Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Do you know about pupusas?  The adorable, chubby, filled cousin of the corn tortilla?  The doppelganger of the arepa?

There used to be a Salvadoran restaurant down the street from us, appropriately named Pupusa (RIP, why did you leave us??).  They had all kinds of Salvadoran foods, but of course as you might guess they specialized in pupusas and boy were they great.  Boy do I miss them.  Boy do I wish another dumb pizza joint hadn't moved in there instead.

Back to pupusas.  Essentially, you take corn masa (like you would use to make corn tortillas) and instead of pressing it thin in a tortilla press, you stuff it with a little cheese or beans or meat (or a combo of some or all of these), wrap the masa around the filling, flatten it out by hand and cook it on a griddle or skillet.

But masa dough can be hard to work with, especially if (like me) you don't have access to freshly ground masa, which is much more moist than the kind you make with masa harina (sometimes called corn flour, but essentially dried masa you have to reconstitute with hot water).

I recently was given this beautiful cookbook by the amazing cookbook writing duo of Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (they of Hot Sour Salty Sweet), called Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition Around the World (a title which alone chokes me up, and I have literally cried a little reading some of these wonderful recipes... bread traditions of all kinds really speak to me).

Anyway, I was thrilled to find that they have a recipe in there for an easier version of pupusas (they call them Easy Cheese and Bean Rounds).  It's easier because their recipe incorporates cooked beans into the masa dough, giving it better moisture and flexibility (not to mention adding a little protein!) and I had to try it.  It's fantastic - so easy (it's pretty much like playing with play-dough), and leftovers of the bean masa (which I didn't cook up all at once) kept very well for a whole week in the fridge.  I also made a gorgeous Salsa Roja (aka Toasty Guajillo Chile Salsa, recipe from Rick Bayless) to go with them.

Alford & Duguid's Bean Pupusas

1/2 cup drained cooked white beans (like navy beans)
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1 tablespoon oil (they called for corn, I only had canola), plus more for cooking and shaping
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups masa harina

1/2 cup grated or crumbled cheese (I used crumbled queso blanco, they suggest Oaxacan string cheese, jack or mild cheddar)
1 tablespoon minced chives or scallion greens (or more to taste)
optional - crumbled bits of crispy pork skin (i.e. chicharron - this was my addition to the Alford/Duguid recipe, because I just happened to have some around, but it's pretty traditional in regular pupusas)

In a food processor, process the beans, water and oil until smooth.  Add the salt and the masa, pulsing until a cohesive dough forms.

 Form it into a ball and wrap in plastic.  Let it rest for at least 30 minutes, though it can go longer.

Combine all the filling ingredients in a bowl and set aside.

Heat a heavy skillet (I used my cast iron griddle which was perfect for this) over medium heat.  Pour some oil in a small bowl and have it and the bowl of filling near your work surface.

Coat your hands with a little of the oil from the bowl and scoop up about 1/8 cup (2 tbsp) of dough.  Flatten it into a 3 inch disk, making it a little thinner on the edges than in the middle.

Put a small pinch of the cheese mixture into the middle, and fold the edges up all around and over the filling, pinching it shut so it's pretty much a little ball again.

Using more oil if necessary, flatten the ball back out into a disk, slightly larger this time (about 4 inches across).  Don't worry if it cracks, just pinch it shut again and flatten it, or patch it with extra dough if things get really bad.

As I formed them I set them aside on a waxed-paper-lined cookie sheet while I made more, covering them with plastic so they wouldn't dry out while I made more.

Rub a little bit of oil over the surface of your skillet, and place a couple pupusas (as many as will fit flat and comfortably) seam side down in the heated pan.

Make sure you're no hotter than medium, or the outside will burn before the cheese starts to melt.  When the bottom side of the pupusas are flecked with dark brown spots, about 3 minutes.

 Then flip them over to get fully firm and golden brown on the other side, about 2 more minutes.

Serve with Salsa Roja (see below).  Continue to shape and cook as many pupusas as you want (this recipe should make at least 15), re-oiling the pan now and then if it needs it.  Extra dough keeps very well, if you wrap it snugly in plastic wrap.

Rick Bayless' Salsa Roja
from Mexican Everyday

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 oz dried guajillo chiles (about 2), stemmed
3 garlic cloves, peeled
4 medium tomatillos (about 8 oz), husked, rinsed and cut in half

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Tear open the chiles and get out as many seeds as you can.  Lay the chiles in the hot oil, and fry, turning them often, until you can smell an amazing toasty warm chile smell.  They should brighten in color.  This will only take about 30 seconds.

Throw the chiles into your blender jar.  Discard all but a tablespoon of oil.  Add the garlic and the tomatillos to the oil in the pan, and let them brown, 3-4 minutes.  Turn off the heat and add 1/2 cup water to the pan, to scrape up any good things that might be sticking to the bottom, and pour it all into the blender with the chiles.  Blend it up very smooth, season to taste with salt (about 1/2 teaspoon).  Thin with water if necessary to get a nice spoonable sauce-like consistency.  Let cool before serving.

This salsa is (first of all) TOTALLY DYNAMITE, and keeps extremely well in a jar in the fridge.  It is good on all sorts of things - these pupusas, scrambled eggs, tacos, dipped into with tortilla chips, on a burger... endlessly useful, ridiculously easy, so deeply flavorful and completely delicious.


  1. My two cents on pupusas: My aunt's nanny Lucy used to make them all the time for us as kids. She would make them out of rice flour though, instead of corn. The rice flour crisps up much more than the corn and is fabulous with a bean/meat mix. And let us not forget cortido. The vinegar helps cut the richness of any chicharrons which may be hiding in the pupusa!

  2. ooh I'll have to try rice flour (after I work my way through most of a 5 lb bag of masa). And how could I forget curtido? Makes it a very balanced meal, too (and According to the Internet is slightly fermented like sauerkraut and kimchi, so hey, probiotics! I never knew that, I think the cabbage salad at our pupusa place was pretty much just a fresh slaw type salad - how did Lucy make it?). The salsa roja I made to go with these, with the tomatillos in it, had a nice acidity that balanced the richness pretty well, but I'll definitely make the curtido next time!