it is best to fry as part of the meal preparation and keep in a warm oven till serving.