Croquetas, together with olive oil, Iberico ham, potato omelette and gazpacho, make me feel proud of where I come from. I want everyone to know them and love them. These are the foods I grew up with and when I eat them I feel at home. The first and best croquetas I’ve ever eaten are the Ayuso croquetas, made by Prado or Sole. I’m not too sure if I love them so much because of how good they are or because of who makes them – I guess it all adds up!
If someone ever wanted to know Spain a little better, I would prepare toasted bread with tomato spread and olive oil, ham on top, a croqueta on the side, a glass of gazpacho, maybe a cold beer… That would be more “real” than any picture I could show them. Because to know a place, you need to taste it, smell it. And when in Dublin, cooking can sometimes come close to a trip back home.
Croquetas are loved and venerated by many, plenty of resources are dedicated to them too: books, videos and articles… how to make them, why to love them. They bring all kinds of joy and happiness, to the youngest and to the eldest. Croquetas have been spreading the love for many years, even centuries! Let’s look at the history.
To easily understand where it comes from and how it came to be, let’s break it down into two:
This part becomes tricky to figure out and you can skip it if you’re not a food or history freak. Different articles tell different stories about the origin of this magical sauce. Most sources agree to attribute the name to Louis de Béchameil (1630-1703), whose chef prepared the sauce (I haven’t been able to find his name); during that time, chefs used to name their dishes after their lord. The also French Vincent la Chapelle, head chef of the Chesterfield Earl, wrote the book The modern cook (1733), where he mentions “turbots à la Bechameille”, turbos in a sauce made of butter, herbs, flour and milk. However, other sources claim that the first recipe, however different from the current béchamel, appeared over 50 years earlier in the book Le Cuisinier Français (1651) by François Pierre de La Varenne (1615-1678), chef of Nicolas Chalon du Blé, Marquis of Uxelles (1615-1678). Wait, it’s not over yet!
This last statement is rebutted by others, who argue such recipe was never in the book (I don’t have the book, so can’t really argue for or against this). Another source claims there is an additional theory: Béchamel is a variation of the Mornay sauce (Béchamel + cheese). All of these sources, though, mention that the original origin (is there such a thing? I think I’m lost already) goes back to the 14th century, when the Italian chefs of Catarina di Medici, the Italian-born Queen of France, introduced the sauce to the French court. Apparently, it was mostly popular among the rich. This seems to be because regular people (non-lords, -kings, -queens…) didn’t have the luxury of refrigerating their foods, and so they were wary of using milk in their sauces.
I really don’t know why I got into this…
Anyways! The conclusion is that the béchamel sauce originated in France, at some point in time, maybe influenced by some Italian chefs.
The word croqueta comes from the French verb croquer i.e. to crunch, to crisp and of its female diminutive-form croquette (“crispy little thing”). There is of course some polemic and conflicting ideas about when exactly the first croqueta, but back in 1691 the cookbook Le cuisinier roial et bourgeois by François Massialot was published, and croquetas appear 15 times in his book. However, his croquettes were significantly different from our Spanish croquetas. They were breaded and fried, yes, but filled with minced ingredients, usually with meat, and sometimes also egg, truffle or herbs.
The béchamel was a success by the end of the XVIIIc. and that is when a growing number of French chefs started to use it as a base for croquettes and other dishes. The first reference to the croqueta as we know it today goes back to 1817, when Antonin Carême, another French chef, decided to prepare a béchamel dish covered with a thick crunchy layer – he called this croquettes à la royale.
Flour was abundant and croquetas were typically made to make the most out of leftovers, especially stewed meat. The first hint of croquetas in Spain was through a testimony by Doña Emilia Pardo Bazán, who was the first Spanish woman to write a cookbook in 1913. There, she described how popular croquetas were, and how softer and melting they were, compared to the French ones.
The croqueta is not alone though, it has a bunch of cousins: the Dutch kroket, the German Kartoffelnkroketten and even the Japanese korokke.
How to make them?
The croquetas are not hard to make if you know the proportions and have some patience. This is what helped me understand how it all works:
These are not strict ratios really, the above is just a simple guideline and hard to forget. I followed it and it turned out well. If I’d wanted to make a smaller batch, I would’ve reduced the amounts proportionally.
By now you’ve probably realised how crazy I am about this dish. I don’t expect you to share the freakiness, but I do hope anyone who tries making them can enjoy the process and results just as much as I did. It is not a quick recipe, but it is definitely worth your time – your belly will thank you, and your friends will too!
Note: This recipe yields approx 65 small croquetas
2 tbsps olive oil
90g unsalted butter
1 big white onion
Ham and/or chicken, mushrooms, cheese, spinach, tuna… whatever is left in your fridge really!
1 litre milk
salt, pepper, nutmeg
enough olive/vegetable oil to fry
Set a large saucepan over medium heat. Add olive oil and butter until the latter melts. In another saucepan, pour the milk and set over low heat.
Finely chop the onion, add to the pan. Cook until golden.
Add the flour to toast it, stir well and let it cook until it turns a yellow-brown colour.
Add ham, chicken or any other filling you choose. Cook for 2 minutes.
With a serving spoon, take a spoonful of milk and add it to the mix. Stir well to avoid lumps. Repeat until all the milk is mixed in. As you add the milk you will see small bubbles appearing. Gradually, these bubbles become bigger and stay open for longer. This is a sign that the dough is mixing well. Add salt, pepper and grounded nutmeg. Let it cook for another 2 mins then remove from stove.
Pour mix into a tray, cover with cling film, make a few small holes and let it cool down. After the temperature has gone down, place in the fridge until dough thickens and becomes easier to shape (3h approx).
Set up a shaping-breading station:
Bowl 1: 3 beaten eggs
Bowl 2: breadcrumbs
Chopping board/plate to leave the croquetas depending if you are going to freeze/fry them, respectively.
Take both tbsps, one in each hand. Take a small amount of the dough with one tbsp, and shape it with the other. Place the shaped dough in Bowl 1 and give it a good egg bath. Pick up with one tbsp, make sure there is not a lot of egg dripping from it. Place in Bowl 2. Leave the tbsps aside, and with your fingers, bury the dough in breadcrumbs, then roll it up and down until there are no sticky bits. Place on the board or plate. Repeat!
Once you’ve shaped and breaded all the croquetas you can choose to fry them or freeze them.
How to freeze?
Place croquetas one a board/tray that fits in your freezer. Place in the freezer for 2h, covered in cling film (be careful not to squash them). Once they become hard you can place them in a sealed plastic bag and leave them in the freezer for 2-3 months.
You can also fry them and freeze them once they’ve cooled down. To eat them, you will only need to slowly reheat them in the microwave at low temp (400W).
How to fry?
Prepare a plate with 2-3 kitchen papers on top. Set stove to medium-high heat. Take a pan and pour in enough olive oil so that when you place a croqueta, the bottom half of it is submerged in the oil.
If you’re frying freshly breaded croquetas, set stove to medium-high heat.
If you’re frying frozen croquetas, set stove to a slightly lower heat, otherwise they will probably cook on the outside but stay cold on the inside.
You want the oil to be hot, but not smoking hot. Place any number of croquetas so that they have enough space to swim in the oil, otherwise. The temperature of the oil typically decreases, the more croquetas you add, and this could cause them to break. Cook on one side until golden, flip and cook on the other side. With a fork or skimmer place each croqueta on the plate and let the paper soak in the excess oil.