Sunday, September 28, 2008


Until just over a year ago, I'd never heard of Llapingachos—Ecuadoran potato and cheese cakes—until I read an article about them in Gourmet. I've been looking for a reason to make them, and last night the opportunity presented itself in the form of a vegetarian special for our menu. Here are a couple of orders of llapingachos on the table in the center of our line, ready to go out to tables, garnished with peanut sauce, red onion slaw, and local microgreens.

I've made enough potato cakes in my life, thousands, to know the basic ropes. But, before making my first batch of llapingachos, I did a little nosing around on the web, trying to understand just what differentiates llapingachos in the world of potato cakes. And it seems to be the addition of achiote and cheese to the potatoes.

Recipes differ widely on what kind of cheese to use and because of this, I can see that you basically use what you have in your grocery or refrigerator of the white, soft, melting variety. In my walk-in, just happen to have a 5-pound brick of queso quesadilla, a soft melting cheese used for, you guessed it, making quesadillas. Recipes call for, variously, Monterrey Jack, Münster, Mozzarella, or Fontina, so you know what to look for. Some recipes call for mixing the cheese into the potatoes and some call for stuffing the potato cakes with the cheese in the middle.

Recipes differ as to whether or not to use mealy russet-type potatoes or waxy potatoes, so you have to figure that it doesn't really matter. Some contain yellow onions, some red, some green, some only the whites of green onions. Does it really matter? Some contain cumin, some contain achiote* oil, some contain cilantro, and so forth and so on. Basically, it's a cheesy potato cake flavored with whatever you happen to want or like to use.

For my part, I want a potato with flavor, so I started with some local redskin fingerlings, which have a somewhat buttery flavor. I boiled and roughly mashed them skin-on for the color contrast of the skins in the cakes. I differ here, because all the recipes I have seen call for peeling the potatoes. But why? The skins on our fresh red fingerlings are not only pretty, but tasty as well.

To the potatoes I added green onions, achiote oil for color, salt, pepper, a dusting of red pepper flakes, and a fair amount of queso quesadilla. After a quick mix of the ingredients, I formed them into about 3-ounce cakes.

To accompany the llapingachos, I made a version of the classic peanut sauce called salsa de mani by cooking red onion, garlic, ground toasted cumin, and red chile flakes in achiote oil, then adding blended milk and peanut butter, and cooking until thick, about 2 minutes. I then seasoned with salt, pepper, lime juice, cilantro, and sriracha. Very tasty. I also made a quick curtido (slaw) of red onion, German Howard tomatoes, cilantro, chile serrano, salt, and lime juice.


I have seen in a lot of the recipes that working with llapingachos is tricky. I never thought of it that way because I have made so many thousands of potato cakes in my life that I have forgotten some of my initial potato cake disasters.

Adding too much oil, butter, or cream to the potatoes is to invite them to melt in your pan. Use just what you need to make a mash that will hold together; it's the same feel you need for making potato gnocchi.

If you're new to potato cakes, use russet potatoes. The higher starch content is more likely to give you better results. I used waxy fingerlings, but I've got a ton of experience at this.

Refrigerate the patties before cooking; they will be much more firm and easy to work with.

Moderate the heat in your pan. You need to get the patties warm through to the center without burning the crust and without the patties disintegrating.

And when working with llapingachos, you might want to use a non-stick pan to keep the cheese from, well, sticking.

Finally, if all else fails, lightly flour the cakes. That will help them form a crust and give a nice brown surface.

CIA has produced a short video that you might want to watch:

*Achiote oil is vegetable oil that you have warmed with achiote (annatto) seeds, to be found in most any Latino grocery. You may also find pasta de achiote (achiote paste) which is also a good starting point for making the oil. Personally, I avoid achiote powder; I just don't think it's good for anything.

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