Long before her master’s degree in business and international banking and her Le Cordon Bleu education, Amalia Moreno-Damgaard learned all she needed to know as a mesmerized child in her grandmother’s Guatemalan kitchen. Bread, cheese … her abuela made everything from scratch with a focus on healthy, fresh ingredients influenced by Mayan and Spanish flavors. Amalia bundled up that deep-baked passion and cultural pride and carried it with her to Minnesota, where today the cookbook author and teacher aims to inspire curiosity in Latin cooking beyond familiar Mexican dishes.
Empanadas serve as the perfect ambassadors—crisp pastry filled with delicious, gooey insides, and nearly infinite flavor possibilities. The half-moon pockets can be savory or sweet, casual or formal, fried or baked, full- or bite-size, meaty or vegan. This winning chicken-and-cheese combo is a crowd-pleaser, but don’t be afraid to riff with roasted pork, browned ground beef or canned beans. “Empanadas are simple, easy to make and open to interpretation by anybody,” Amalia says. “People flock to them.” In other words: Nachos, watch out.
Put that rolling pin away. Empanada dough comes frozen in precut circles. So simple!
Step One: Prep
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons canola oil over medium heat. Add ½ cup chopped onion, ¼ cup finely chopped red bell pepper and 1 tablespoon minced garlic; cook until softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Add ¼ cup canned tomato sauce, 1 tablespoon ground ancho chile pepper, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar, and 1½ teaspoons each marjoram, oregano and black pepper. Simmer 2 minutes. Remove from heat; cool slightly. Gradually stir in 1 cup chopped rotisserie chicken, ½ cup frozen shredded hash brown potatoes and 7 ounces shredded asadero cheese. Blend well.
• Amalia likes the punch of ancho (a powdered spice made of dried poblano peppers), but other chiles work, too.
• Asadero is a white, semihard Mexican cheese. (Crystal Farms sells a preshredded version.) Other good melty cheeses: mozzarella, cheddar or Monterey Jack.
• Taters are the glue that holds the filling together. Hash browns are easy, or try cooked rice or mashed yams.
Step Two: Fill
Preheat oven to 350°. Remove empanada wrappers from freezer. (You’ll need about 30.) For 6-inch wrappers, put 1 ½ tablespoons filling in the center of each circle; use 1 tablespoon for 5-inch wrappers. Carefully pick up dough and place it in the palm of one hand. Working quickly, dampen the edge of the dough with water, then gently fold and enclose the stuffing, pressing edges together to seal. Crimp with a fork (that’s the easy way), or try the rope technique: Work your way around the empanada, folding and pinching for a pleated look.
• Keep a dish of water nearby to dip your finger in and to swipe a little on the edge of the pastry before folding it over.
• Resist the urge to overfill, or else the filling will squish out when you fold the empanadas.
The secret to whipping out 30 empanadas like a pro? Frozen empanada wrappers, sold in Latin grocery stores and some large supermarkets. Embrace the extra stop, says Amalia: Exploring ethnic stores is a form of travel in itself. Or use frozen puff pastry; cut the dough into squares and fold diagonally for triangular empanadas.
Step Three: Bake
Arrange empanadas on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. In a small bowl, beat 1 egg with 1 tablespoon water. Brush empanadas with egg wash; sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds. Bake until dough changes from opaque to shiny and medium brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool slightly before eating. (You can freeze cooled empanadas for up to 1 month; reheat in a 350° oven for 15 minutes.)
• Think of egg wash like a varnish that creates a crisp, savory glow (and helps the sesame seeds stick).
Get to Know: Amalia Moreno-Damgaard