“Papas a la Huancaína” History and Recipe

Despite widespread misinformation (e.g.: Wikipedia) Papas a la Huancaína means "Potatoes of the Lady from Huancayo."

Despite widespread misinformation (e.g.: Wikipedia) Papas a la Huancaína means “Potatoes of the Lady from Huancayo.”

For those who have already traveled to Perú, no doubt they’ve had or at least seen this popular Peruvian classic dish consisting of cold potatoes served with a cheese sauce. Made from only a few ingredients the entire dish can be made in the time it takes to boil a few potatoes (papas). But the dish isn’t popular just because it is easy to make, the cheese sauce is rich and delicately balanced and when served with potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, lettuce and  black (Kalamata) olives the flavor combination cross the spectrum from  cheesy, spicy, salty, bitter, starchy and bland.

Papas a la Huancaína is quintessentially Peruvian and undoubtedly Andean. Made with the spicy and flavorful Aji Amarillo, Perú’s most popular cooking pepper (seemingly found in nearly every dish!), it is good when served over nearly all of the hundreds of varieties of potatoes I’ve tried, not just papas blancas or papas amarillas (white or yellow potatoes). This region, the Mantaro Valley, has 3,000 varieties of  potatoes. The cheese sauce is commonly found on Peruvian tables as an excellent accompaniment to many other dishes (like pasta). Extranjeros (foreigners) like me tend to go overboard and use the sauce on everything. A recent French visitor friend of mine loved to spread it on French bread, I love it on top of most things Peruvian and many things not like: chili beans, tacos, salad, french fries, in potato salad, and as a dipping sauce for chips and strangely pizza.

So what is the history of this dish? As told me by my best Peruvian friend, dozens of Huancaínas (ladies from Huancayo) that I often chat with while buying their potatoes, peppers and cheese in the local Huancayo markets and as also partially documented in local books I’ve read:

The sauce was either developed by and/or named after a farming peasant lady from Huancayo who had, at the time, traveled from her farm in Huancayo, to La Oroya to sell her potatoes to the miners and the railroad workers. The railroad was just being built from Lima to La Oroya and finally to Huancayo to carry the gold ore from the mines to Lima to be smelted, as well as food and passengers between Lima and Huancayo. Taking advantage of the train and the workers, the woman thought that she would be able to get a better price for her potatoes in La Oroya because the area was much too high and cold to grow nearly anything (including potatoes). Despite her optimism, she wasn’t having much luck fetching the prices she wanted. So partially out of desperation, because she was cleaver and a good cook, she quickly threw this sauce together using only the common ingredients she was selling. It seems that there were other similar potato dishes but her recipe somehow stood out as better. Some say it was the thickness of her sauce or that maybe the addition of peppers was her innovation. Undoubtedly, the railroad workers loved her sauce and each week she travelled back and forth from Huancayo to La Oroya selling her new creation. When she wasn’t anywhere to be found, folks in La Oroya used to say: “Where is that Lady from Huancayo with her potatoes?”, which was something like: ¿Dónde están las Papas a la Huancaína? And, when she was around folks would say: “Tengo las Papas a la Huancaína!” which roughly translates as “I’ve got the potatoes from the Lady from Huancayo!”

Later in 1908 railroad organizers holding an event decided that Papas a la Huancaína would be named officially the dish commemorating the inauguration of the worlds highest railroad linking Lima to Huancayo. The railroad is still in operation today, though it is now the second highest railroad in the world. Other recorded history refers to a banquet given to Don Miguel Grau Seminario, then Captain in the National Club June 21, 1879 in which they served a similar dish from this region. So whether or not that Huancaína invented the dish or maybe her recipe was superior, thus it was popularized due to her and she was the namesake we may never exactly know.

 

I fell in love with Papas a la Huancaína on my first trip to Perú, and when I got home I started experimenting with the recipe and the ingredients I could find in the states. Nine months later I served two versions (regular and vegan) of the recipe to over 150 people at a Winter Solstice Feast I was annually involved with. Since then I’ve tried countless variations and can report that it is an official addiction!

Milk, cheese, onion, garlic, saltines, ahi amarillo peppers.

Extremely easy to make if you have all of these ingredients.

Huancaína Sauce is extremely flexible and you can substitute and omit nearly everything; so here is my standard version of the sauce followed by all the substitutions I’ve tried and liked:

Huancaína Sauce

Yields two cups of sauce (enough for four entrees)

Ingredient List:

  • 2/3 cup cubed fresh farmers cheese
  • 1 small onion cubed
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, smashed with the side of a knife blade
  • 4 medium-large Aji Amarillo peppers, deseeded, deveined and coarsely chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons oil (canola is nice)
  • Pepper (possibly salt depending on the cheese) to taste
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup evaporated milk
  • 0 to 3 saltine crackers

Directions: Sauté the onions, peppers and pepper in oil until golden brown, add the garlic and continue to fry until it is golden as well. Throw that, the cheese, and 1/2 cup milk into a blender and blend for 5-10 minutes, adding more milk if it is too thick and one soda cracker square at a time (crushed!) if it is too thin. Many times I don’t even need the crackers. Sometimes I need them all, or more. Frankly I don’t measure any more. I count on one large pepper and per serving and wing the rest.

I think the most common problems with the sauce are sometimes not having enough peppers (so I fry up more) and getting impatient and not blending long enough (you want it super-super velvety smooth!).

Variations

Substitute any of these (in order of my favorites first)

Queso fresco is a fresh farmers' cheese traditionally made in the Perúvian Andes.

Queso fresco is a fresh farmers’ cheese traditionally made in the Perúvian Andes.

Cheese:

  • Queso fresco from Perú, PR, DR, Ecuador, Mexico, Costa Rica (probably other places as well)
  • Firm Tofu
  • 1/2 mozzarella, 1/2 goat cheese
  • 1/2 mozzarella, 1/2 cream cheese
  • 1/2 mozzarella, 1/2 cottage cheese
  • Mascarpone
  • 1/2 jack, 1/2 cottage cheese
  • Muenster cheese
  • Havarti cheese
  • 1/2 cooked rice, 1/2 Tofu
  • Swiss cheese, Gruyere, Krisch
  • Chedder, jack, mozzarella (use this Huancaína Sauce to make Mac and Cheese)
Aji Amarillo (yellow chili pepper) is the most common pepper used in Perúvian cuisine.

Aji Amarillo (yellow chili pepper) is the most common pepper used in Perúvian cuisine.

Peppers:

All fried, seeded and deveined

  • Aji Amarillo peppers fresh
  • Aji Amarillo peppers (frozen)
  • 4 oz. Aji Amarillo pepper paste (sold in jars)
  • Fresh, frozen, canned, Peruvian Rocoto pepper (use much less!)
  • Roasted Yellow peppers and 1/2 Scotch Bonnet (Jamaican pepper)
  • Mexican Chipotle pepper (use much less!)
  • Roasted Red Bell peppers and 1 Cayenne pepper
  • Cooked crab and artichoke hearts
  • Artichoke hearts and a few pine nuts
  • Roasted kale, 1 Jalapeño and more garlic
  • 3/4 Anaheim chilies, 1 Mexican Chipotle pepper
  • Black beans, or pinto beans and 1 Mexican Chipotle pepper

Onion and/or Garlic

Feel free to omit or increase the onion or garlic and/or substitute:

  • Shallots
  • Elephant garlic
  • Roasted fennel

You can use Huancaína sauce served traditionally (or mostly traditional) and not so traditionally in these ways:

  • served over sliced potatoes
  • served as a cold or hot pasta sauce
  • a sauce for a peruvian ravioli dish
  • served as alongside other pasta sauce (second sauce)
  • as a sandwich spread
  • on tacos, in burritos, with taquitos
  • as a spread on bread (use like butter)
  • on top of chili beans
  • on taco sala
  • with french fries
  • in potato salad
  • a dipping sauce for chips or crackers
  • with crudités
  • pizza dipping sauce
  • spooned over any meat or poultry prepared many ways
  • Over scrambled eggs or in/with an omelet
  • Mixed with cooked egg yolks to make deviled eggs

Finally, you can garnish as you want. In the photo I included a tomato slice (I’ve never seen that done before, but I like it). Some garnishes are:

  • hard-boiled eggs
  • black Kalamata olives
  • scallions
  • tomatoes
  • lettuce
  • cooked sliced carrots or beets

Lucuma Cake Recipe

A slice of delicious Lucuma Cake!

A slice of delicious Lucuma Cake!

Perú has many wonderful native fruits and Lucuma is very popular, often prepared as an ice-cream. My love for Lucuma ice-cream, especially with swirls of chocolate, tempted me to develop a recipe for Lucuma Cake, with of course chocolate frosting. Lucuma and chocolate or (cacao) seem to go well together and you will often see them paired. I based my recipe on pumpkin spice cake. Uncooked Lucuma is significantly less watery than cooked pumpkin, so I had to adjust the moisture level to compensate. You can adjust the amount of evaporated milk in the recipe to accommodate drier Lucumas (or lack of altitude). Adjust the batter so it is thicker than most pancake batter, and coats a spoon well, holding about a 1/4 inch thick all over when inserted and removed.

Lucuma has a caramel taste, to me, and many say it has notes of maple and sweet potato, which I certainly sense. I’ve seen Lucuma flour in the USA, but strangely not here in Perú. I prefer to cook with whole ingredients when possible, so fresh Lucumas made more sense than trying to find Lucuma flour and then making a recipe from that. Though if I could find it I’d try to make a great gluten-free recipe (which this is not, sorry!).

While I wouldn’t consider Lucuma to be a subtly flavored fruit, I was concerned with  not overpowering the great Lucuma flavor with too much spice. So I didn’t add any clove to the recipe (which I consider essential to spice cakes) and I’m happy with the omission. One could use powdered ginger, but I stopped using that years ago as I really like fresh ginger.

Lucuma Cake Recipe

This fills two 9 inch spring-form cake pans, so you end up with one giant cake. Halve the recipe if you want to be more modest. This is a high-altitude recipe–hey I live at the top of the Andes, 10,692′ (3,259 m)–so that is how I cook now!

Ingredients

  • 1.5 cups fresh Lucuma flesh (pitted and skinned) about 14 oz
  • 4.5 cups unbleached, sifted flour
  • 3.5 cups sugar (we use rubia, which is red and kind of coarse; substitute half white, half brown)
  • 5 medium eggs (you could reduce to 4 eggs in low altitude)
  • 1.5 cups butter
  • 1.5 teaspoon baking soda (I would have used baking power as well, but I can’t find it here)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (fresh grated is always better!)
  • 2 Tablespoons finely grated ginger (mince and macerate)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 Tablespoon vanilla extract (wish I could find vanilla beans!)
  • 1 teaspoon fresh grated Limón zest (lemon would work)
  • 3/4 cup yellow raisins
  • 1-1.5 cups evaporated milk (you could substitute and adjust using the fresh milk of your choice)

The preparation procedure is pretty standard heavy cake. That is: cream the butter and sugar together (my mixer broke doing this so I resorted to hand beating–ahh!), slowly beat in the eggs, one-by-one (this is important), then add Lucuma and 1 cup milk, and all spices. Sift all the dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, salt) and fold 1/2 a cup at a time into the batter. Do the spoon coating test I mentioned above, and add more milk to arrive at a standard thick cake batter consistency. Fold in raisins. Butter and flour a spring-form cake pan, and pour in half the batter. Bake at 350? until done. My oven is wonky and I’m high altitude so I rely on tests. Cake will rise then likely sink a little, the center will start to look done and when you press your finger toward the center of the cake 1/4 inch down, it should mostly spring back and only leave a slight impression. Also inset a toothpick in the center of the cake and it should come out clean. In the states I would have assumed that it would bake about 35-40 minutes. My first layer took 50 minutes, my second layer took 40. Go figure.

Let the cakes cool and frost as desired. I made a coconut caramel filling for between the layers. Think German Chocolate Cake. My recipe for the filling is:

Coconut Caramel Filling Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 2 cups powdered sugar (I powder my own sugar in the blender)
  • 2 Tablespoons Evaporated Milk
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • the leftover ground coconut meat from one coconut after one makes coconut milk (which you consume separately) or about 1 cup packed flaked coconut
  • optional: 2 Tablespoons Creme de Cacao (chocolate or “cacao” liquor)

Melt the butter in a medium sauce pan, add sugar, milk and salt (and the Creme de Cacao if you want it). Cook on medium, stirring (if that is your method–some do some don’t) until it is like thick caramel sauce. Technically, it is called “thread stage” which is just before “soft ball”. In other words, put a spoon in and lift it out. The sauce should form a thread running off of the spoon. Not stick and stay on the spoon (that’s candy) and not immediately fall off. Then slowly add the coconut (careful it can foam up at this point). Cook 2-3 minutes more, and cool before spreading it on top of the bottom layer during assembly. If the sauce seems thin, let it soak in a bit before placing the top layer on.

Now frost the cake!

I would have made Ganache to frost the cake, but it was late and I didn’t want to go get chocolate so I made a simple cocoa cream cheese frosting. Here is my recipe for that:

Simple Cocoa Cream Cheese Frosting

Ingredients:

  • >8 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • 8 oz. butter, softened
  • 3 cups powdered sugar (you can decrease if you aren’t going to pipe it)
  • 1/2 to 1 cups cocoa (more for bitter chocolate–which I like)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon instant “dry” coffee (or add 1/2 shot espresso and 2 Tablespoons more cocoa); note: coffee make chocolate taste better!

No cooking. Just beat up a standard frosting. Whip up the cream cheese and butter, slowly add in the powdered sugar, salt, cocoa, coffee and vanilla (in that order) continuing to whip. Add a teaspoon or more of milk if it is too stiff (due to all the cocoa) or more sugar or cocoa if it is too runny (because you used espresso?). Frost the cake, slice and eat!