Arepas are unassuming little cornmeal cakes, but one bite will have you hooked – their crunchy outside and chewy inside make for an addictive texture. They are found all over Venezuela, stuffed full of various tasty fillings, but here I’ve used my favourite combination of fresh homemade cheese and the wonderfully named guasacaca . Guasacaca is an avocado-based sauce, the Venezuelan equivalent of guacamole but with a much more punchy flavour. White cornmeal is different from yellow cornmeal (commonly known as polenta), and it can be a touch tricky to find; try Afro-Caribbean shops or online.
Note: you will need to begin this recipe about 4–5 hours before you want to eat, or even the day before, as the cheese needs time to drain and chill.
For the queso blanco , pour the milk into a large saucepan or stockpot. Set over a medium-low heat and gently bring up to a little under boiling point (85°C/185°F is perfect if you have a thermometer), stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat and pour in the vinegar, about a third at a time, stirring well between each splash. Leave to rest undisturbed for 5 minutes, by which time you should have a pan of curds and whey.
Line a sieve with a clean muslin cloth or cheesecloth and place over a large bowl or saucepan. Gently pour the curds and whey into the sieve, pausing if necessary to discard the whey as and when the bowl fills up – there will be a lot of liquid.
Leave to drain for a few minutes until the curds stop dripping, and discard any liquid in the bowl. Add the salt, cumin and chillies, and lightly fork through the curds to mix. Draw up the sides of the muslin and twist tightly to form a ball, squeezing a little as you go to press out any remaining moisture. Leave to cool, then transfer the muslin ball of queso blanco to a clean bowl and chill in the fridge for several hours or overnight.
To make the arepas , place the cornmeal and salt in a large bowl and stir well to mix. Add the oil, and gradually pour in the water, stirring continuously to create a stiff dough. Leave to rest for 30 minutes. For the guasacaca , put all the ingredients except the olive oil into a food processor and whizz until really smooth. With the motor running, trickle the olive oil in slowly. Check the seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste. Cover with a layer of cling film pressed to the surface and chill until needed.
Tip the arepas dough on to the worktop, knead briefly, and then divide the dough into 8 even pieces. Roll each piece into a ball before flattening out to a disc about 1cm thick. Add a drizzle of oil to a large frying pan and set over a medium heat. Add 4 arepas to the pan and cover with a snug-fitting piece of kitchen foil, cooking for about 6–8 minutes until golden brown. Flip over and cook for 6–8 minutes on the other side, uncovered. Keep warm while you repeat with the remaining 4 arepas . To serve, split the arepas partway through the middle (as though you were opening up a pitta bread) and fill with the queso blanco and a dollop of guasacaca .