Shannon O'Hara
Cemitas Poblanas Sandwiches from Puebla with Quesillo (Queso Oaxaca)
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Cemitas Poblanas Sandwiches from Puebla with Quesillo (Queso Oaxaca) Demo

Hugo Ortega, Hugo's, Houston / July 2012

As one of its names clearly states, quesillo, or queso Oaxaca, originated in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, although, as you’ll soon see, it’s now part of the culinary fabric of Puebla, its northwestern neighbor. Quesillo is a mild semihard string cheese formed into small yarn-like rounds. It rose to prominence in the small municipality of Reyes Etla, where it’s said to have been created by mistake. The story goes that in 1885 a 14 year old girl let her attention drift while baby-sitting the curd for her cheese­making parents. The curd became doughy. She tried to cover for her inattentiveness by pouring hot water over it, creating a long, stringy mess. Her parents decided to compact the strands and sell her mistake anyway. It became an instant hit.

Around the same time, the portable cemita, a sandwich comprised of three key ingredients—the pungent herb papalo, the bread cemita (sesame seed bun), and the state border–crossing quesillo or queso Oaxaca—took off with the working class emerging from the textile, ceramics, and glassmaking factories in Puebla. In order to consider this sandwich for Hugo’s, my restaurant in Houston, I needed to crack the secret to making authentic quesillo. Turns out that the key ingredient is raw milk, unhomogenized, of course, which I used to make the curd for this demo (the cheese used at Hugo’s is made from a commercial curd, since raw milk cheeses must be aged for at least 60 days before being offered for public consumption). So, for the sake of authenticity, which I always strive for, I drove 50 miles to Calico Dairy in Conroe, Texas, for the raw milk. After many trials, I happened upon the formula that re-created the authentic taste of quesillo. All my memories of eating cemitas as a child came rushing back and gave me a great sense of satisfaction when we put the cemita together.

Cemitas Poblanas Sandwiches from Puebla with Quesillo (Queso Oaxaca)

For 6 servings (requires advance preparation)

Quesillo (Queso Oaxaca):
• 2 gals. raw cow’s milk
• 2 coagulant tablets, crushed
• 1 Tbsp. citric acid
• 2 Tbsps. sea salt
• 1/4 cup kosher salt

  1. Warm milk in deep pot set over medium heat to 96°F (about 7 minutes); stir in coagulant tablets and citric acid; cook, stirring, 2 minutes—milk will begin to curdle and curds will float to surface (A); remove pot from heat.

  2. Scoop up curds with small bowl; pass through a fine chinois (B); place curds in a bowl set in ice water bath; pour 1 1/2 cups hot whey from pot over curds; flip curds occasionally with wooden spoon to help cool until an instant-read thermometer inserted into them registers 32°F.

  3. Heat 1 1/2 gals. water in deep pot set over medium heat to 190°F (about 16 minutes).

  4. Place cooled curds in large bowl or rectangular plastic container; add hot water, completely submerging curds; using grill fork and heat-resistant gloves, knead curds until mass becomes elastic (about 5 minutes) (C); pull cheese out of liquid, stretching it into a long 1/2"-thick strand (D); place strand onto clean, flat work surface, creating a single-layered coil; discard water; season strand with sea salt (E); reserve.

  5. Place 8 cups ice and 8 cups water in large rectangular plastic container; as soon as water registers 32°F on instant-read thermometer, stir in kosher salt; add cheese strand; let stand 2 minutes, making sure strand is completely submerged; grab one end of strand; wrap around index finger 4 times (F); remove wrapped loops—now a knot—from finger; place in hand; wrap remaining cheese lengthwise around knot (G), flattening it into rounder shape, pulling snuggly each time and changing directions as you wrap to create a round ball of cheese; envelop in plastic wrap; refrigerate 3 to 5 days.

  6. Remove cheese from plastic wrap; shred by hand (H); reserve in refrigerator.

Starter dough:
• 1/2 tsp. active dry yeast
• 1 cup all-purpose flour
• 1 Tbsp. pulque or beer

  1. Place yeast and 1/3 cup lukewarm water in the bowl of electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment; stir until yeast has dissolved; add flour; mix on low speed 1 minute; add pulque; mix on medium speed until smooth (about 2 minutes).

  2. Place in large bowl; cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate 1 day.

  3. Measure out 1/2 lb. starter on a scale; place in clean bowl; cover with plastic wrap; reserve; discard remaining starter.

Cemitas (sesame seed buns):
• 4 tsps. active dry yeast
• 5 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
• 7 Tbsps. unsalted butter, melted
• 2 tsps. kosher salt
• cooking spray
• 1 lg. egg, lightly whisked with 1 Tbsp. water
• 6 Tbsps. sesame seeds, toasted

  1. Place yeast and 1/4 cup lukewarm water in the bowl of electric mixer fitted with dough hook; stir until yeast has dissolved; add 1 1/4 cups water, flour, reserved starter; butter, and salt; mix on low speed 2 minutes; place dough on clean work surface; knead until elastic (5 to 8 minutes); lightly coat large bowl with cooking spray; add dough; cover with lightly coated plastic wrap; let rise in warm place until doubled in size (about 1 hour).

  2. Heat oven to 375°F with rack in middle position.

  3. Divide dough into 6 equal balls; line baking sheet with parchment paper; lightly coat parchment paper with cooking spray; place dough balls on baking sheet; press down on each ball just enough to expand dough to size of your palm; using sharp knife, cut 2 shallow slits along circumference of each ball; let dough rise in warm place 20 to 25 minutes.

  4. Lightly brush each ball with egg wash; sprinkle each with 1 Tbsp. sesame seeds; bake until brown (25 to 28 minutes).

Refritos (refried beans):
• 2 cups dried black beans, rinsed and drained
• 1/2 small white onion, quartered, plus 1 small white onion, finely chopped
• 1 3/4 tsps. kosher salt
• 1/3 cup olive oil

  1. Bring beans, quartered onion, salt, and 4 cups water to a boil in a pot set over medium heat (5 to 7 minutes); reduce heat to medium-low; simmer until beans are softened (about 1 1/2 hours); remove from heat; drain; discard cooking liquid and onion; place beans in a processor; puree until smooth.

    1. Heat oil in cast-iron skillet set over medium heat 2 minutes; add chopped onion; cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent (about 3 minutes); add puree; reduce heat to medium-low; simmer 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent beans from sticking to pan; remove from heat; cool; place in airtight container; cover; reserve in refrigerator.

• 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
• 2 lg. eggs, lightly beaten
• 3/4 cup panko
• salt
• black pepper, freshly ground
• 6 chicken breasts, pounded very thin
• 1/2 cup corn oil
• 6 Tbsps. mayonnaise
• 2 avocados, peeled, pitted, and sliced
• 1 white onion, thinly sliced
• 6 canned chipotle chiles in adobo, seeded, sliced
• 1/2 bunch papalo or cilantro, leaves picked and stems discarded

  1. Heat oven to 200°F.

  2. Place flour in shallow bowl; place eggs in another shallow bowl; place panko in third shallow bowl; working one at a time, season each side of chicken with salt and pepper; dredge in flour, shaking off excess; dip in eggs; roll in panko, shaking off excess; place on a baking sheet; reserve.

  3. Heat oil in cast-iron skillet set over medium heat until bubbling (3 to 4 minutes); working one at a time, pan-fry chicken until brown (about 3 minutes); flip; cook on other side until brown (about 3 minutes); place on paper towels to drain; arrange on baking sheet in single layer; reserve in oven.

  4. To serve, cut open cemitas; spread 1 Tbsp. mayonnaise on bottom slice of each; spread each top half with 2 Tbsps. refritos; place a chicken breast on each bottom half; top each with 1 cup quesillo, then 4 to 5 avocado slices, 2 to 3 onion slices, and 1 chipotle chile; garnish each with 8 to 10 papalo leaves; close sandwiches; place on warm plates.

What to drink: Bohemia or Negra Modelo beer