On The Range: Cachapas

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On The Range is a weekly exploration of the history and lore of Texas menu items.

Migas, chilaquiles, menudo. In this series, we've written numerous times about savory South-of-the-border breakfast and brunch dishes. But what about pastries such as dulce de leche cake or alfajores cookies or pan dulces? And why can't we get good old All-American pancakes in Latin countries?

Important question, that. You can get pancakes, but they may or may not be sweet, and they may not taste a whole lot like what your neighborhood IHOP produces on Sunday mornings. In fact, they may be made from corn.

Say hello to cachapas, the All-South-American treat said to be the national dish of Venezuela, or one of them anyway.

They are typically made from fresh corn dough, ground and worked into a batter, then flattened, wrapped in banana leaves, and cooked on a griddle. You know, the good ol' North American way. Alternatively, according to Elisabeth Lambert Oritz, author of The Book of Latin American Cooking, the cakes can be steamed in dry corn husks over boiling water.

Actually, neither husk or leaf is required in the preparation, as suggested by Elisabeth Luard's recipe in her book The Latin American Kitchen. Her cachapas con miel (honey) are toasted straight on the griddle or a heavy iron skillet. In either case she recommends serving them drenched in dark forest honey.

Usually, cachapas are thicker and lumpier than run-of-the-mill pancakes due to the fresh corn pieces and are often served wrapped around a piece of queso blanco or queso fresco. To ensure culinary success, divine intervention is sometimes used. Writing in a Los Angeles Times article entitled "The Eternal Cachapa," Sandra Hernandez describes that when chef Francisco Cordoba Martinez makes the first cachapa of the day in his Caracas restaurant Luncheria Los Felipes, he "set[s the cachapa] before a small altar of Santa Barbara, the shops patron saint. 'She gets the first one of the day but the rest are for the customers, ' Martinez says."

Amen, brother.

When dining on the beef-and-cheese cachapas at Zaguan Latin Café & Bakery here in Big D, Texas Monthly's Patricia Sharpe recommends using a knife and fork and that "it's best the minute they put it on your table, piping hot, when the melted white farmer's cheese is good and oozy and the shredded beef is tender and just a little chewy, like a Sunday pot roast." Let's see them pull that off at IHOP.

The crunchy, slightly sweet pancake shell was the best part of the dish, mind you, given the timidly seasoned stuff inside. Nevertheless, the cachapa at Zaguan is a compelling example of this dish.

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