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.
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.
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.