Some culinary unions—corn and dairy, for example—seem to have been conceived of by Mother Nature herself. Take Korean corn cheese, in which a bubbling skillet holds sweet kernels and gooey mozzarella. There’s also lush creamed corn; Sapporo ramen topped with corn and a pat of butter; milky corn chowder; and perhaps the simplest expression of this delightfully complementary duo: piping-hot corn on the cob slathered with butter.
Venezuelans have relished this gastronomic kinship for centuries in the form of cachapas con queso de mano: savory-sweet corn cakes hot off the budare (a clay or metal griddle) that hold melty disks of fresh cow’s-milk cheese. The irresistible stacks are topped with generous pats of butter and enjoyed as breakfast (or as an anytime meal or snack), often washed down with a tall glass of fresh guava, passion fruit, or pineapple juice or a fruit smoothie.
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In Venezuela, car travel often includes a pit stop at a cacheperia, where generously sized corn cakes are stuffed with everything from queso de mano to chicharron to braised pork or beef to grilled vegetables. Skilled cooks produce the cachapas on griddles called budares, adeptly flipping the fragile rounds not with a spatula but with a long, slender machete before folding them in a half-moon shape around the filling.
Griddle Me This
The cachapas batter comes together easily by whizzing lots of fresh corn; dairy such as crema, milk, or butter; sugar; and salt together in a blender. Then, as Mercedes Golip, a culinary instructor and Venezuelan food authority, explained on a recent video call, the thick batter can be used to create large or small cakes. Street vendors tend to make generously sized cachapas that they fold, still toasty warm, around the queso to gently soften it. Home cooks usually prepare smaller cakes in a skillet, sandwiching the cheese between pairs. The same batter can also be swaddled in corn husks and boiled to create cachapas de hoja, a satisfying tamale-like treat. As a girl, Golip adored all types of cachapas and remembers her grandmother making big batches just for her—much to the envy of her cousins. “I was such a picky eater, and [cachapas] were one of the things that I would happily eat without complaint,” she recalled.
As I began developing a recipe for the smaller cachapas, I faced a significant challenge: making structurally sound corn cakes. In early tests, I failed to serve up a single sample that held its shape during cooking
Turning a Corner
Golip offered insight: Venezuelan corn cultivars contain enough starch to create a batter that cooks up into cohesive cakes, but as the diaspora has carried the dish beyond its borders, recipes have been altered to account for the lower starch content of corn found outside the country.
Some cooks introduce wheat flour, but Golip recommended masarepa (a superfine corn flour) to accentuate the fresh corn flavor. In a blender, I put 3 cups of kernels stripped from four cobs (frozen is acceptable too, or even canned in a pinch); a few spoonfuls of milky, tangy crema (my dairy of choice; sour cream also works); 1/4 cup of masarepa; sugar; salt; and a single egg, another common addition. The masarepa, along with the binding proteins from the egg, produced cakes that delicately held together.
Ingredients Spotlight: Queso de Mano
So named because it is traditionally kneaded by hand until it is elastic and smooth, queso de mano is made from fresh cow’s milk. The creamy disks are delicately flavored, with subtle saltiness and tang. If it’s unavailable, fresh mozzarella makes a good substitute.
Ingredients Spotlight: Masarepa
This corn flour is made from precooked maize that has not been nixtamalized. Don’t confuse it with masa harina, which is masa (a moist dough of ground nixtamilized corn) that has been dried and ground into flour.
The ratio of sugar to salt varied widely among recipes. One called for ¼ cup of sugar, placing the dish squarely in the dessert realm; another called for only 1 teaspoon and tasted woefully underseasoned. “[Cachapas] should be more sweet than salty, but not overly so,” said Golip. One tablespoon of sugar to ¾ teaspoon of salt struck a happy medium.
Spread into 4-inch rounds and fried in butter in a nonstick skillet, these salty-sweet cachapas cooked up gorgeously plush and custardy, filling the kitchen with the heady aroma of caramelized corn and sugar. The only thing missing was a bit of textural interest. Following Golip’s lead, I held a portion of the kernels back and then pulsed them lightly in the blender after the rest of the batter was smooth. This mixture, slightly lumpy with corn, delivered cakes with the golden, chewy pops I was looking for.
Technique: When to Flip the Corn Cakes
After you’ve whipped up the simple blender batter for cachapas, the next step is to griddle the corn cakes. How do you know when they’re ready to flip? Inhale. If you detect the sweet aroma of caramelized sugar, it’s time: The bottom sides will be deeply browned and lightly, fleetingly crisp. A thin, wide spatula makes it easy to turn the delicate cakes.
Once I’d prepared eight cachapas, it was time to assemble this supremely easy and delicious breakfast. Queso de mano is sold in large disks, each about ⅓ inch thick. To swiftly cut pieces to fit neatly in the cakes, I used a round cutter to punch 31/2‑inch rounds out of a couple of creamy slabs. Next, I tucked each circle between a pair of cakes; placed the stacks on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and slid them into a warm oven. After a few minutes, the elastic cheese had softened to just the right degree: It relaxed and slumped but didn’t completely melt.
I slathered a cachapa with butter and took bite after silky bite, admiring the remarkable compatibility of corn and dairy.