Pastel de Choclo
Pastel de choclo (“corn cake”) is a dense, savory cake that combines the salty-sweetness of corn muffins, the density of meatloaf, and the layering of shepherd’s pie. It involves a layer of ground corn cooked over a layer of pino (seasoned ground beef), often baked in a paila, a thick earthenware bowl. A vegetarian version can be prepared by omitting the pino and cooking the ground corn as a solid cake. Pastel de choclo is indigenous to both Peru and Chile, where large-grained white choclo (Quechua for fresh white corn) is plentiful. Since it is often eaten cold and has a dense, solid consistency, it is a common “street food” sold from the stands of food vendors.
I remember that once, years ago when I was barely a teenager, my mother invested in an old-fashioned, hand-cranked food grinder and immediately went about making pastel de choclo; she was able to use the grinder to prepare her own ground beef as well as grind her own fresh corn. I’ll admit that the texture that a hand-cranked grinder gives to the corn makes for a more solid and dense cake, but I have to admit that I just grind the corn with an electric food process and it turns out just fine. You can even use bags of off-the-cob frozen corn kernels. The only things to avoid are cans of corn or creamed corn; the liquid used in the canning process increases the moisture levels of the corn and messes with the proportions for this recipe.
A pastel de choclo is a dense savory cake made from ground corn layered with seasoned ground beef. The ground beef filling is prepared first by browning it in a skillet with spices and aromatics. While the meat is left to cool, the corn is ground into a paste and then cooked in a skillet with butter and sugar until thickened. The corn paste and ground beef are layered into a casserole dish or earthenware bowl and then baked until bubbling on top.
There are lots and lots of possible substitutions and alterations to this recipe. To begin with, this recipe can be made vegetarian by omitting the pino (ground beef filling) and instead making a solid block of corn cake. The recipe can also be made gluten-free by not using flour to absorb some of the grease in the ground beef, but instead draining the grease before cooling. The pino usually is made up of garlic, onions, ground beef, cumin, and some paprika. The spices can be substituted (for example, the paprika could be replaced by ground chili peppers or some aji rocoto paste), and some recipes also add raisins, diced hard-boiled eggs, or olives. The beef can also be substituted with other ground meats (lamb, pork, turkey) or even vegetarian substitutes. The corn paste is usually sweetened with some sugar and pre-cooked in butter; it is sometimes flavored with basil leaves. Also, you may need to add corn meal and/or corn starch to the corn paste if you’re using regular American yellow corn, since it is less starchy and more moist than the white choclo that the traditional recipe uses (see the Tips section below). The corn can be replaced by potatoes or yucca (cassava), but I’ve never tried it; I don’t see the point in making a pastel de choclo without corn, but my mom insists that it’s a valid variation. The traditional arrangement of the pastel involves a single layer of pino covered by a single layer of corn paste, but I tend to put a thin layer of corn paste at the bottom of the casserole, which I find helps it cohere when it is cut into pieces. The assembled pastel is often dusted with sugar and sesame seeds before baking.
- VEGETARIAN version: leave out the pino and make the whole cake out of corn (or use a vegetarian substitute for ground beef).
- GLUTEN-FREE version: do not add flour to the pino to make it thicken, but instead drain off most of the grease.
- choclo vs. american sweet corn: the original recipes all assume that you’re using white, large-kerneled choclo,which is a kind of corn that is drier and more starchy than American sweet yellow corn.
- You can sometimes find bags of frozen choclo in South-American food specialty stores (especially ones that specialize in Chilean, Bolivian, Peruvian, or Ecuadorean foodstuffs).
- If that doesn’t work, you can use regular yellow corn, but you’ll need to add some corn meal and some corn starch to help the corn paste bake into a solid mass. In the ingredients list below, I’ve included the amounts of corn meal and corn starch that you would need if you were using yellow corn; if you manage to find some choclo, adjust or eliminate these thickening agents, according to the proportion of choclo to yellow corn.
- DO NOT try to use canned corn or creamed corn as a substitute. They are far too watery and you’ll end up with a sort of runny porridge instead of a savory cake.
- See the image below for a side-by-side view of yellow corn vs. choclo.
Ingredients & Equipment
- a food processor (you can also use an old-fashioned meat-grinder, but that’s a LOT of work; immersion blender or stand blenders are less efficient, but also possible)
- a large, wide-bottomed pan / skillet
- a large casserole dish or earthenware bowl (cast-iron could work, too)
- 1 kg (2 lb) of fresh or frozen UNCOOKED corn kernels (if you’re buying ears of corn, you’ll need about 12 ears)
- IF you are using yellow corn instead of white choclo:
- ½-cup (125 ml) of corn meal
- 2 tbsp of corn starch
- 6-10 tablespoons of granulated sugar (depending on taste; start with 6 and then add more as necessary)
- 1 stick of butter (4 ounces / 120g)
- sesame seeds (optional garnish)
- 1 kg (2 lb) of ground beef
- IF the ground beef is rather fatty, you may need 2 tbsp of flour to thicken it later
- 1 large onion, chopped finely
- 3-4 cloves of garlic, crushed or minced
- 2-3 tablespoons of freshly ground cumin (to taste)
- 1-2 tablespoons of paprika (or something else that is red and imparts the taste of peppers)
- salt and pepper to taste
- nothing. Often eaten cold as a snack or a form of street-food.
- as an appetizer (cut into small squares)
1. If your corn is frozen, thaw it out by leaving it at room temperature for an hour or two (preferably in a sink or a bowl in case water leaks out). If it’s fresh on the cob, cut it off the cob and put it in a large bowl.
2. I cheated in this recipe and used two bags of frozen cut corn: one of yellow (American) corn, and one of white (Andean) choclo corn. As mentioned earlier, yellow corn has less starch than white “choclo,” so you’ll be adjusting for this later by adding corn starch and corn meal. Make note of the proportion of yellow to white kernels (roughly, you don’t need to count them!)
3. Pino (the filling): In a very large pan over medium heat, place the ground beef and the finely-diced onion and garlic. Don’t bother with any oil, as the fat from the beef will provide all the grease you need. Break up the meat with a wooden spoon and mix with the onions and garlic.
7. Unless you bought extra-extra-lean ground beef, there’s probably a fair bit of grease in your pan now. You have two choices. You can drain most of the grease out of the pan (gluten-free-friendly option), or you can sprinkle about two tablespoons of flour over the meat, mix thoroughly, and allow about 5 minutes for the flour to cook and absorb the fat. Repeat if necessary, until the pino is relatively dry; then, move it to a large bowl and allow it to cool.
10. Place the corn puree in the pan, add the sugar, corn meal, and corn starch, and mix well. If you are using only yellow corn, use the proportions of corn meal and corn starch listed in the ingredients above. If you’re using a 50/50 mixture of yellow and white, reduce these proportions by half. If you’re using only white corn, do not add any corn meal or corn starch.
13. Add the pino to create another layer, leaving at least a finger’s width of space for another layer of corn mixture. (In this picture, I’ve replaced the meat layer with corn on one side for my vegetarian guests.)
14. Carefully lay the final layer of corn mixture by placing them in evenly-spaced dollops and then smoothing out with the back of your spoon. Sprinkle the top lightly with sugar and sesame seeds (optional).
15. Cook at 375ºF (190ºC) until the top of the corn mixture is bubbling gently (usually 40 mins). Then, turn the heat up very high and check every 1-2 minutes until the top begins to turn golden brown. Be careful! This can burn very easily.