Why It Works
- Refrigerating the crust beforehand allows the butter to harden, creating a firm base for the filling.
- Queso fresco imbues the pie with a pleasant salty-nutty flavor.
- Blending the filling produces a silky-smooth texture.
Pay de queso, or cheese pie, is a smooth, creamy, and not overly sweet cheese-based pie with a cookie crust. It’s pretty much the Mexican version of New York cheesecake. However, unlike cheesecake, which can often be dense and heavy, pay de queso is delightfully soft with a smoother consistency. Plus, the pie comes together easily, making it a great dessert option for any occasion.
The classic crust for pay de queso is made with Maria cookies (or galletas Marias), the “graham cracker” of Latin America. Commonly eaten as a snack alongside a steaming mug of coffee or hot chocolate, these lightly sweetened, vanilla wafer-like cookies are a staple in Mexican households. Making the crust is a straightforward affair: grind the cookies in a food processor, toss with melted butter and a pinch of salt, then scatter the moistened crumbs in a 9-inch pie plate. I like to use a drinking glass, measuring cup, or a similar tool with a flat bottom, to compress the crumbs into an even layer. Since there is no baking happening to bind the crumbs together, it’s important to compress the crumbs really well and to refrigerate the crust prior to filling to firm it up and avoid a crumbly crust.
The filling is typically made with cream cheese, evaporated milk, condensed milk, and eggs. For my version, I wanted to incorporate a savory cheese to balance the sweetness of the pie and add a salty note. I tested several Mexican cheeses: queso panela (a semi-soft Mexican cheese), queso fresco, and cojita (a firm, salty aged cheese). My personal favorite was queso fresco, a popular cheese made from cow’s milk that’s typically used as a topping on savory dishes. I found that its mild flavor balanced the sweetness from the condensed milk. In addition, the cheese’s soft texture kept the pie’s texture true to the original, yielding a light and smooth filling.
To make the filling, simply blend all the ingredients until smooth, making sure the queso fresco is completely broken down and emulsified with the rest of the ingredients. If insufficiently blended, the cheese will separate from the filling and rise to the top as it bakes, causing the pie to brown excessively and the layer underneath to remain liquidy. It’s also important to avoid incorporating too much air during blending, which makes the filling foamy, and can result in a less smooth consistency while also causing the pie to overflow when baked.
Pay de queso is best when served chilled, so I recommend refrigerating the slightly cooled pie before indulging. Though a slice is delicious all by itself, a dollop of strawberry jam or a drizzle of dulce de leche or cajeta on top are great additions.