Thursday, 19 June 2008

Buñuelos y Natilla - Colombian Cheese Fritters and Custard

Not-quite-round Buñuelos and Natilla

A Savoury and Sweet Colombian Pair
Buñuelos and Natilla are traditional Colombian Christmas snacks. Buñuelos are of hispanic origin and different versions are popular all over Latin America. The Colombian variety are savoury cheese fritters made of "farmer's cheese" or queso fresco. While some Colombians prefer to serve buñuelos with hot chocolate, my friend, Jairo, prefers it with natilla. Natilla is a firm custard that is thickened with cornstarch rather than eggs. I was not sure how a savoury cheese puff would go well with a sweet custard, so I asked Jairo to explain how one would go about consuming these snacks. According to him: "You eat them separately, first you bite a piece of natilla and after that you bite your buñuelo, just delicious".

Thanks to Jairo, I've discovered two new recipes and the cultural stories that come with it. I never knew these snacks existed till last week when I asked Jairo what dessert he missed from home. His birthday was round the corner and special occasions are always good inspirations for me to bake/cook something different.

Adapting the Original Recipes
While researching the recipes, I discovered that a lot of Colombians make buñuelos and natilla from packet mixes because it was quicker and still tasted great. Thankfully, a blogger with Colombian roots, Paola, came to my rescue with the recipes of how to make them from scratch. The original recipes are from the book called Secrets of Colombian Cooking by Patricia McCausland-Gallo.

Then, I came across another problem - finding the right ingredients or substitutions. I could not find the correct cheese that is required for the fritters and also the panela (similar to jaggery in Indian cuisine) for the natilla. Fortunately, Jairo said that I can be creative with my interpretation, so I did. Queso fresco is made by pressing the whey from cottage cheese and therefore a substitute could be Indian paneer or mild feta. My local grocery store sold out of paneer (!!) so I went with an Australian-style feta, which is a creamier, milder version of the Greek feta.

Kitchen Notes
Buñuelo: If there are any Colombians reading this right now, you must be wondering why my buñuelos are not round. They are supposed to look like this. Due to my adaptation of the recipe, I got a softer dough that refused to be rolled into balls. Instead of adding more cornflour, I tried my best to make a round-ish shape with two spoons before slipping it into the hot oil (FYI: This is my first time deep-frying anything). Hence the rustic look of these buñuelos (don't you just love the word "rustic"). I almost threw the dough away and thought of just giving Jairo the natilla. But I remembered what he told me: "You know, having natilla without buñuelos would be almost a capital sin." I just had to pray real hard that somehow he will like these imperfect-looking buñuelos that were made of feta.

Natilla: I had better luck with the natilla, it tasted so good, even if I didn't use panela. I added golden syrup because it gave the natilla a deeper flavour. Paola remembers her aunt stirring the natilla for hours on Christmas Eve. Fortunately, I didn't have to stir it for hours, but I did cook it long enough to remove the "raw" taste of the cornstarch and for the mixture to thicken.

The Verdict
Jairo considers my experiment a success (he is such a sweet guy, so I hope he was not just being nice). I liked the texture of these buñuelos use it's airy and pillowy inside although Jairo said that the original is more compact than these. As for the natilla, it was hard not to eat spoonfuls of it, so very moreish!

You judge for yourself :-) Here are the recipes of my version (interpretation) of buñuelos y natilla.

~ Buñuelos ~
Colombian-style Cheese Fritters
(original recipe by Patricia McCausland-Gallo here)

Golden brown and slightly crisp on the outside, and pillowy soft an airy on the inside.

200g feta (or paneer) cheese
1/2 cup cornstarch
1 tbsp caster sugar
1 large egg
Vegetable oil (e.g. peanut, sunflower, canola) for deep-frying

Place the cheese in a bowl and break it up with a fork. (If using paneer, you may need to add a salt to taste). Crack the egg on top of the cheese. Using a hand-held blender, blend the cheese with the eggs to form a smooth paste. You can also use a food processor. Add the sugar and cornstarch and mix it with a spatula till it is well blended.

Heat up a few inches of oil in a pot. Over medium heat, drop teaspoonfuls in the oil (I used two spoons to do this - use one spoon to scrape the dough off the other spoon). I cooked about 6-7 fritters at a time. The fritters should expand or "puff up" after about 30 seconds and shouldn't brown too quickly. If it does brown too quickly, then the temperature of the oil is too hot, so lower the heat slightly. This is not the traditional way to fry the fritters, see the original instructions for that. Turn the fritters occasionally so that they are golden brown all over, then remove the fritters with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel.

Serve slightly warm or at room temperature with natilla. Cool completely if you want to store them in an airtight container.

Mixing the ingredients to a smooth dough.

My first time deep-frying anything ever!!

~ Natilla ~
Columbian Christmas Custard
inspired by the recipe by Patricia McCausland-Gallo)

Natilla firms up as it cools

2 cups whole milk
1/4 cup cream
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 heaped tsp golden syrup
1 stick cinnamon
pinch of salt
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 tbsp butter
ground cinnamon for garnishing

Place 1 cup of the milk, sugar, syrup, cinnamon and salt in a pot and simmer over low heat till the sugar and syrup has dissolved completely. Do not let the mixture boil.

In a small bowl, stir the remaining 1 cup of milk and the cornstarch until completely dissolved. Stir it into the sugar mixture on the stovetop.

Raise the temperature slightly and stir continuously to "cook" the cornstarch (the taste of uncooked flour is awful). Add the cream, then raise the heat again to medium, continuously stir and scrape the bottom of the pot until the mixture has thickened.

Remove the pot from the heat, add the butter, mix well and remove the cinnamon sticks. Pour the mixture into a mould or serving dish. You can coat the mould with oil spray and it will unmold very easily if you prefer to serve it on a platter. Sprinkle with the ground cinnamon. Let it cool and set before serving (it will be firm).


Eva said...

It's too bad that I wasn't in the lab to try some...Tobi told me that it was delicious indeed! And I'm sure Jairo was more than happy!

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

I've only had buñuelos in Mexico, where as I recall they are much crispier and a different shape entirely. So these look like something I'd want to try. The natilla -- somewhat like a dulce de leche?

Anonymous said...

Well done Nora !! as I told you I was more than happily impressed with the final result :) it brought to my mind tons of good memories...

When I told you about "natilla y buñuelos" I was worried about the ingredients and all what needs to be done in the cooking process. To Deep-fry those buñuelos, for example, is an art itself; to adjust the temperature is a bit tricky. And regarding Natilla, the stirring is so important to get a nice texture. You Nora, managed to do it all !!

Thank you so much for that birthday present !

Please let me know if you ever prepare it again :)

My best regards,


nika said...

Hi there, this is Nika (you referred to my Colombian bunuelos with hot chocolate). My experience in Colombia was to have the bunuelos, hot chocolate and natilla (as well as tamal and a whole fritanga and too much aquardiente and rum) at christmas (which lasts at least a month there)

I do not show natilla on my blog because I dont like it, at all. When people make it poorly, yikes. When its at its best, I can eat a nibble, not much more.

Your bunuelos look fantastic!

Nora B. said...

Hi Eva - I'm sorry that I had to make it on Tuesday, I know it is your work day. That was the only day off that I had the car as well. Garth liked it as well.


Lydia - Yes, the Mexican buñuelos are quite different. I don't even think there is any cheese in the Mexican version, i could be wrong. I would love to visit Mexico, or even Colombia - never been to both places. The natilla does remind me of dulce de leche, but less sticky consistency.


Jairo - Glad to know that you are so pleased with the final results. I like learning new things. Such a simple recipe, but so many things can go wrong. I hope to taste the real stuff in the future. What is your next request? ;-)


Hi Nika! Thanks for dropping by and sharing your experiences. I think I would have the buñuelos with all the accompaniments that you have with Christmas. One month is a good duration for a celebration :-)

p/s: Considering that you know how to make perfectly-shaped buñuelos, I am flattered by your compliment on my buñuelos.

Aimée said...

Hi Nora- Love the new look of the blog, very fresh and exciting, just like the content!
I could gobble up a plate of these SO fast. They sound amazing!

Eva said...

If you ever make it again, I hope I'm on your list to try some..;-)

Anh said...

Yum yum! I love fritters but currently on a stricter eating regime so it won't be in my cooking list for a while :)

I am gonna go to Sydney soon. Got some serious work there, but I will try to indulge myself, too! :P

winedeb said...

Great post Nora! I love it when I can learn something entirely new when visiting!
Your new site is great! I like your format as it is very pleasant to read:)

Flanboyant Eats said...

oh my gosh we have a great bunuelo recipe too and I haven't made it in years!!!! it's on the summer to cook list!

Paola said...

Wow Nora! You have amazed me!! It all looks SOOOO good! I especially love the texture of the bunuelos inside! Yummmm! And Jairo is right- natilla without bunuelos is just not an option! Anyhow, when did you say I could stop by??? ;)


KJ said...

I have never heard of these before. They look so interesting. I hope to try them one day.

Big Boys Oven said...

this fritters are such a winner to me! wow!

winedeb said...

Oh my gosh Nora, Gordon Ramsey!!! I am so excited for you and jealous! I have a wonderful cookbook of his and watch Hell's Kitchen religiously! He is too cool! Have a great time and I cannot wait to hear your story! You actually get to meet him?

Kevin said...

Cheese fritters sound really good!

Nora B. said...

Aimée - Thanks, dear. I am still playing around with the template and hoping to take some new photos for the header.

As for the cheese puffs, I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would - I'm not usually a fan of deep-fried stuff, except maybe homemade doughnuts :-)


Eva - Of course!!!


Anh - I don't eat deep-fried stuff usually as well. With winter here, and being less active due to my busy work schedule, I also have to watch out with what I eat.

Looking forward to seeing you in Sydney!


Deb - Thank you! I am still not completely satisfied, but there is little I can do since I am not website savvy with all these html codes, etc.

As for Gordan Ramsay, well, he was quite far away from me unfortunately during the cooking demo at the celebrity theater that was part of the Sydney Good Food and Wine Show, I was hoping to at least get a photo with him after the cooking demo but his popularity is growing so rapidly, the crowd was so thick and boisterous that I couldn't even get through to the front during the book signing. :-( Never mind...he's opening a restaurant in Sydney or Melbourne and also doing a TV show here as well. It's starts filming around Christmas time. Maybe I'll get a chance to bump into him next year :-)


Flanboyant Eats - Can't wait to see your version and recipe :-)


Paola - Thank you my dear. I hope that you are having a fabulous time in France. And you can drop by anytime you are downunder :-)


KJ - There were rather interesting when I first heard of it. That's why I just had to try it for myself.


Sunny - Thank you! :-)


Kevin - They were better than I expected, so it was a relief :-)

Susan said...

Deep frying is more science than art, Nora, what w/ keeping the oil temp properly regulated...

Your fritters look really good, no matter their shape. Feliz Navidad!

The Cooking Ninja said...

wow! This looks so good. Unfortunately my kitchen has no ventilation hood yet (we are waiting to install it when we renovate it) so deep frying is really out of the question in this hot summer weather in France.

Madam Chow said...

I love these! I used to live in Colombia, and buñuelos, arepas, and almojabanas elicit fond memories. I'm thrilled that you posted the recipe - you wouldn't happen to have one for almojabanas, would you?

Nora B. said...

Susan - Thank you! Although this was my first time deep-frying, I've seen my mom and grandma do it many times before, so luckily I had some inkling as to what to do.


C-Ninja - I can't imagine deep-frying in hot weather, but my faimly does it once in a while in Singapore weather - can you imagine!?


Madam Chow - Thanks for dropping by. Unfortunately, I do not have the recupe for almojabanas. i don't even know what it is. You can try e-mailing Paola (I mentioned her blog in this post). Good luck with the search.

Shital said...

Hi Nora,
I heard very good comments regarding your recipe. feel sorry to have missed it. However, I am going to try your recipe at the weekend. Hope it turns out well.
Let me know if you like some spicy stuff, can share some spicy stuff or some sweet deserts.

We Are Never Full said...

i LOVE bunuelos!! my local columbian restaurants makes a mean batch. thanks for the inspiration - i think i may make some in the near future.

Anonymous said...

Hi!! I just find this recipes and I have to say... not always buñuelso are rounded.. so don't worry!!
My grant-aunt (I don't know if it's correct in English) was a great cooker and she used to cook buñuelos and they were never rounded, it's because the cheese and oil temperature, and she put something called melao on them... Melao is made with panela and a little of water.

Nora B. said...

Thank you so much for your comment. I feel better now knowing that it's all not supposed to be so round like the ones I've seen on the internet. I think those ones are usually made from the box (mix). Melao sounds like a healthier version of natilla :-)

Take care,

igor said...

Que buenos recuerdos!!! Greatr memories.