Uptown San Juan is not unlike any other mid-sized modern city – it is a business environment, and looks the part – except perhaps for the palm trees placed here and there, which are a reminder to enjoy the warmth while you can. The streets are not filled with sidewalk vendors, as in Old San Juan, but there is no lack of shops of all kinds, and plenty of restaurants and bars – and immediately next door to our hotel was a cheerful Cuban restaurant, and we had never had Cuban food before – we checked it out.
As we perused the menu in the window – love when restaurants put their menu in the window – we noted that this restaurant had a specialty, “Caramel Chicken”, which they described as roasted chicken, basted with sugar cane syrup, until it had a crisp, dark brown crust – the accompanying picture itself looked delicious enough to eat. Of course! A country whose agriculture is based on sugar cane will know how to use it to advantage. This we had to try while we had the opportunity.
That evening, we slipped into the restaurant for our culinary treat of the trip. Our waiter arrived and we said that we were going to try the Caramel Chicken – he asked if we’d ever had it before. When we responded, “No, we’d never had any Cuban food before”, his eyes sparkled, and he said, “Then I think you’re going to enjoy your meal tonight!”
A few minutes later a basket appeared at our table filled with chunks of what we identified as fried bananas – but they weren’t – we later learned these are fried plantains, which although a relative of a banana, are much more useful. Plantains can be used as a vegetable or a fruit, it all depends on how long you let it ripen – I like it best at its ripest, and that is how they arrived at our table that night – sweet and soft, with a crispy exterior – a superb prelude to our entrée. But we had another surprise!
Along with the plantains came a basket of bread, Cuban bread of course. If you’ve never had Cuban bread, you may be surprised, as were we, at how different it really is from all other similar breads. It certainly looks like a familiar French or Italian loaf, but one taste and you realize that you’ve never had a bread like this before. I’m quite sure it has a lot to do with the fact that Cuban bakers are using a much softer wheat flour than are U.S. bakers, but that first bite of Cuban bread reveals a thin, crispy, flaky crust, with an especially light and airy interior crumb. It’s simply surprising how different that first taste is – and our surprises were only beginning.
And then the chicken arrived! As it came into view, I knew just how wonderful it was going to taste, because it looked so fantastically beautiful – I don’t think I’d ever seen a chicken with such a gorgeous glow. The cane syrup allows the skin of the chicken to not only crisp magnificently, but to turn a resplendent mahogany color while it slowly roasts – a true feast for the eyes. At the time, I don’t think I could have entertained a potentially negative thought such as, “Gee, I’ll bet this is roasted dry” – no, the euphoria of the moment blocked such thoughts – But later I marveled at the fact that even though this dish obviously spent much time in the oven, it was surprisingly moist! The trick is long and low temp roasting.
Years later, I was to spend much time in Tampa, Florida, a city almost founded and matured by Cuban expatriates – and to sample many of the hundreds of family owned restaurants which dot the city. And yet, I never once have seen this dish on any Cuban restaurant menu. And, I have never found this dish on the Internet, although I have spent countless hours searching. The recipe I share here is the result of many failed attempts – as such, I’m not going to tell you that it’s a perfected dish – in fact, I invite you to try your own ideas on improvement, and return to share them with us – I hope you will.
Just a word about cane syrup – for the uninitiated, there is no substitute for cane syrup, certainly not corn syrup (Karo). If you have never had real cane syrup, do try to find some before you attempt this recipe. Yes, you can make it with corn syrup, or any syrup for that matter, but it won’t have the depth of flavor that it will with cane syrup. Molasses is NOT cane syrup, but if I was hell bent on making this dish and had no cane syrup, I might try light molasses – sorghum even closer! Cane syrup is a very southern thing, and when we last came through Louisiana, I stocked up on several bottles of Steen’s Cane Syrup – I’m not sure how long anyone will be able to do the same, for I’m sure that cane syrup production in America is another dying institution – so if you can find some, get it while you still can.
- One young chicken (about 3 lbs.)
- Cane Syrup (aka, guarapo, Lyle’s Golden Syrup, Roddenbery’s Cane Patch Syrup, Steen’s Cane Syrup)
Process: (You can, if you wish, roast this chicken whole – it’ll probably be moister, but the cost is that it’s harder to keep the cane syrup from running off immediately with each baste. These days, I usually halve the chicken and roast it flat in a large pan with a rack in the bottom.)
- Dry chicken as much as possible on outside and, without covering it, place, skin side up, in a large pan with rack, and put into the refrigerator for several hours or overnight.
- When ready to roast, preheat oven to 300 degrees
- Pour ½ cup (or more, as desired) of cane syrup into a small bowl, and using a heat resistant brush, brush some on the cold chicken – cover all exposed surfaces.
- Slip into the oven (upper third) and set timer for 20 minutes. At 20 minutes, remove pan with chicken and baste with cane syrup.
- Reset timer for 20 minutes.
- Baste every 20 minutes.
- Once all your room temperature cane syrup is used up, you’ll have a lot of hot syrup collected in the bottom of your pan – use a bulb baster to continue basting with this supply of thickened syrup – now your chicken will begin getting nice and brown.
- Continue roasting for about two hours, or better yet, until the internal temperature at the inside thigh of the chicken registers 150 degrees – don’t go by the color of the chicken, it’ll be very dark brown before the interior is done! Twist a leg joint – if it seems loose, the chicken is done – if not, give it more time in the oven.
- When finished roasting, remove chicken from oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes – when it’s ready to serve, separate the fat in the pan from the remaining warm syrup, and pour some of the syrup over the chicken as it’s served.
Traditionally, this would be served with rice and black beans, and of course, some fried plantains or bananas. But, it’s a winner with just about any other side dishes – so have at it!