Why It Works
- Salty, firm queso blanco creates a creamy, flavorful interior.
- A rich pastry dough makes a flaky, buttery crust.
- Frying at 400°F (204°C) ensures a crisp crust and melty cheese while avoiding cheese explosions in the pan.
When I posted a recipe for guasacaca, a Venezuelan avocado salsa, the green creamy sauce got some love, but it was clear from Serious Eaters that the real stars 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.
What Are Tequeños?
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.
A Flaky, Buttery Crust
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 try 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 denser 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 have at restaurants. Ultimately, you can take your pick; you won't lose with either choice.
Wrapping the Cheese
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-inch 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.
The Right Frying Temperature
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 (177°C) 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 (204°C) 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: Serving Tequeños
I couldn't have been happier 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 let’s not 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.
10 ounces all-purpose flour (about 2 cups)
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1 large egg, lightly beaten
6 tablespoons cold water, plus more as needed
12 ounces queso blanco or queso de frier, cut into slices 1/2-inch x 1/2-inch x 2 1/2-inch
Peanut oil, for frying
Place flour and salt in the workbowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade; pulse to combine. Sprinkle butter evenly over flour and pulse until butter is cut into pieces slightly smaller than a pea, about 8 one-second pulses. Transfer dough to a large bowl.
Add in egg and water. Using a rubber spatula, press dough against side of bowl until it forms into a ball. If dough is not fully forming, add additional water one tablespoon at a time until it comes together. Press dough into a disc, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and rest in refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Unwrap dough and place on a lightly floured surface. Roll out into a square 1/8-inch thick. Cut off edges to create a 12-inch square. Cut square into strips 3/4-inch wide.
Take one strip of dough and drape end over top of one cheese slice. Wrap entire cheese slice in dough on a diagonal, overlapping dough. Cover bottom of cheese slice in dough and pinch edges close to fully seal. Repeat with remaining cheese slices.
Fill a cast iron skillet with 3/4-inch of oil. Heat oil to 400°F (204°C) over high heat. Place tequeños in oil and fry until crust is golden brown and blistery, 3 to 5 minutes, turning halfway through. Transfer tequeños to a paper towel-lined plate, let cool for 1 to 2 minutes, then serve immediately.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 16g||21%|
|Saturated Fat 7g||37%|
|Total Carbohydrate 16g||6%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||2%|
|Total Sugars 0g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||0%|
|*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.|