As a teenage Latina immigrant newly arrived in the United States, I remember feeling that the act of making holiday thumbprint cookies was a part of the process of becoming a “real” American, as though mastering decorated cookies would somehow help me attain citizenship. While I did become an American, I don’t think it was due to the dozens of cookies I baked, or my participation in Hallmark holiday traditions.
Still, I adored the American thumbprint cookies of my adopted homeland. I have an affinity for jelly-filled sweets, so I naturally gravitated towards these colorful, jewel-toned treats — and it helped that they were as forgiving to make as they were delicious to eat. As I grew older, I started infusing them with my own Cuban heritage, swapping out the raspberry and apricot jellies for guava paste and adding cream cheese to the cookie dough for a Cuban American thumbprint cookie.
Guava and cream cheese is a classic Cuban combination. Its most well-known expression is the pastelito de guayaba y queso (guava and cheese pastry), a hand-held sweet consisting of flaky puff pastry filled with thick guava paste and a swipe of cream cheese. It is rumored that the addition of cream cheese to the pastries came in part from America’s influence on the island, which lasted from the aftermath of the Spanish-American War in the late 19th century until Cuba fell to communism in 1959. During that time American products, such as Philadelphia cream cheese, were imported to the island, giving Cubans a taste for them.
These guava and cream cheese thumbprint cookies remind me of my own assimilation in the United States as a teen embracing my new American culture while maintaining my “Cubanity” or Latinidad. The guava paste is sweet and tropical with just a slight hint of tartness, while the cream cheese blended into the cookie dough adds balance, tempering the paste’s high sugar content into a mild sweetness. To finish, the cookies are dusted with a snowfall of powdered sugar, although sprinkling them with turbinado sugar or shredded sweetened coconut flakes prior to baking would work just as well. Whatever you choose, you’ll end up with a sweet testament to both the holiday season and the power of cross-cultural exchange.
Guava-Cream Cheese Thumbprint Cookies Recipe
Makes 3 to 4 dozen cookies
2½ cups (350 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
8 ounces full-fat cream cheese, softened to room temperature
½ cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon almond extract
Approximately 1 cup guava paste (I use Iberia brand)
Powdered sugar for dusting
Step 1: Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Set aside.
Step 2: In a stand mixer or a large bowl using an electric beater, beat the softened cream cheese and butter until combined. Add the sugar, beating until the mixture is fluffy, and then the egg, vanilla extract, and almond extract. Mix until and mix until creamy and all the ingredients are incorporated.
Step 3: Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and continue to beat until the cookie dough comes together. Cover and chill the dough in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to 2 hours.
Step 4: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or Silpat.
Step 5: While the oven is preheating, put the guava paste in a saucepan and melt until thick, smooth, and glossy. Use a wooden spoon to help break up the guava paste. Remove it from the heat.
Step 6: Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Using your hands, roll 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons of the dough into balls. Arrange them evenly on the baking sheet. Using your thumb, create a wide well in the middle.
Step 7: Spoon a scant 1 teaspoon of guava paste into the center of each cookie, letting it form a slight mound. Bake until the cookies are barely golden, about 25 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool and serve with a sprinkle of powdered sugar. The cookies can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
Marisel Salazar is a New York City-based food and restaurant writer, cook, and recipe developer. She is originally from Panama and has lived in Hawaii, Japan, Virginia and Madrid. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram, and on TikTok at @mariselmsalazar.
Celeste Noche is a Filipino American food, travel, and portrait photographer based between Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco.
Recipe tested by Deena Prichep