Introduction: Cheating Cheetos

Ever wonder how those crunchy snacks are made? Strange ingredients, strange techniques? Well, kind of. A recipe for crunchy cheese puffs dropped into my inbox one morning by way of a food blog, The Splendid Table. There was a beautiful photo of what appeared to be Cheetos. Of course they couldn't call it that. The folks at Frito-Lay wouldn't be too pleased. It was a recipe from a book called Real Snacks: Make Your Favorite Childhood Treats Without All the Junk, by Lara Ferroni.  I just had to try it. As you can see, mine didn't turn out quite as true to the cat I was trying to copy, but I also had to mix up the recipe. Because...that's just the way I am. But alas....I did create a tasty and somewhat addictive snack. It has a crunchy exterior and a bit of a chew in the center. The groundwork is laid. So many possibilities to alter the flavors with different cheeses and herbs and spices. 

Step 1: Ingredients

The ingredient list is short, but the technique is somewhat long. This a quite a project, for not a lot of snacking. I felt a tad like a mad scientist. But...just had to do it. I've had this recipe tucked in my back pocket for several months. 

1/2 cup tapioca starch (Bob's Red Mill)
2 tablespoons fine corn meal
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 ounce hard cheese, finely grated (Parmesan)
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 cup water
2 cups peanut oil
salt, to taste
pinch chipotle chili powder
finely grated Parmesan for garnish

Step 2: Mixing the Dough

This is the easiest step: Place the tapioca, cornmeal, salt, sugar, cheese, and paprika in a food processor and let it run for about a minute. Open the lid on the hole on top of the machine, and while it is running slowly pour the water in. Stop the machine and scrape down the sides. Process for a few more second until you have a rather strange mass. It's kind of like play-dough, but spreads out a bit. Scrape it out of the machine and form into a ball. Flatten it out to about 1/4-inch thick.

Step 3: Steaming the Dough

Set up a steamer. I have a little silicon steamer that fits into my largest soup pot. Pour about an inch of water in the pot and place the steamer in the pot. Place the flattened dough on a square of parchment paper that will fit on top of the steamer. Gently lower it onto the steamer, trying not to get any water on it. Cover the pot, bring the water to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 1 hour. After the dough has steamed for an hour it has darkened in color and become rubbery. Let the pot cool for a few minutes, so you don't burn your hands. Remove the dough, on the paper, and let cool at room temperature. Flip the dough over so it can dry on the other side. I allowed about 20 minutes on each side. 

Step 4: Dehydrating

Here's the long step: like 10 hours! 
Cut the dough into strips, about 1/4-inch by 2-inches. Lay them on the tray of a dehydrator, and dry for 8-10 hours, until they are no longer squishy. At this point the original recipe said you could store them in an air-tight jar for up to 3 months. (I didn't have time for that. Deadline for the contest is in two days, and I was now really wondering how these plastic looking things were going to puff up and be edible.)

Step 5: Frying

OK, so now you've got little orange sticks that could crack a tooth, and look like something that broke off a toy. Time to play with fire! You will need about 2 cups oil. I used peanut oil, but canola would work too. I like to use my wok to deep fry, as it's got lots of surface to catch the spatters, and doesn't use as much oil as a straight sided pot would. Heat the oil to 365 degrees F. Fry 8-10 sticks at a time for about a minute to a minute and a half. Stir with a strainer or tongs to flip them over to fry evenly. Remove from the oil and drain on a paper towel. Sprinkle immediately with salt and chipotle powder (if you like a little heat) and garnish with additional Parmesan cheese. 
They really puff up, with lots of bubbles on the outside. Taste the first ones, after they have cooled a minute, to see if they are too chewy. If so, fry a little longer on the next batch. 

Step 6: Snack Away

This was quite a project which took 2 days to make and 2 minutes to eat. Hungry late night snackers! I love the idea of using different cheese: Cheddar is the classic, how about blue cheese or Swiss? Onion powder? Garlic salt? Dill or Rosemary?  The possibilities are endless. Let me know how you cheat the Cheetos. 

Copycat Recipes Contest

Runner Up in the
Copycat Recipes Contest