Nachos are the ultimate party food; bad nachos are the ultimate party foul. You know the old sob story: There's a platter full of chips, and only six of them have enough cheese. Some jerk dumped a can of salsa in the middle of the plate, and now people are worming their filthy plague-ridden fingers through an undetonated sour cream bomb to get at the one piece of fried corn that, against all odds, houses every topping.
It sucks. We can help. Using a little bit of maths, a little bit of CAD, and a little bit of careful shopping, we have solved the nacho. REPEAT: WE HAVE SOLVED THE NACHO.
The problem with nachos is, unfortunately, the chip. Standard tortilla chips just don't hold enough cheese, and when the cheese you do manage to squeeze on melts, it runs off. What nacho perfection requires is a different chip, and a cooking vessel designed specifically for that custom chip. Unfortunately, that's not exactly a great way to start off a nacho recipe — "head down to the machine shop..." — so we decided to go the other way: find the cooker, and design the chip around it.
Ladies and gentlemen, the mini muffin pan, available from Sur La Table for about $US15:
If you think about it, the muffpan is perfect. It's designed to keep runny stuff in — like melty delicious cheese — and each divot is about the size of a small chip.
Next step: custom chip. Chips are, of course, made from corn tortillas. So making your own chip is really not that big a deal: You just fry a corn tortilla. No problem. Getting the tortilla into the muffin divot: a little bit more of a problem. You can't just cram the thing, because it will just crumple up, consuming all the space that is reserved for cheese. Never forget: This is about cheese.
In order to make a chip that fit in the tray perfectly, we enlisted the help of staff writer Jamie Condliffe, who also happens to have a PhD in engineering. We got the dimensions of the muffin divots — top diameter, internal diameter and height of the sides — and then used CAD to figure out a shape that would fold perfectly into the muffin tin. We came up with this:
It is not feasible to hand-cut what we are now calling a Jamiegon (named after its discoverer) for every single nacho, so instead we looked for a cookie cutter of similar dimensions. We found this, also at Sur La Table:
It's a starfish! It costs $US0.76.
So here's the play: punch out a bunch of starfish-shaped tortillas, and put them in the muffin tin.
You can do four at a time pretty easily. I discovered this after I had already done like 40. Sigh.
When you're done, you'll have a stack of stars like this.
Aren't they adorable? OK, back to work.
If you've ever worked with corn tortillas, you'll be aware that they're quite brittle. So you can't just shove them in the muffin pan. You need to steam them first to get them pliable.
I don't have a microwave (tiny kitchen), but if you have one, just wrap your stars in a damp paper towel and nuke them for 30 seconds. It's easier if you work in batches of four, because you want to get the stars in the muffin tin as quickly as possible.
Before you put a star in the tin, lightly coat it with salted vegetable oil.
I put about a teaspoon of oil and a generous pinch of kosher salt on a plate, and wiped the stars around it, periodically replenishing the oil. You don't want the tortilla stars to be sopping with grease, but you need each side coated.
The idea is that you're going to oven fry the tortillas in the muffin pan. A completed pan looks like this:
Put the nachos in a 200C oven for eight minutes.
They should look about like this when they're done.
When the chips are crisp but not burned (make sure the bottoms aren't soggy), let them cool for about a minute to firm up, and then add cheese. Don't be shy.
Put the chips back in the oven until the cheese is melted — about a minute — and then take them out and add your toppings. I like sliced jalepeños, salsa, and sour cream, but these nacho bites have enough depth to handle whatever your personal preference. Serve to delighted guests.
Confirmed: They are bite-sized.