Fall is officially here. Does the cooler weather have you craving comfort food? Perhaps something cheesy and carby, or a break from all that pumpkin? If you’re in the mood for a new favorite comfort food, mbejú will surely hit the spot.
When I packed for two years of Peace Corps Paraguay, I didn’t think it would actually feel cold there, so I packed one sweatshirt and otherwise summer clothes. I could not have been more wrong. Shortly after I settled in my new home, winter hit. Now, it’s not the type of winter that many Americans think of with feet of snow and days on end below freezing. But it is cold. Buildings are poorly insulated and it can be quite cool inside, even if it’s 65 outside. There were many nights where I slept in long sleeves, a sweatshirt, and a sleeping bag with a hot water bottle (my savior!) So yeah, it does get cold in Paraguay.
At least I had mbejú (pronounced bay – joo). This breakfast food is a winter treat that made the damp temperatures bearable. Made with a mix of cassava and corn flours and loads of butter and cheese, this savory, crumbly, pancake-esque breakfast food is only eaten when it’s cold outside and served with coffee or cocido, tea made with yerba mate. I’ve replaced queso paraguayo (discussed in my chipa post) with Muenster cheese, which is a good substitute for the flavor and texture.
The best thing about mbejú is that it’s fast and easy to make. It’s best eaten fresh (and not so good as leftovers) so you can make one bowl of the dough and cook one up whenever you get a craving.
Start by mixing the flours and making a well in the center. Add salt, cheese, butter, and milk into the well. If you like anise, grind it slightly using the heels of your hands and add here. Not everyone likes the licorice taste, so this can be omitted.
I recommend getting right in there to mix with your hands. This really is the most effective way to achieve the texture you want. I crumbled the cheese with my hands and softened the butter in the microwave to make it easier to mix.
Run the dough through your hands as though you are sifting through sand. Focus on breaking down the larger bits into smaller balls. The final texture is grainy and dry. It’s going to be different than other doughs: small, grainy bits are a good sign for mbejú. When the dough can stick together in your hand while easily breaking apart, that means you’re ready to go.
Cook the dough in a pan on medium-low. You might think that you’re cooking sand, but trust that the magic will happen in the next three minutes. Use a spoon to gently flatten and smush the mbejú together while it cooks, tucking in the rough edges.
After 3 minutes, you’ll need to flip the mbejú. If you can do it using only the pan, good for you! For the rest of us less-talented people, it’s easiest to cover the pan with a plate, swiftly flip it 180 degrees, and then gently slide the mbeju back into the pan to cook the other side.
Eat right away, while it’s warm and cheesy. Don’t wait! This is when mbejú is at it’s best.
Savory Paraguayan Pancake (Mbejú)
20 minutes, makes 6 six-inch mbejú
- 12 ounces cassava flour
- 4 ounces fine corn meal
- 8 ounces Muenster cheese, crumbled
- 8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
- 1/2 teaspoon anise seeds (optional)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon milk (optional)
- Large bowl
- Small frying pan (6″ diameter)
- Mix the cassava flour and corn meal in a large bowl. Make a well in the center.
- Add the crumbled Muenster cheese, butter, anise (if using) and salt in the well.
- Mix with hands, running the dough through your fingers as though you’re sifting sand. Continue until the mixture is grainy with small balls, which will happen after about 10 minutes of mixing. The mixture should be dry, but if it doesn’t stick together at all, add milk.
- Heat an ungreased 6″ frying pan on medium-low heat. Do not grease the pan. Spoon the dough into the pan until the bottom of the pan is covered in a thin layer.
- Cook 3 minutes each side. Gently press the dough down with a spoon to pack it together and even it out. Using the spoon, press the edges in.
- After 3 minutes, flip the mbejú by using a plate. Cover the pan and flip it over in one swift motion. Then gently slide the mbjeú back into the pan to cook the other side for 3 minutes.
- Remove from pan using the plate method. Serve hot.