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The Food Lab Mini: Crispy Taco Shells Made of Cheese? Yes!
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Last week I was lamenting on Twitter that despite having spent over a week trying out what are supposedly the very best breakfast taco joints in Texas, I still hadn't tasted one that I felt was even good, let alone worthy of the kind of culinary praise that they regularly get. For me it's the overcooked eggs that ruin 'em.
Hearing @mattyglesias talk about Texas reminded me of something I need to get off my chest: Breakfast tacos are severely overrated.— J. Kenji López-Alt (@TheFoodLab) April 17, 2013
Anyhow, this is neither the time nor place to get into a battle on the merits of breakfast tacos, and I'm sure we can all agree on at least one thing: as a concept they are unassailable. We just differ in how we like them to be executed.
Aside from the obvious fracas, that tweet precipitated a very useful conversation when the
folks geniuses over at Ideas In Food suggested that perhaps I'd like my tacos better with a different delivery mechanism. Namely, a crispy fried cheese shell.
In their 2011 post about "Italian Tacos", they fry a slice of provolone cheese on the griddle until it's a deep golden brown, then fold it over a rolling pin, tuile-style and let it harden into the shape of a little crispy taco shell before stuffing it with fried mortadella and pickled peppers. It looks delicious.
As they rightfully say, it's essentially Italian frico curled into a taco shell shape. I'm simultaneously excited and frightened at what would happen if Taco Bell and Doritos hear about this one and decide to make Doritos Locos Tacos Doritos with an all-cheese chip coated in orange cheese powder. Excited, frightened, and slightly disgusted.
Now honestly, I've got absolutely nothing against the fresh, well-made flour tortillas that breakfast tacos commonly come served in. I actually like them a great deal. But the idea of stuffing some creamy, soft-cooked eggs into a crisp cheese shell seemed so darn appealing to me, that very night I decided to try it out.
If you're only making a couple of frico-taco shells, the easiest way to do it is to place a greased ring mold on top of a cast iron or non-stick skillet, then fill it up with a very thin layer of grated cheese. I used Parmesan, though any sort of sharp cheese will work.
The key is to use very gentle heat so that the cheese melts and browns evenly. As soon as it starts to melt, retrive that ring mold, using a small spatula or spoon to pick off any bits of cheese that stick to it.
Once your cheese is frying, don't turn your back on it for a second or it will burn. It waits until you are looking away, all sneaky-like.
As soon as it's a pale golden brown and has stopped bubbling, it's ready to lift and fold. Use a thin spatula to make sure that it releases easily from the pan.
If you want to make a larger batch, it can be done in the oven. Just line a baking sheet with a silicone liner (parchment paper will work as well), lay down cheese using a ring mold, then bake it at 400°F until the circles are browned.
Shaping the shells is easy; the only key is to work relatively fast, because they harden within 5 to 10 seconds of being removed from the pan. Ideas in Food used a sheet of parchment paper draped over a rolling pin to shape their shells. I found the parchment unnecessary—a thick-handled wooden spoon did the trick just fine.
Once your shells are made, they'll stay crisp indefinitely until you're ready to fill them, but once filled, make sure to serve them immediately or they'll start to soften up, particularly with very moist fillings.
Soft scrambled eggs mixed with Mexican crema (or crème fraîche) along with a sprinkle of crisply-fried chorizo, basic salsa verde, and a bit of queso cotija is excellent. The crisp shells give way to the creamy egg center, and the flavor of eggs and Parmesan is unquestionably delicious.
I stuffed another batch with esquites, a salad of charred corn seasoned with queso cotija, scallions, cilantro, and chilies with a squeeze of lime.
The only other trick with these guys is that the shells are so delicate that you have to make them tiny. Like, 2 1/2-inch wide, taco-for-ants sized. Too big and they'll crack under the weight of their own fillings. They are also cumbersome to fold and shape when you make them large.
I can't wait until my next fancy-pants party so I can make a few dozen of these to serve as hors d'oeuvres.
If the goal of my original tweet was to find some breakfast tacos worth eating, I didn't exactly get there, but I'm pretty happy with the destination I ended up in anyway.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.