Pupusas have been sustaining Central Americans since pre-Columbian times. And when a food has that kind of longevity, you know it has to be good. Though Salvadorans and Hondurans both lay claim to the recipe, in El Salvador it is considered the national dish. There, these enticing packages are made by stuffing cheese, beans, braised meat, or a combination thereof into a ball of corn flour dough called masa. The ball is flattened into a 4- or 5-inch disk and cooked on a comal (a dry cast-iron griddle) until the tender corn cake forms a spotty‑brown, crisp shell. Garnished with curtido (a bright slaw) and a spicy salsa, the result is downright irresistible.
The Salvadoran cooks I’ve seen shape pupusas look like they could do it in their sleep: They work masa into a fist-size cup, spoon in the filling, and pinch the dough closed to form a ball before slapping it back and forth between their hands to create a disk. Sound easy? It isn’t. The first time I tried, it was obvious I was a novice. Using a dough made with the usual ratio of 2 parts masa harina (corn flour) to 1 part water, I formed the cakes as best I could. But the masa was too dry, which caused the pupusas to crack and the filling to spill out.
Using hot tap water instead of cool, as some recipes suggest, worked better since heat causes the starch in corn to absorb more water (just as it does in wheat flour). But boiling water was even more effective, allowing me to superhydrate the 2 cups of masa harina with a full 2 cups of water. Now the dough was a dream to handle, and the cakes cooked up as moist as could be.
But although the dough was no longer sticky, my pupusas were still thick at the centers and thin at the edges—even after all my practice. The filling never spread to the edges, leaving all but the centermost bites tasting of plain dough.
I decided to try a riff on our technique for making tortillas. I rolled my superhydrated masa into a ball, placed it inside a zipper-lock bag that I’d cut open at the seams, and used a glass pie plate to press it into a disk. I turned the disk out into my palm, placed some filling (more on that next) in the center, and gathered the dough to form a ball, which I again pressed with the pie plate to form a perfectly round pupusa of even thickness. Even a newbie could pull this off.
As for the filling, basic pupusas are stuffed with a fresh Salvadoran cheese called quesillo. Some recipes suggest swapping in mozzarella, but we found it too bland. Instead, I landed on a mix of Monterey Jack for its meltability and Mexican cotija for its salty tang.
These perfectly flat, round pupusas, stuffed from edge to edge with salty, supple cheese, might fool someone into thinking I’d been making them all my life.