I made Mariana Velasquez Villegas’s arepas de choclo probably six months ago, right at the peak of sweet corn season, and was immediately seized with the desire to bastardize them into an American breakfast food.
And now that it comes time to write about how I did it, the ratios I followed and the tweaks I made, I’m conflicted about the right way to go about it.
After all, arepas are one of the few pre-colonization traditions that are still widely popular in modern Venezuela and Columbia. For context, Venezuelans eat about 750 arepas per person, per year – that averages out to about two a day!
I’m a white girl from Georgia who made arepas all of once before deciding I wanted to turn them into something that more closely resembles the pancakes I grew up with.
How do I write about that, and do it in a way that neither appropriates nor commodifies an integral part of Columbian and Venezuelan culture?
Arepas: a (brief) history
It seems to me, the best place is to start by honoring the original dish.
There are over 40 different types of corn cake, or arepa, found in Columbia alone. All are based on a type of pre-cooked corn flour, called masa arepa or masarepa.
The preparation method for masarepa is meant to make the hard field corn that grows abundantly in that area more nutritionally available. The production process is both time-consuming and labor-intensive – corn is pounded to remove the tough outer lining and germ, then the remaining bits are cooked, then dried, and ground into a fine flour.
Arepas de choclo are now found all over Columbia, but scholars believe they first appeared in three departments (states) in western Colombia. “Choclo” is the Quechua word for sweet corn – the ingredient that sets this particular arepa apart from the rest.
They are often split and filled with mild cheese, like mozzarella or curds, and are eaten as a part of breakfast, or are served late in the afternoon as a snack with hot chocolate.
The version I first made was a little different – mixing ricotta and Parmesan directly into the batter rather than splitting and folding – and was topped with an avocado and tomato salad that balanced the sweetness perfectly. Honestly, if you’re looking for a great low-effort dinner, I can’t recommend Mariana’s recipe highly enough.
What I changed
I’ve always loved the idea of a cornmeal pancake, but have always found the results both underwhelming and unpleasantly gritty. In that sense, the arepa was a revelation – deeply corn flavored and smooth, with a satisfying dairy sweetness that underscored rather than obscuring the corn. I knew it was the key to unlocking my cornmeal ricotta pancake dreams.
According to Michael Rhulman, a standard American pancake recipe is based on the ratio of 2 parts liquid : 2 parts flour : 1 part egg : 1/2 part butter by weight, with about a teaspoon of leavening per cup of flour. Based on my sample set of “every recipe on the front page of Google written in English,” arepas de choclo don’t seem to follow a common ratio – the measurements (and even the ingredients themselves) varied pretty widely recipe to recipe. Not a lot to compare there.
So, since it was something to hold on to, I started with the pancake ratio, including the corn kernels and ricotta in the weight of the liquid and basing all my proportions on the weight of an egg, since everything else is easier to subdivide.
And let me tell you, my first attempt was thicccccccc. More like a dough than a batter, and very dense and difficult to work with.
I’d forgotten how much starch is in corn – we use cornstarch as a thickener for a reason.
So I settled on doubling the amount of fresh corn and quadrupling the amount of milk, ending up with a pancake ratio that looked a lot more like 4 parts liquid : 2 parts flour : 1 part egg : 1/2 part butter. This batter was significantly easier to work with -with the added bonus of even more corn flavor! They still felt a little dense for pancakes though – which makes sense with so much extra liquid – so I increased the amount of baking powder by about half, which helped a lot.
The resulting pancakes ride the line right between savory and sweet, dense and fluffy. They have just the right amount of corn flavor, the tiniest hint of lactic sweetness from the ricotta, and barely any grit. I love to eat them spread with mascarpone cheese and dolloped with strawberry jam – though they’d be equally at home with a pat of herb butter or a drizzle of honey (or hot honey, if you’re feeling spicy).
The cornmeal ricotta pancakes I ended up with are very different than the source material – lighter and fluffier with less cheese flavor and a more pronounced crumb. In my mind, they’re more a ricotta pancake that borrowed some ingredients and ideas than an arepa in any form – but I want to make sure the people and culture who developed the ingredients and techniques get credit for the ideas that made this dish possible.
- “Colombian arepas and the places they come from.” Colombia.co, https://www.colombia.co/en/colombia-culture/gastronomy/colombian-corn-cakes-and-the-places-they-come-from/#:~:text=Where%20does%20the%20arepa%20de,Valle%20del%20Cauca%2C%20and%20Risaralda.
- Blazes, Marian. “What is Masarepa?” The Spruce Eats, 27 September 2021. https://www.thespruceeats.com/masarepa-precooked-corn-flour-for-making-arepas-3029290
- Puyana, Alejandro. “Arepas Are Conquering The World – But Dying At Home In Venezuela.” NPR – The Salt, 26 July, 2017. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/07/26/538515889/arepas-are-conquering-the-world-but-dying-at-home-in-venezuela.
- Villegas, Mariana Velasquez. “Arepa De Choclo.” Women of Today, https://womenoftoday.com/arepa-de-choclo/
- Rhulman, Michael. “Pancakes!” Rhulman.com, 3 February, 2021. https://ruhlman.com/pancake-ratio/
Cornmeal ricotta pancakes
Yield: about 20 palm-sized pancakes Time: 30 minutes Source: The Eighth Street Mess
Masarepa is a pre-cooked, finely ground corn flour used to make Colombian arepas, empanadas, and tamales – it is often sold under the brand name P.A.N, and I know Goya also sells a version. You should be able to find it in the international foods aisle in your local supermarket. If you can’t find masarepa, you can substitute an equal amount of instant polenta. DO NOT substitute cornmeal or masa harina (maseca). Because neither are pre-cooked, nor ground as finely, they will behave very differently and your batter will end up runny and gritty.
- 122 grams (3/4 cup) masarepa
- 112 grams (3/4 cup) all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 large eggs
- 126 grams (1/2 cup) whole milk ricotta cheese
- 122 grams (1 cup) corn kernels (frozen is fine)
- 235 grams (1 cup) milk
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 55 grams (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted, plus a little extra for greasing the pan
Place a large, heavy-bottomed skillet or griddle on the stove, and begin heating it over medium-low. Don’t add oil or butter yet – it will burn. By the time you finish mixing the batter, your pan should be at just the right temperature.
(Pro tip: to keep yourself from doing something silly, like grabbing it with your bare hands because you forgot you’d been heating it, drape a kitchen towel or hot pad over the handle – well away from the burner – while you mix the batter. Please don’t ask how long it took me to learn this.)
Whisk together the masarepa, flour, salt, and baking powder in a medium bowl. Set aside.
Add the ricotta cheese, corn, milk and sugar to the carafe of a blender or the bowl of a food processor – it truly doesn’t matter which. Blend until you get a smooth puree, stopping to scrape any big chunks down the sides and back into the mix as needed. Once it’s smooth, slowly stream in the butter with the blender or food processor running.
When the butter is fully incorporated, stop the machine and pour the corn and ricotta mixture over the dry ingredients in the bowl. Fold gently to combine. You want to make sure all the dry pockets of flour are broken up. There will be some small lumps remaining – you just don’t want anything much bigger than a pea.
Melt a pat of butter in your now-perfectly-heated skillet. Scoop the batter into the pan – I like about a two-tablespoon-sized pancake, but you can absolutely go bigger or smaller. Depending on how long your batter sits after mixing, you may have to gently encourage the batter to spread with your spoon.
Cook until the edges of the cakes look dry, and small bubbles are starting to come to the surface of the pancake, 2-3 minutes. Flip each cake and cook until the middles of the pancakes feel firm when pressed and you can see light browning around the bottom edge, 2-3 minutes more. Place the pancakes on a wire rack set into a rimmed baking sheet, and slide them into a low oven to keep warm while you finish up cooking the rest of the batter.
Stack them high and drizzle them with butter and honey – or a schmear of mascarpone cheese and strawberry jam. The possibilities are endless.
The cornmeal ricotta pancakes will keep for a day or two on the counter – but they’re so moist they’re going to stale and mold quickly. Your best bet for long-term storage is the freezer, where they’ll keep for about 2 months in a ziplock bag.
To reheat, just grab what you want for breakfast, spread them out in a single layer on a plate, and microwave in 15-second bursts until they’re heated through. Alternately, you can pop them in the toaster – but you’ll need to watch them carefully so they don’t burn.