While the rest of the world binge-watches Christmas movies and makes New Year’s Eve plans, I hole up in anticipation for the actual best event of the holiday season: Jan. 6, Día de los Reyes, known in Hispanic cultures as Three Kings Day, when we commemorate the three wise men who traveled to visit the baby Jesus.

As children growing up in Puerto Rico, my sister and I were taught by my parents to prepare for a visit from los tres reyes magos by tucking shoeboxes filled with grass under our beds (plus a glass of milk on the side) for the camels the night before, in hopes that the three wise men would leave us gifts. (I’m 33 and still pray for gifts to show up under my bed.)

Aside from the extra round of presents, the best part of Día de los Reyes was waking up to the aroma of garlic and pork and the scene that awaited downstairs: Papi bent over old records in the corner, curating the day’s soundtrack. Abuela at the kitchen counter, her hands covered in masa dough. Mami at the stove, stirring the arroz con gandules and peeking inside the oven as the pernil glistened in its garlic-heavy mojo marinade. My cousins sneaking sips of boozy, coconut-y coquito. And Tio Padrino preparing a batch of pastelillos de queso, half-moon pockets of fried dough oozing with cheese.

Today, those same freshly fried pastelillos await me at the end of a three-hour drive to Upstate New York to visit my parents. When I’m craving a piece of the island, I head to my corner bodega to buy a pack of Goya discos de empanadas so I can make these cheesy hot pockets myself. The Goya packs of frozen pastelillo shells take me right back to my childhood. I always feel grateful living in Philadelphia, where they’re readily available for just a few bucks.

Alisha Miranda makes the pastelillos de queso in advance of her annual Three Kings Day dinner party.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Alisha Miranda makes the pastelillos de queso in advance of her annual Three Kings Day dinner party.

It’s been more than a decade since I’ve reunited with my family in Puerto Rico for the holidays, and the longing to recreate these memories in my own kitchen has weighed heavy. But in 2017, a Puerto Rican friend in Philly suggested I reinstitute Three Kings Day my way.

So I open up my South Philly rowhouse to friends and coworkers, my chosen family. Somehow I’ve mustered my mother’s energy to cook an array of traditional dishes, from antojitos (light bites) to postres (desserts), spreading out the prep and tasks over a couple weeks. The decorations stay up: stockings draped on the piano, garland wrapped around the front windows, a Christmas tree in the living room, and a wreath on the front door. Instead of playing records, I deejay with YouTube, blasting a rotation of traditional parranda holiday songs. My partner is on coquito duty, serving generous pours for a group toast. All evening, guests arrive with their own contributions, eager to engage in this new-to-them tradition.

But that feeling of family returns the moment I bring out a tray of crispy, hot pastelillos, as my guests let out audible gasps of enthusiasm. That feeling assures me the Three Kings have given me a blessing of joy.

The author frying pastelillos de queso, which ooze American cheese from crispy dough pockets.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
The author frying pastelillos de queso, which ooze American cheese from crispy dough pockets.

This recipe serves an easy and delicious introduction to my Three Kings Day appetizer, but don’t be afraid to try different fillings or to enjoy year-round.

Puerto Rican Pastelillos de Queso

Vegan baker Fran Costigan's cranberry chocolate pecan cake.
Charles Fox/Staff Photographer
Pastelillos de queso take author Alisha Miranda back to her childhood in Puerto Rico. Make as many as you want and freeze them for future use.

Check the frozen section at your local grocery store for Goya’s yellow and white dough discs (I prefer the white). Grab the regular size, not mini — they’re too small. For cheese, Kraft Singles packets are my choice for taste and texture: buttery, instantly meltable, and gooey. You can stuff and shape the pastelillos in advance and freeze for up to a month before frying. Makes 10 pastelillos.

10 pastelillo shells (discos)

10 slices American cheese

3 to 4 cups vegetable oil

¼ cup flour

Let the pastelillos defrost. They should be cold, but tender enough to work with your hands and stay intact. Once they’re defrosted, place a cutting board on a towel or a placemat to fix it in place. Scatter a handful of flour across the board.

One at a time, separate each pastelillo, saving the plastic sheets from their pack, and pat both sides with the flour. Stack them on a plate, using the plastic as separators to keep them from sticking.

Fill a large, deep Dutch oven with the oil (or use a deep fryer) and set over medium-high heat. Use a thermometer to monitor the heat, which should reach between 325°F and 375°F.

Next, stuff and shape the pastelillos. Fill a cup with warm water. Dip your fingers into the water, then trace them along the inside edges of the floured disc. Fold a slice of cheese in half, then place on one side of the pastelillo. Fold the dough over the cheese to form a half-moon shape. Pinch the outer edges tightly together; they should thin out a bit as you make your away across the edge. Use a fork to press down the edges, making sure to seal the edges on both sides (this may take a few tries). Repeat until you’ve finished the full pack of ten. If the dough becomes sticky, dust it with flour. Set aside.

When the oil is between 325°F and 375°F, use the slotted spoon to slowly lower one pastelillo in oil. (Depending on your frying vessel, you can fry 2 or 3 pastelillos at a time — as long as they have space to float.) Flip it every 2 to 3 minutes and cook until it’s golden brown on both sides, 5 to 7 minutes total. Watch for edges cracking open and releasing cheese; if this happens, remove the pastelillo from the oil — it will still be tasty but may require a knife and fork.

Remove the cooked pastelillos with the slotted spoon, gently shaking off excess oil, then place on the paper towel-lined platter. Let rest for a few minutes. Serve with napkins and cold cervezas.

— Alisha Miranda