Cheese-Stuffed Colombian-Style Arepas Recipe

The browned exterior of these corn cakes hides a molten core of cheese.

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Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Why It Works

  • Adding a little oil to the dough yields tender, moist arepas.
  • Shaping a portion of the dough to check its consistency before working in additional water ensures the arepas do not become dense and gummy.
  • Finishing the arepas in the even heat of an oven allows the cheese filling to fully melt without burning the sides.

The first time I went to Colombia, I was greeted by the countless variations of arepas, corn cakes traditionally made by dried corn pounded in a pilón—a large mortar and pestle—and formed into a pliable dough. I wrote about the experience in my primer on Colombian-style arepas and also shared a basic dough recipe for some of the common arepa varieties, including this intense version with a thick layer of melty cheese stuffed right into the middle.

I first had these cheese-stuffed arepas at an outdoor stand in the small town of La Calera, about an hour's ride outside of Bogotá. They were cooked on a little rotating stone pedestal near an open coal fire. Smoky, cheesy, and delicious.

To make them, follow my instructions for basic grilled or griddled arepas:

Making arepa dough takes a bit of practice, but if you've ever made tortillas, you're off to a good start. The key is to use only as much moisture as is necessary to get a dough that doesn't crack when you shape it. Too much water and you'll end up with dense, gummy arepas. The simplest arepas use only water and salt, but I find a bit of oil helps to keep them softer and moist as they cook.
Shaping an arepa is a two-handed process. If you're a real expert, you can do it without a work surface, simply pressing it back and forth between your hands until it forms a disk about a quarter-inch thick and four to six inches wide. I find it easier to shape on a cutting board, using one hand to flatten and the other to shape.
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The key is to form two larger arepas, layer the cheese between them, carefully seal up the edges, and then use your hands to shape them into an even round.

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Because they tend to be thicker than standard arepas and you need the cheese to be melty, I find that finishing them in a toaster oven (or on the cooler side of the grill if you're grilling them) is the easiest way to go about it.

April 19, 2012

Recipe Facts

Active: 30 mins
Total: 30 mins
Serves: 4 arepas

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Ingredients

  • 2 cups masarepa (see notes)

  • 2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) finely crumbled queso fresco (optional, see notes)

  • 1 cup water, plus more as necessary

  • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil

  • Kosher salt

  • 1/2 pound mozzarella or other good melting cheese, sliced or grated

  • 2 teaspoons butter

Directions

  1. Preheat toaster oven or oven with rack in the center to 325°F (160°C). Combine masarepa, crumbled cheese (if using), water, and vegetable oil in a medium bowl and knead with hands until a dough is formed. Take a small amount and flatten it between your palms. If the edges crack, knead in more water, 1 tablespoon at a time until dough is supple and smooth but not sticky. Season dough to taste with salt, then cover and set aside for 5 minutes.

  2. Divide dough into 8 even pieces and roll into balls. Working on a wooden cutting board or a regular cutting board with a sheet of plastic wrap or parchment paper on top of it, flatten each ball down to a disk about 5 inches in diameter and 1/4-inch thick.

  3. Place 1/4 of cheese into center of one disk, leaving a 1/2-inch gap all around.

  4. Place a second disk on top and carefully seal the edges all around, trying to remove as much air from the center as possible.

  5. Use one hand to shape the edges of the arepa so that it is an even round disk.

  6. Melt butter in a 12-inch cast iron or non-stick skillet over medium-low heat (see notes). Add arepas and cook, moving them around the pan and rotating them occasionally, until first side is charred in spots and a dry crust has formed, about 5 minutes. Flip arepas and cook on second side until a dry crust has formed, about 5 minutes longer. Transfer to a baking sheet and place in oven until heated through and cheese is melted, about 10 minutes. Serve immediately.

Special Equipment

12-inch cast iron skillet or nonstick skillet

Notes

Masarepa is dehydrated cooked cornmeal. It is available in the Latin section of most supermarkets in either white or yellow varieties. This recipe calls for white, but they can be freely substituted. Popular brands include Goya and P.A.N.

Crumbled cheese can be added to the dough if desired. Depending on the moisture level of the cheese, you may not need all the water. Colombian-style queso fresco is ideal. If you can't find it, substitute cotija, ricotta salata, or feta.

Arepas can also be cooked on a greased panini press or a grill over low heat.

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Nutrition Facts (per serving)
269 Calories
7g Fat
47g Carbs
7g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 4
Amount per serving
Calories 269
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 7g 9%
Saturated Fat 3g 13%
Cholesterol 11mg 4%
Sodium 241mg 10%
Total Carbohydrate 47g 17%
Dietary Fiber 4g 16%
Total Sugars 0g
Protein 7g
Vitamin C 0mg 0%
Calcium 42mg 3%
Iron 2mg 12%
Potassium 181mg 4%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)