My earliest memory was also my first lesson in motherhood.

It was a typical summer day in Puerto Rico, with heat so heavy the ocean breeze couldn’t lift it off you. I was 4, and my bangs were plastered to my face as my Abuela Dora ushered me into her kitchen. She washed my hands and clucked about how filthy I was. I loved when she pressed my arms into the sink. The cool water, slipping through my fingers, fascinated me almost as much as the scent of Woolite that wafted from her faded pink and green housedress.

She sat me down at the kitchen table, my favorite spot in our farmhouse. My grandmother never failed to slip me something to nibble on as she cooked. Crispy pieces of fried ham or salty Spanish olives stuffed with roasted red pepper always stopped my marathon of questions.

That day, she stood at the stove and stirred a pot nonstop. Her toes poked out of her pink slippers, her heels cracked and ashy.

She turned to plop a hot blob of yellow sorullito dough on the counter. Sorullitos are crispy cornmeal fritters that are a staple of the Puerto Rican table, and their name means tiny cigar, the traditional shape. You make the dough with fine cornmeal, a little water and a touch of salt. Sometimes they’re made with cheese or sweetened with sugar. My abuela made hers with lots and lots of Edam.

She took the queso de bola, as we called it, and peeled the red waxy exterior with a short knife. She grated a big mound of the pale yellow cheese and folded the fluffy heap into the steaming dough. My mouth watered.

"Ven, nena," she said. Come here, girl.

“You’ll have to know how to make these for your kids one day,” she said. She grabbed a small ball of the cornmeal-and-cheese dough and showed me how to roll it into a cigar shape, using just my palms.

“Not too hard,” Abuela whispered as I handled the dough as gently as I could. My lumpy sorullito looked nothing like the flawless little soldiers my grandmother had lined up on the counter, but she smiled anyway and as she took it from my hands, she said, “Perfect.”

I watched intently as Abuela Dora put my creation into our calderon, a deep aluminum pot that never left the stove. The hot oil crackled and sputtered. My sorullito began to cook in what looked like a sensational bubble bath. A few minutes later, my grandmother took the bright yellow cigar out of the oil with a slotted metal spoon and placed it on a white paper napkin.

She let the golden cornmeal fritter sit for a few seconds before she picked it up and blew on it. It felt like hours before she handed it to me. I'll never forget that first bite. The crunch as I chewed was thunder in my ears. I remember wondering if everyone else could hear it too. Before I'd finished swallowing, I had reached for another one.

It took 35 years for me to make sorullitos again. My own son had just turned 4. As I stared at him racing his Hot Wheels cars on our patio, I wondered what his first memories would be. Would he recall the way I tickled him as he screamed for me to stop? Would he look back at the stories I told him as we both fought sleep? Maybe he would be imprinted by his first taste of sorullitos, as I had been so long ago.

I thought about how quickly the time had slipped away, like flakes of cheese melting into cornmeal dough. Raising my son as a single parent had stretched and shaped me like hands did a sorullito. Motherhood had transformed my nebulous life into something purposeful, magical.

As his blond hair danced in the wind, I tried to memorize the moment. I wanted desperately to connect him to my island, my childhood, and my grandmother, whom he had never had the chance to meet. I knew I had to share something with him that I couldn't say in words.

I sat him down at our kitchen table and measured out cornmeal and water. I took out the box grater and let my son peel the red waxy skin from a wedge of Edam cheese. I didn't stop grating until we had a mound as big as the one my abuela made.

I turned on the stove. The clack-clack-clack of the pilot light led to a whoosh of flame coming to life. It was a familiar sound that always brought me back to my grandmother's kitchen. When the water came to a boil I added the cornmeal. I stood with my back to my son, stirring the dough until it pulled away from the pot.

"Do you think you'll remember this when you're older?" I asked.

"Yeeeeesss!" he sang, drawing out the word into four syllables.

"Me too." I sighed. I let the dough cool as I washed his hands. Water spilled all over the counter, and the clean smell of dish soap filled the air.

"I'm going to show you how to make something my grandmother showed me how to make. It’s Puerto Rican. You’re Puerto Rican, you know."

“I know, Mommy.” He smiled at me, his pudgy cheeks still red from his time in the sun.

My abuela has been gone for more than 20 years, but as I shaped sorullitos with my son, I felt her spirit watching over us.

"Not too hard," I whispered. A lump grew in my throat as he rolled the dough gently between his tiny palms. When he finished his sorullito, he looked up at me for approval.

I smiled. “It’s perfect, buddy. Let’s fry it up.”

Sorullitos (Puerto Rican Corn Fritters)

Sorullitos, or sorullos, can be savory or sweet and have a crispy outer shell with a soft and buttery inside. Sorullo is Spanish for a cigar, a nod to the shape of the fried dough. The recipe is usually a simple mixture of water, cornmeal and salt. Still, you can make it with several other ingredients, such as coconut milk, cheese, corn kernels, sugar and vanilla. On the island, sorullitos are served for breakfast, as a side for lunch and dinner, or as an appetizer.

Make ahead: Transfer the formed sorullitos to a baking sheet, making sure they are not touching, and freeze them. Once frozen, place them in an airtight container, with sheets of parchment between each layer, and freeze for up to 1 month. Defrost overnight in the refrigerator before frying. The sauce can be made two days ahead. Stir thoroughly before serving.

Storage notes: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container for up to a week. To reheat, warm the sorullitos on a rimmed sheet pan on the middle rack in a 350-degree oven.


Ingredients

  • 1 3/4 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt or table salt
  • 3/4 cup (4 1/2 ounces) finely ground cornmeal
  • 1 cup (3 ounces) grated Edam cheese, loosely packed
  • Canola oil, for frying
  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons ketchup
  • 1 teaspoon minced pickled Italian hot peppers, such as Calabrian chiles

Step 1

Combine the water and salt in a heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and add the cornmeal, stirring rapidly until the mixture turns into a dough and starts to peel away from the bottom and sides of the pan, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and add half the grated cheese, folding it gently into the dough. Repeat with the remaining cheese. Transfer the dough to a cutting board.


Step 2

While the cornmeal dough cools, add enough oil to come 4 inches up the side of a 4-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan. Set the pot over medium heat and warm the oil until it registers 350 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Line a large plate with paper towels or a clean tea towel.


Step 3

While the oil comes to temperature, divide the dough in half and roll into two long cylinders, about 2 inches in diameter. Slice the dough into 1/2-inch thick medallions.

Roll the medallions into balls and then into a cigar shape, about 3 inches long. You should have about 20 sorullitos.


Step 4

Fry the sorullitos in small batches, 6 or 7 at a time, until light golden and crispy, stirring occasionally so they don’t stick to the bottom of the pot or to each other, 4 to 6 minutes. Transfer to drain on the prepared plate.


Step 5

While the fritters are frying, in a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, ketchup and peppers.

Cool the sorullitos for about 2 minutes then serve them with the sauce on the side.


Nutrition Information

Due to the frying, the ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.


Tested by Jim Webster; email questions to voraciously@washpost.com.

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