Cuñapes – Guarani Yuca Starch and Cheese Rolls
Down in South America, there are, thank the Gods, still a pretty healthy chunk of indigenous peoples, not the least among them, the Guarani. This ancient society traditionally ranged from what is now Paraguay, (between the Uruguay and lower Paraguay rivers), east into to the Misiones Province of Argentina, (the thumb of land that just no Ruth between Paraguay and Brazil, and then down into modern day Brazil as far as Rio de Janeiro.
The Guarani got their modern moniker from the Jesuits. They refer to themselves as Abá, meaning simply, the People. Guarani means ‘Warrior’ in the Tupi-Guarani dialect spoken by the Abá, an indication of how they reacted to Spanish aggression. It’s estimated that there were some 400,000 Abá when European invaders first showed up. That number has sadly dwindled to somewhere around 75,000 today, yet the people, culture, and language do survive. It’s telling that Guarani, along with Spanish, are the two official languages of Paraguay. The Guarani are a beautiful and compelling people. Their spiritual life still centers largely around an age old Animistic system, despite concerted efforts to christianize them. And they certainly do have a lovely cuisine as well.
Yerba, herb tea, comes from the Abá, as does Mate, the caffeinated version. And Mandioca, AKA Cassava or Yuca starch, is absolutely core to Abá food, (not to be confused with Yucca, a different thing altogether). Mandioca is served virtually with every meal, in one form or another. Also known as manioc, arrowroot, and tapioca, Manihot Esculenta is the third most common starch of the tropics, right behind rice and maize. Given its popularity with the Abá, it’s no wonder that this woody shrub is widely cultivated. The fat, fleshy tubers produced by the cassava plant are a major carbohydrate source, and a darn tasty one at that.
We keep cassava flour and powder, (that’s Arrowroot), in house here at UrbanMonique, for its unique taste and formidable thickening power. It’s naturally gluten free, and of course doesn’t come from nuts or grains either, so it’s pretty good stuff for those who require or desire such dietary consideration. Cassava flour is not the same as tapioca flour – the former is made from whole root, dried and ground, while the latter is the starch component extracted from the root, then dried. Cassava is not only a great source of carbs, it’s the closest thing to wheat flour for my mind – Not grainy or gritty at all, and a very light, neutral flavor profile. Couple that with the fact that cassava flour can be substituted 1:1 for a whole bunch of flour-based recipes, and you have a very popular gluten and grain free baking resource.
There’s little doubt that authentic street food provides some of the tastiest kicks you’re going to find when you’re out and about, and Guarani versions of such are no exception. Consider, if you will, the Cuñape. This little gem is powered by fresh, soft cheese, cassava flour, and little else. Like the French analog, le gougère, they are simplicity itself. The word likely stems from the Guarani language, combining Cuña, (woman), and pé, (breast), an obvious nod to the bun’s shape, (graphic representation not withstanding.)
Cuñapes are a joy to make. There are, of course, variations in required ingredients, most of which stem from where the recipe originates, and are worth discussing. First off, South American, and especially Guarani cooks, never use a leavening agent, preferring instead to count on a neat little production trick for the rise, (more on this with the recipe, below), North American cooks tend to add baking powder, soda, or both, and that’s a mistake in my opinion – Adding highly refined ingredients definitely impacts flavor and how they bake, neither in a good way, so do yourself a favor and try this our way.
Secondly, in something so simple, ingredients really matter. Keep in mind that the folks who originated the dish either make their own, or get super fresh ingredients, and you can and should emulate that as much as possible. Making queso fresco is super easy and fun, so if you’ve got a bit more time and the predilection, try our recipe here – You don’t need any special ingredients or equipment, and making the cheese will take less than an hour, all told. If you don’t make it yourself, find a local Mexican or South American market near you and buy the freshest queso you can.
While many American Cuñape recipes call for combinations of cheddar, provolone, or mozzarella, you really need queso blanco to do it right. If you like things a bit gooey, find some queso asadero at the market as well – This semi soft, melting cheese makes a great counterpoint to the dry queso blanco – Not necessary, but a very tasty variant. And finally, get good quality cassava flour; your local specialty market will have that, and if not, it’s readily available online.
Cuñapes – Guarani Cheese Rolls
Makes about 10 to 12 rolls
1 Cup Cassava Flour
3 loose packed Cups Queso Blanco, (or 2:1 Blanco to Asadero, and Monterrey Jack will work OK)
1 large Egg
Pinch of Sea Salt
Few Tablespoons Whole Milk
Have all ingredients at room temperature.
In a large mixing bowl, combine cassava flour, cheese, salt, and egg. Work by hand to incorporate into a dough.
The consistency should feel dry, not moist moist, wet, or sticky at all. Add milk a tablespoon at a time until the dough reaches the right consistency.
By hand, pinch off a chunk of dough about the size of a golf ball and roll it into a uniform ball.
Holding the dough ball in your palm, stick your thumb into one side, creating a little hollow.
Coat an ungreased baking sheet with a little cassava flour.
Set each ball, divot side down, firmly into the baking sheet. The little air pocket that results will help the rolls rise a bit as they bake, making the interiors nice and light.
Preheat oven to 375° F, and allow the rolls to rest while the oven heats.
Slide baking sheet into a rack in the middle position and bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until rolls are light golden brown.
Remove from heat and take rolls off the pan.