Gorditas infladas de anís (puffy anise-seed gorditas) with cajeta

I fell in love with the gordita inflada in Veracruz. Remember this beauty? She came to me in Coatzacoalcos, warm and crunchy with anise seeds, dribbling bits of mole. And then there were these little cuties in Xico, lined with a layer of black beans. The gorditas in Mexico City are not what one would call cute. They're flat and dense and thick with pork flavor. They are the hoss of the gordita genre. With the Veracruz versions, I kept wondering, what makes these things inflate? Is it baking powder? The only cookbook I found that really addressed the gordita inflada was Zarela's Veracruz: Mexico's Simplest Cuisine and she didn't specifically mention what made them puffy. (Perhaps because it's common knowledge to everyone except me.) I assumed I'd spend hours trying to figure out how to inflate the darn things, but it turns out all you need is two items: a thin-pressed gordita and a lot of hot oil. When I placed the first gordita in the pan -- with the oil heated to over 300F -- it puffed up into a round bubble and started sputtering oil, zipping around the skillet like a little motorboat. "Se infló!" I yelled to Crayton. "Se infló, se infló!" He was on the computer and didn't hear me. After some futzing with a candy thermometer, I figured out that the ideal oil temperature was 260 to 280F for a golden-brown, plump gordita. Today after the football game, I figured out the best way to serve them: layered on a platter and drizzled with ribbons of cajeta, with lots of napkins so everyone could wipe their sticky fingers afterward. The anise seeds are a nod to Coatzacoalcos, and the cajeta.... well, everything tastes good with cajeta. Puffy anise-seed gorditas (gorditas infladas) with cajeta Makes 14 to 15 Note: These contain a mixture of masa and flour. You don't absolutely need the flour for the gorditas to inflate, but the flour does help the gorditas hold their puffy shape longer. (My plain corn ones deflated a little as they cooled.) I also like the extra sweetness that the plantain adds. If you can't find one, leave it out. It may seem like a lot of anise seeds you're adding, but it works in the end. The anise comes through loud and clear, which is what I wanted. Lastly, you'll need a tortilla press and ideally a candy thermometer to measure how hot your oil is. You can eyeball it if not. Do ahead: Masa is highly perishable and, if fresh, does not last longer than one day. The masa I bought from a local tortillería went bad stored in my fridge from one day to the next. However, I did freeze a small amount overnight and it was fine the next day. I would not recommend freezing masa for long periods of time. You can prepare the dough the morning of and refrigerate it until using. Just make sure to knead it well before forming the gorditas. Ingredients 1/2 lb. or 240g fresh masa or the equivalent prepared from masa harina (e.g. Maseca) A 2 1/2 to 3-inch piece of ripe plantain, peeled 1 tablespoon milk 1 tablespoon flour 2 tablespoons grated piloncillo or packed brown sugar 1/4 teaspoon salt 2 1/2 teaspoons anise seeds (toasted if you want), slightly crushed 2 cups oil for frying (I used vegetable) Cajeta for drizzling Other items: Tortilla press Plastic for lining press (e.g., from a grocery bag) Slotted spatula or spoon Baking sheet or platter and paper towels Directions 1. Making the dough Place your masa in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Zap your piece of plantain in the microwave for 20 to 40 seconds until it softens. (Alternately, slice the plantain into thick pieces and simmer in a little milk. Alternately #2, if the plantain is already super ripe -- the peel will be black all over -- you don't need to cook it.) Place the soft plantain in a small bowl with 1 tablespoon milk and mash into a thick puree. Add flour, sugar and salt and mix well. Stir the plantain mixture into your ball of masa, kneading with one hand (or both) until well combined. Then add anise seeds, kneading again until the anise seeds seem well-distributed and the dough comes together and forms a cohesive mass. 2. Shaping the gorditas Grab about a tablespoon of dough -- Zarela calls these "pingpong ball size" -- and roll into a small ball with the palms of your hands. Continue forming the dough into small balls until all the dough has been used. Cover them with a damp dish towel while you heat the 2 cups of cooking oil in a deep skillet. Line the plates of a tortilla press with two pieces of thin plastic. (I cut up a grocery bag.) Once the oil has reached about 260-280F (a little bit of masa should sizzle in the pan) take one of the balls and press it flat. Peel off the top sheet of plastic. Then turn gordita onto your open hand -- the upper edge of your hand works best -- and peel off the other piece of plastic. Place the flattened gordita gently into the hot oil. It should immediately sputter and sizzle, and become enveloped in a lagoon of bubbles. If it doesn't, your oil is not hot enough. Using a slotted spatula or spoon, flick hot oil over the top of the gordita in a quick motion. It should puff up. When the gordita turns dark-brown around the edges -- about 10 to 15 seconds -- turn over and cook the other side. Remove the gordita from the pan using a slotted spoon or spatula and set on a platter or tray lined with layers of paper towels. (Or, if you are in Mexico, papel estraza.) Continue until all gorditas are done. I fried two at a time, once I got enough confidence, in my 10-inch Lodge skillet. Drizzle cajeta on top and serve immediately. Don't forget the napkins! Or knives and forks if you want to be a little more civilized.

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