Friday, September 13, 2013

Empanadas: A pie by another name

Sandra Gutierrez will be the guest speaker for Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina's (CHOP NC) launch of its fall event season at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 18, at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. Snacks will be provided, including samples from Gutierrez's new book, "Latin American Street Food" (UNC Press).

Empanadas often feature savory ingredients, but this
simple recipe yields tender hand-held pies with
a filling of melted cream cheese and fruit paste.
A confession: I would sooner have pie than nearly any other dessert.

I spent hours, maybe weeks, cumulatively, gazing greedily at sweets featured like sparkling jewels in rotating display cases near the hostess stand in the diners of my New Jersey youth.  I was especially intrigued by the impossibly tall slices of lemon meringue pie and felt respect – no, giddy affection – for servers who managed to extricate slices without losing a single curl of toasty browned goodness.  

Today, I’m more inclined toward seasonal, two-crust concoctions stained with the volcanic eruptions of fresh fruit and sugar – not too much sugar, but just enough to leave a sticky trail on a plate that, if one is at home, one may lick clean without worry that some may tint the tip of one’s nose.
Another confession: I am a pie cheater.

No matter which respected chef or cookbook writer tells me how easy it is to make pie dough, I just don’t see the point. Mrs. Pillsbury has long been one of my dearest friends, followed closely by Mrs. Harris Teeter. With their able assistance, I have baked many pretty pies and rustic galettes that didn’t last long enough to fret over whether or not to refrigerate.

Now that we’re all friends, imagine me comfortably tucked into a stackable white plastic garden chair at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, where I arrived early last week to attend a launch event for my friend Sandra Gutierrez’s second cookbook, Latin American Street Foods: The Best Flavors of Markets, Beaches and Roadside Stands from Mexico to Argentina (UNC Press). Since I couldn’t daydream at the pie case, I pondered what I might write about for today’s #LetsLunch theme of pie. Now imagine my delight when I heard her describe empanadas – for which she’s currently drafting a definitive compilation to be published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang – as hand-held pies.

See where this is going? Follow me. As soon as I returned home I flipped through my copy of the book, which is beautifully photographed by Fred Thompson. I found what I was craving on page 234: Guava and Cream Cheese Empanadas. Si, mi amiga. Muy bien.
This is my kind of pie. It requires just four ingredients, two of which you likely have in your fridge. Instead of refrigerated pie dough, this calls for a visit to the freezer case for frozen pastry dough; ie, Mrs. Pepperidge Farm. Do not be confused or tempted by the phyllo dough, unless you want to repeat my crazed attempt to corral all those papery sheets and roll them into a 12-inch square. La gringa es loca.

While this no doubt would be heresy in Cuba (and most of Latin America), I substituted fancy packages of fig and plum paste I had hoarded in my cupboard for the guava. Be sure to crimp the triangular packets well to ensure that the fruit paste and cream cheese stays inside the pastry while baking. Mine leaked prodigiously, creating a surprisingly tasty mess that could be lifted in ribbons to top the meltingly delicious empanadas. Not the prettiest result, but hey – it’s all good when you’re eating pie.
Guava and Cream Cheese Empanadas (Empanadas de Queso y Guayaba)

Reprinted with permission of the University of North Carolina Press from LATIN AMERICAN STREET FOOD: THE BEST FLAVORS OF MARKETS, BEACHES, AND ROADSIDE STANDS FROM MEXICO TO ARGENTINA by Sandra A. Gutierrez. Copyright © 2013 by Sandra A. Gutierrez. 
In this classic Cuban turnover, nectarous guava paste meets tangy cream cheese and flaky puff pastry. Guava paste has a consistency similar to softened gumdrops—a bit pasty, very thick, and truly luscious when it melts. In a pinch, use the more readily available guava jelly. Make these pastries ahead of time and freeze them before you bake them; there is no need to thaw them. If in the middle of the afternoon you’re secretly craving one (or two or three!) of these decadent empanadas, simply throw them in a toaster oven, bake, and eat them to your heart’s content. It will be our little secret.

Makes 18 empanadas.
2 ready-to-bake puff pastry sheets (1.1-pound package), thawed according to package directions
10–12 ounces guava paste, sliced into 2-inch-long by ¼-inch-thick rectangles (see note)
10 ounces cream cheese, sliced into 2-inch-long by ¼-inch-thick rectangles
Egg wash made of 1 large egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 400°F. On a clean, lightly floured surface, roll out one puff pastry sheet to form a 12-inch square; using a sharp knife or pastry wheel, cut it into 9 (4×4-inch) squares.
Brush a pastry square with egg wash. Place one piece of the cream cheese on top of a guava paste rectangle and place the stack on the diagonal in the center of the pastry square. Bring the two opposite corners of the pastry together to form a triangle; seal the edges with your fingers and then crimp the edges decoratively using the tines of a fork. Repeat with the rest of the ingredients.

Place the filled empanadas on the prepared sheets and brush the tops with egg wash. Bake until golden, about 15–20 minutes. Serve them warm or at room temperature.
Note: If you’re using guava jelly, you’ll need 1 tablespoon for each empanada.


  1. You have NO idea how much I love guava pastries -- especially guava and cheese! These empanadas look delicious!

  2. Love making hand pies. Here in Louisiana we have Natchitoches Meat Pies. Sooo good. This looks really tasty.

  3. Oh, I LOVE empanadas! These sound delicious. Thanks so much for sharing them!

  4. Lovely empanadas, and I'm looking forward to the book!

  5. Ok, full disclosure : I LOVE the combo flavors of guava jam/jelly with cream cheese. And in a puff pastry for empanadas? Then I'm in. This is a great idea. Thanks for sharing it. I liked Sandra the minute I met her at the RSCConference early this year - can't wait to get her cookbook. Thanks for sharing the recipe.Glad to meet you via #LetsLunch, Jill!