Back in February, I posted a recipe for guasacaca, a Venezuelan avocado salsa. While that green creamy sauce got some love, it was clear from Serious Eaters that the real star were the tequeños also in the photo—made purely to have something to dip into the sauce. There were multiple calls for a tequeño recipe, but those were my first attempt and they had a few problems that needed to be worked out. It may have taken me a bit of time, but I finally gave those delicious cheese sticks another whirl and came out with something pretty spot-on, so I'm forgoing my usual sauce recipe this week to instead unleash the oozy awesomeness of the almighty tequeño.
Ok, so I'm sure not everyone even knows what a tequeño is. Hell, until I discovered the gem that is Arepas Cafe in my hometown of Astoria, New York, many years ago, I had never heard of or seen one. But after one bite, I knew I could never live my life without them again.
Basically, these things are Venezuelan fried cheese sticks, originating in the town of Los Teques. Think mozzarella stick, but replace the mozzarella with a squeaky and salty queso blanco, and sub out the breadcrumb coating for a pastry-like shell. Sounds pretty amazing, right?
They're so good that I felt I'd be doing a disservice to the full tequeño experience if I didn't go back and fix the flaws of my initial recipe, which had a crust that lacked the blistery appearance and rich flavor it should have, as well as problems with cheesy explosions that seeped out of the dough while frying.
My first task was to address the shell. My favorite tequeños have an exterior that's slightly flaky, a little chewy, and pretty buttery. My wife had successfully made something similar last summer with a batch of fried pies, so I took a cue from her and approached this dough as I would a pie.
I started with flour and salt that got sprinkled with 1/4-inch cubes of cold butter, adding a couple tablespoons more than I did on my first try. The butter got broken down into small bits coated in flour when pulsed in a food processor, creating pockets of fat that would later result in the blistery appearance and slightly flaky texture.
To keep those bits of butter well intact, I added egg and cold water and then gently brought the dough together by pressing it against the side of a bowl, rather than straight-up mixing. I rested the whole thing in the fridge for half an hour before rolling to keep the butter cold and let the dough firm up.
The Question of Queso
One thing I was happy with on my first attempt was the choice of queso blanco, which fried up to be semi-soft with a little squeaky character and a nice saltiness. Still, I couldn't help but trying out a second option while I was experimenting—queso de freir (frying cheese).
Queso de freir and queso blanco are fairly similar (queso blanco is sometimes even labeled as frying cheese), but the former has a finer and slightly more dense texture that's specifically made to hold up to cooking in hot oil.
In the end, both performed well, and while I preferred the more unique texture of the queso blanco, the smoother queso de frier created a tequeño that was more similar to what I used to at restaurants. Ultimately, you can take your pick; you won't lose with either choice.
Form and Function
With a dough and cheese figured out, it was down to marrying the two together. I first rolled out the dough into a square 1/8-inch thick, and then cut that down into strips 3/4-inch wide by 12-inches long. I draped each strip of dough over the end of a cheese slice and wrapped around it on a diagonal, with the layers of dough overlapping enough to create a good seal and the right thickness. I pinched the end closed and my tequeño was born.
I attribute my previous run-in with cheese explosions in part to how I wrapped the cheese, but mainly to my original frying technique. I cooked that first batch in 350°F oil, which lengthened the cooking time, allowing the cheese to melt more, expand, and explode.
This time around, I pumped up the heat to 400°F and found that the crust fully browned just as the cheese was nicely softened, but not yet molten, resulting in not even one cheesy jailbreak.
The Tequeño of My Dreams
I couldn't have been more happy with the end result: The dough had the nice blistered appearance I was after, a little bit of flaky texture on the outermost layer, a slight chew on the inside, and rich, buttery flavor. The cheesy innards were creamy and salty, coming together with that great shell to make a cheese stick that leaves its mozzarella brethren quivering in fear.
Oh, and lets not to forget the whole reason this recipe was born—the sauce. With a lack of guasacaca in the house, I whipped up my second favorite accompaniment for tequeños—salsa rosada, a mix of mayo and ketchup. A dip in that simple, tangy sauce only heightened the tequeño experience, which is hard to imagine getting any better.