Crunchy Cheese Puffs

Lara Ferroni
It's no small feat to create perfectly textured Crunchy Cheese Puffs. First you make one of the weirdest doughs you've ever made. Then you steam it. Then you dry it. And then, only then, do you fry it. But I think somewhere out there are people like me who are just nutty enough to take on the challenge. Do be aware that the puffs need to dry for up to 10 hours so plan accordingly. 
 
These puffs are naturally gluten-free.
 
See also: Lara Ferroni's Corn Chip Strips

Ingredients
  • 1/2 cup (90 grams) tapioca starch 
  • 1/8 cup (20 grams) finely ground corn flour (not masa harina) 
  • 1 teaspoon salt 
  • 1 teaspoon cane sugar 
  • 1 ounce grated, loosely packed sharp cheddar cheese (or cheese of your choice), melted with 1 tablespoon of water 
  • 1/8 to 1/4 cup (1 to 2 ounces) hot water, plus more for steaming 
  • Safflower oil, for frying 
  • Salt 
  • Cheese Powder (recipe follows) 
Procedure

Bring a large pot of water, fitted with a steamer tray, to a boil. Line the steamer with a lightly oiled sheet of parchment. 

Combine the tapioca starch, corn flour, salt, and sugar in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the dough blade. Add the melted cheese and pulse until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. With the food processor running, drizzle in the hot water until a thick dough starts to form and pull away a little from the sides of the bowl. The texture will be quite strange--a little like cheese or tofu in consistency--and it will ooze if left sitting. 

Pull the dough together and place it in the center of the parchment in the steamer. Lightly press it down to about 1/4 inch thick. Steam until the dough is rubbery and slightly translucent throughout, 45 minutes to 1 hour. 

Remove the parchment with the dough still on it and let it cool to room temperature. Remove the dough from the parchment, flip it over, and let it stand to dry slightly. Once the dough is not too sticky to handle, slice it into 1/4-by-3/4-inch strips, rolling each strip between your fingers a little to round it. 

Place the dough pieces on the tray of a food dehydrator and dehydrate until the sticks are crisp throughout, 6 to 10 hours. (If you don't have a dehydrator, place the sticks on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake at 150°F--or as low as your oven will go--with the door slightly propped open, for 6 to 8 hours. Once the sticks are completely dried, you can store them in an airtight container for up to 3 months. 

When you are ready to fry your puffs, place a wire rack over a baking sheet. Heat at least 2 1/2 inches of oil in a heavy-bottomed pot to 370°F. Fry the sticks in batches of 6 to 10 (depending on the size of your pot), until they puff and the bubbling oil calms, about 30 seconds to a minute. Remove the puffs with a slotted spoon and place them on the rack to cool. Test a puff. If it's a little chewy, fry the next batch a bit longer. Repeat with the remaining sticks. Place the puffs in a paper bag, season generously to taste with salt and Cheese Powder, and shake the bag gently to coat. 

Although not really cheesy, you can make vegan Onion Puffs by adding 1 tablespoon Onion Powder (recipe follows) plus a teaspoon of dried green onions to the flours and leaving out the cheese. You'll need to increase the hot water to 1/3 cup. Sprinkle the fried puffs with nutritional yeast and salt to taste instead of the Cheese Powder. 

Cheese Powder

About 1/2 cup powder


I learned this trick of turning almost any cheese into a powder from Seattle Food Geek's Scott Heimendinger, whose DIY molecular gastronomy is always as entertaining as it is informative. Scott makes his own tapioca granules by grinding up small pearl tapioca in a spice grinder, but starting with tapioca starch is a bit quicker and makes a lighter, fluffier cheese powder. I use cheddar here, but you can use any favorite cheese. Have fun!

Ingredients
  • 2 ounces grated cheddar cheese 
  • 1 teaspoon water 
  • 1/4 to 1/3 cup (35 to 60 grams) tapioca starch 
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt 
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar
Procedure

Preheat the oven to its lowest setting, 170F to 200F. Line a baking sheet with parchment or a silicone baking mat and set aside.

Combine the cheese and water in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring until the cheese has melted. Stir constantly so the cheese doesn't brown.

Combine the melted cheese and 35 grams of the tapioca starch in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. If the mixture begins to resemble dough, add a bit more tapioca starch, and pulse again. Continue to add tapioca starch until the crumbs feel dry to the touch.

Spread the cheese crumbs evenly on the prepared baking sheet and bake until the cheese crumbs are completely dry, about 45 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes. Pulse in a spice grinder or blender, along with the salt and sugar, until the mixture is a fine powder. If the mixture is too moist, add another 10 to 20 grams of tapioca starch. Store the cheese powder in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks, or in the freezer for up to 1 month.

While there is no perfect vegan variation for this powder, you can use nutritional yeast or powdered Vegan Cashew Cream (recipe follows) as a substitution.

Onion or Garlic Powder

About 1/2 cup powder


While a food dehydrator will do a better job of preserving the pale color of onions and garlic, your oven on its lowest temperature will do the job and create dried slices that are easily pulverized into a sweet, caramel-colored powder. For a fragrant salt, mix one part powder with two parts fine salt. You can also use this method to create shallot, chile, or bell pepper powder.

Ingredients
  • 1/2 pound onion or garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
Procedure

Place the onion or garlic slices on the tray of a food dehydrator and dehydrate for 6 to 8 hours until the slices are completely dry. Use a spice grinder to mill into a fine powder. 

If you do not have a food dehydrator, preheat the oven to 150F. Line a baking sheet with foil. Spread the onion or garlic slices evenly over the prepared baking sheet and bake until dry, about 3 hours. Cool to room temperature and use a spice grinder to mill into a fine powder. Store in an airtight container up to 1 month.

Vegan Cashew Cream

About 1/2 cup cream or 1/3 cup powder


This cream is a great substitution whenever you need sour cream, and can be dehydrated as a great vegan variation for the Sour Cream Powder.

Ingredients
  • 1/4 cup raw cashews 
  • 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice 
  • 1/2 teaspoon apple cider vinegar 
  • Salt 
  • 1/4 to 1/3 cup water
Procedure

Soak the cashews in water for 1 to 2 hours. 

Drain the cashews, then blend with the lemon juice, vinegar, a pinch of salt, and the water until creamy and smooth. 

For powdered Vegan Cashew Cream, dehydrate the cream by following the Sour Cream Powder instructions below. 

Sour Cream Powder

About 1/3 cup powder


Dehydrated sour cream is a great addition to any chip seasoning. Follow this same process to make powdered yogurt, which is great anywhere you'd use powdered sour cream.

Ingredients
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
Procedure

Spread the sour cream very thinly with an offset spatula over strips of parchment. Place the strips on the tray of a food dehydrator and dehydrate until the sour cream becomes mostly transparent and fully dry, about 5 hours. 

If you do not have a food dehydrator, preheat the oven to 150F (or as low as your oven will go). Line a baking sheet with parchment. Spread the sour cream very thinly with an offset spatula over the parchment. If your oven has a fan, turn it on, and cook until the sour cream is completely dry, 4 to 5 hours.

Scrape the dried sour cream off the parchment (it should easily release) and into a food processor, blender, or spice grinder. Blend to a fine powder. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks, or in the freezer for up to 1 month.

(c)2012 By Lara Ferroni. All rights reserved. Excerpted from Real Snacks: Make Your Favorite Childhood Treats Without All the Junk by permission of Sasquatch Books.

Yield: 
3 to 4 cups puffs

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