Panela is a type of fresh Mexican cheese similar in texture to feta cheese. It is typically enjoyed cold in salads, appetizers, or as a filling for tacos placeros. When in contact with heat, either direct on a grill or in the oven, panela cheese softens slightly without melting completely. Topped with a roasted tomatillo salsa and fresh pico de gallo, baked panela cheese is an irresistible appetizer you won’t want to share. To save even more time in the kitchen, you can use a jar of your favorite salsa, but there is something to be said of the delicious combination of a homemade roasted salsa (made with tomatillos, árbol chiles, and garlic) with the saltiness of the cheese. Just be sure to have plenty of crackers and/or tortilla chips to enjoy this easy Mexican appetizer.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease an oven-proof bowl or a deep dish with butter.
Arrange the panela cheese inside the greased bowl or deep dish. Top with roasted salsa. Place baking bowl or dish atop a large baking sheet to prevent spilling. Bake at 350°F for 20 to 25 minutes until bubbly and lightly golden brown. Remove from heat. Top with pico de gallo, if desired. Serve with crackers or tortilla chips.
For the roasted tomatillo salsa, toast 15 to 20 árbol chiles on a comal, griddle, or non-stick pan over medium-high heat for about a minute, tossing constantly to prevent chiles from burning. Remove from heat.
On the same comal, griddle or non-stick pan, roast 1 pound of tomatillos (husks removed) for 8 to 10 minutes, turning occasionally, until the skin has charred and the tomatillos have softened. Puree tomatillos, árbol chiles, and garlic in a blender or food processor until smooth. Season with salt to taste.