Why It Works
- Refrigerating the crust beforehand allows the butter to harden, creating a firm base for the filling.
- Queso fresco imbues the pie with a pleasant salty-nutty flavor.
- Blending the filling produces a silky-smooth texture.
Pay de queso, or cheese pie, is a smooth, creamy, and not overly sweet cheese-based pie with a cookie crust. It’s pretty much the Mexican version of New York cheesecake. However, unlike cheesecake, which can often be dense and heavy, pay de queso is delightfully soft with a smoother consistency. Plus, the pie comes together easily, making it a great dessert option for any occasion.
The classic crust for pay de queso is made with Maria cookies (or galletas Marias), the “graham cracker” of Latin America. Commonly eaten as a snack alongside a steaming mug of coffee or hot chocolate, these lightly sweetened, vanilla wafer-like cookies are a staple in Mexican households. Making the crust is a straightforward affair: grind the cookies in a food processor, toss with melted butter and a pinch of salt, then scatter the moistened crumbs in a 9-inch pie plate. I like to use a drinking glass, measuring cup, or a similar tool with a flat bottom, to compress the crumbs into an even layer. Since there is no baking happening to bind the crumbs together, it's important to compress the crumbs really well and to refrigerate the crust prior to filling to firm it up and avoid a crumbly crust.
The filling is typically made with cream cheese, evaporated milk, condensed milk, and eggs. For my version, I wanted to incorporate a savory cheese to balance the sweetness of the pie and add a salty note. I tested several Mexican cheeses: queso panela (a semi-soft Mexican cheese), queso fresco, and cojita (a firm, salty aged cheese). My personal favorite was queso fresco, a popular cheese made from cow’s milk that’s typically used as a topping on savory dishes. I found that its mild flavor balanced the sweetness from the condensed milk. In addition, the cheese’s soft texture kept the pie’s texture true to the original, yielding a light and smooth filling.
To make the filling, simply blend all the ingredients until smooth, making sure the queso fresco is completely broken down and emulsified with the rest of the ingredients. If insufficiently blended, the cheese will separate from the filling and rise to the top as it bakes, causing the pie to brown excessively and the layer underneath to remain liquidy. It’s also important to avoid incorporating too much air during blending, which makes the filling foamy, and can result in a less smooth consistency while also causing the pie to overflow when baked.
Pay de queso is best when served chilled, so I recommend refrigerating the slightly cooled pie before indulging. Though a slice is delicious all by itself, a dollop of strawberry jam or a drizzle of dulce de leche or cajeta on top are great additions.
- For the Crust:
- 7 ounces (33 cookies; 200g) Maria cookies, such as Goya (see note)
- 4 1/2 ounces unsalted butter (9 tablespoons; 127g), melted and cooled
- Kosher salt
- For the Filling:
- 6 ounces evaporated milk (2/3 cup; 170g)
- 7 ounces condensed milk (1/2 cup; 200g)
- 2 large eggs (100g), brought to slightly cooler than room temperature
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 4 ounces (115g) full-fat cream cheese, softened to about 65°F/18°C
- 2 ounces (60g) queso fresco, brought to about 65°F/18°C (see note)
To make the crust: Place cookies in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade and pulse until broken down into fine, sandy crumbs, about 1 minute. Transfer crumbs to a medium bowl, add melted butter and a pinch of salt and, using a flexible spatula, mix until crumbs are fully moistened, about 30 seconds.
Scrape crumb mixture into a 9-inch pie plate, spread into an even layer, then compress firmly with a flat-bottomed drinking glass or measuring cup; this will naturally push the crumbs up the sides of the pan. Continue pressing until the crumbs form a compact, even layer across the bottom and sides of the pan. Refrigerate the crust until firm, at least 15 minutes. (Once the crust is firm, you can wrap it in plastic and refrigerate for up to 2 days.)
To make the filling: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Meanwhile in a blender, combine evaporated milk, condensed milk, eggs, vanilla extract, cream cheese, and queso fresco. Blend on high speed until smooth but not aerated, about 30 seconds.
Place chilled crust on a rimmed baking sheet, then pour filling into crust. Carefully transfer baking sheet with filled pie to the oven. Bake until the filling is lightly browned and set at the edges with a firm jiggle in the center, 40 to 45 minutes.
Set baking sheet with finished pie on a wire rack and let cool for 1 hour. Transfer pie to the refrigerator and chill until filling is firm, at least 6 hours or overnight.
When ready to serve, slice into wedges with a chef’s knife, carefully slide a pie server under the crust, making sure it reaches all the way to the tip of each wedge, and serve.
food processor, blender, 9-inch pie plate
Maria cookies are vanilla wafer-like cookies. They can be found at Mexican supermarkets and at most major grocery stores.
Queso fresco is a fresh, soft, and slightly tangy white Mexican cheese. It can be found at Mexican supermarkets and at most major grocery stores.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Wrapped in plastic, pay de queso can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.