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News / Life / Clark County Life

Pay de queso is just right for celebrating Pi Day – or distracting from a daughter’s milestone

Mexican cheesecakes take a little planning and a lot of chilling time

By Monika Spykerman, Columbian staff writer
Published: March 13, 2024, 6:03am
5 Photos
With queso fresco, cream cheese, condensed milk, vanilla and a hint of honey, this Mexican cheesecake is the bee&rsquo;s knees.
With queso fresco, cream cheese, condensed milk, vanilla and a hint of honey, this Mexican cheesecake is the bee’s knees. (Photos by Monika Spykerman/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

When I ruminate on the fact that I have a 21-year-old daughter, it makes me feel a bit woozy, like I’m standing on the roof of a skyscraper. I can see the view but I just can’t believe it’s real. Nevertheless, there she is, walking around and being competent and doing adult things as though she never was an embryo.

We wanted to celebrate this milestone birthday with more than a phone call to Bellingham, where she’s a junior at Western Washington University. We decided to meet in Seattle. We arrived after dark, feeling rather peckish. We searched around for quick eats and found a fantastic Mexican food truck. For dessert, we grabbed two pay de queso tarts. I’d never had this treat before but the lady who took our order told us it was like cheesecake, so naturally I was all in.

We ate dinner and then opened our little cheese pies. The crust was slightly sweet and the pale custard filling was very firm, smooth and redolent of vanilla. It was not frontloaded with sugar, as many cheesecakes are. It flirted with sweet but never made a commitment one way or the other. It was a totally novel taste experience and one I’m eager to repeat.

I thought it would be fitting to make this in honor of Pi Day, a celebration of the mathematical symbol π, representing the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Type π into a calculator and you’ll get 3.141592654. Someone far wiser than me therefore decided that March 14 (3.14) is Pi Day and should be celebrated with Pi’s homonym, pie. Whoever this person is, I wish they were running the world, because it might be a much nicer place.

The important thing about pay de queso is that it takes a little planning (not my forte). All the ingredients should be room temperature when the pie-making commences, so you must remember to take the ingredients out of the fridge a couple hours beforehand. After the pie is baked, it should chill for at least six hours or overnight to achieve maximum firmness. You don’t want gooshy pie.

But first, let’s talk about the Maria biscuit crust. Maria biscuits are thin, crunchy, semisweet cookies. You could plausibly call them sweet crackers. I found them at my local grocery store with the cookies. If you can’t get Maria biscuits, the closest equivalent would be graham crackers or vanilla wafers, but those are decidedly sweeter than Marias — a fact which might not bother your sweet tooth at all.

Next, the queso fresco. This is a soft, white, whole milk cheese that tastes like feta and ricotta got married and had a baby. It’s moderately salty and a little tangy with a mellow finish. Look for the round package among the soft cheeses at your grocery store. You’ll have plenty left after this recipe, which you can use on tacos, enchiladas, in salads and on pizza.

To make the crust, melt 1 stick of butter and allow it to cool. While it’s cooling, set the oven to 375 degrees and put 30 Maria biscuits in a plastic bag and pound or roll them into fine crumbs with a rolling pin. (I prefer pounding because it alerts bystanders that I mean business.) Pour the crumbs (just under a full cup) into a bowl with the butter. Use your hands to squish everything together until all the crumbs are moistened. If you don’t want crumb-coated hands, well, use a fork or spoon, but it’s not as much fun. Press the buttered crumbs very firmly into the bottom of a pie plate (not deep dish) or tart pan. Start in the center and move out, pressing crumbs up the side of the pan. Keep pressing until you have a layer of uniform thickness, then refrigerate it for 15 minutes.

Now put everything else — condensed and evaporated milk, eggs, vanilla, cinnamon, honey, cream cheese and queso fresco — into a blender or food processor and mix on high for about 30 seconds or until the texture is extremely smooth. You don’t want undermixed chunks, but you also don’t want froth, because that could overflow when cooking. The honey is optional. It tips the pie into unequivocally sweet territory but it adds a lovely flavor. For a less-sweet pie, reduce the honey or omit it altogether. There’s plenty of sugar in the condensed milk.

Remove the crust from the fridge, put it on a baking sheet (to protect oven from drips, just in case) and pour in the filling. Place it ever so carefully in the oven (beware of sloshing) and bake for 40-45 minutes or until light brown and only slightly jiggly in the middle. Cool completely and then refrigerate it overnight, or at least six hours, before slicing. The filling should be thin but dense and cut easily. Serve with fresh fruit, a dollop of jam or caramel sauce. And remember: Whether you’re 21 or 51, life is what you bake of it.

Pay de queso

  • Filling:

2/3 cup (half a 12-ounce can or 6 ounces) evaporated milk

½ cup (half a 14-ounce can or 7 ounces) condensed milk

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1-2 tablespoons honey (optional)

Half an 8-ounce brick (4 ounces) softened cream cheese

¼ cup queso fresco (2 ounces)

  • Crust:

30 Maria cookies (most of a cup when crushed to fine powder)

1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter, melted and cooled

Put cookies in a sealed plastic bag and pound or roll them with a rolling pin until they’re a fine powder. Pour crumbs into bowl and add melted butter. Mix until fully moistened and press firmly into the bottom of a pie plate (not deep dish) or tart pan. Crumb layer should be level and cover the sides of the pan. Refrigerate 15-20 minutes.

Move the oven rack to one slot below middle and heat the oven to 375 degrees. Use a blender or food processor on high to mix condensed and evaporated milk, eggs, vanilla, honey, cinnamon, cream cheese and queso fresco until very smooth, about 30 seconds. Put the chilled crust on a baking sheet. Pour filling into crust and carefully place in oven.

Bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until filling is slightly browned and the middle is barely jiggly. Cool for one hour then refrigerate six hours or overnight. Cut and serve; use a pie server to make sure each piece is supported as you ease it out of the pan.