The queen of all empanadas

Since she was a shy little girl hiding in her Guatemalan grandmother’s kitchen, Sandra A. Gutierrez has been craving empanadas.

“You know what I love about empandas is you to get to have your own pie, and you don’t have to share it with anybody,” the Cary, N.C., cookbook writer says.

These hand pies, which made the journey from Portugal and Spain to the New World centuries ago, can be enjoyed baked, fried, savory or sweet, and filled with everything from meat and seafood to fruit and cheese. All over the Americas they are served at elegant parties and as everyday street food.

While Gutierrez’s 2013 book, “Latin American Street Food” had a chapter on empanadas, her lastest, “Empanadas: The Hand-Held Pies of Latin America” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $19.95) is a cornucopia of 60 recipes for doughs, fillings, salsas and condiments — plus step-by-step instructions for building foolproof pies.

Shy about rolling pastry? She’s even created a clever method for shaping the dough by using a cut-open plastic bag and a tortilla press. (I had good luck with an iron skillet, its bottom covered in plastic wrap.)

Using her Master Dough as blank canvas, I recently baked empanadas filled with ground beef, olives and raisins; then, using that same dough, I made little fried peach pies that are Southern in tone. I crammed Gutierrez’s fried masa empanadas with chicken, tomato, carrots and peppers, and scattered them with a summery almost-salad of radishes, shredded iceberg, raw tomatillo salsa and hot sauce. I used her flaky pastry as a pocket for cream cheese and jam, and even the beef (an amazing combo).

Along the way, I learned that fillings should be cold (so they are firm, not soupy) and that the dough should be room temperature (so that it is malleable and easily shaped by hand).

As Gutierrez told me, if you are looking for a last-minute supper, from-scratch empanadas may not the best game plan. The dainty, hand-decorated pies are best assembled over an afternoon when you have time to cook, shape, bake and dawdle.

And you can stuff them with almost anything — including last night’s leftovers. That’s what fascinated Gutierrez as a child. “It was never was the same thing. It was always a discovery, and that is what I love most about empanadas! They are like little boxes that hold treasures inside. In order to find out what the treasure is, you have to hunt for it by breaking the crust.”

Using Sandra A. Gutierrez’s Master Dough, you can make a baked South American-style empanada with beef and a fried peach pie. Also included here is a delicious recipe for Chicken Masa Pies with Radishes and Lettuce and Raw Tomatillo Salsa

Beef Empanadas with Olives and Raisins

Various versions of this Moorish-influenced empanada are found all over South America. In Chile, they are called Empanadas de Pino and folded into an envelope shape. I had better luck with half-circles.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup minced yellow onion

2 large cloves garlic, minced

1/2 pound ground chuck

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon oregano

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

3/4 cup raisins

1 cup finely chopped Manzanilla olives

salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped

1 recipe Master Dough (see recipe)

Egg wash made of 1 large egg plus 2 teaspoons half-and-half or heavy whipping cream, well beaten

In a medium skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the ground chuck, cumin, oregano and cayenne; cook until meat is evenly browned, about 3 minutes. Add the raisins and olives, stir well and reduce heat to low and cook for 3-4 minutes. Taste and adjust for salt and pepper. Remove from heat and cool for 30 minutes; stir in chopped egg, cover and refrigerate for at least two hours (or overnight).

One hour before baking the empanadas, make the Master Dough. Heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Working with half of the dough at a time (keep the rest covered), roll it out to to 1/8-inch thickness. Using a 6-inch cutter, cut out 8 discs. Repeat with the remaining dough, for a total of 16 discs.

Place 2 1/2 tablespoons of the filling in the middle of each disk. Bring the edges of the pastry together to enclose the filling, forming a half-moon shape. Pinch or press the edges together to seal tightly. Press with a fork, or roll up edges to form a border. Place empanadas on baking sheets and brush tops with egg wash. Bake until golden, about 30 minutes, turning pans after 15 minutes to brown evenly.

— Adapted from “Latin American Street Food” by Sandra A. Gutierrez (UNC Press, $35)

Per empanada: 241 calories (percent of calories from fat, 47), 7 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 13 grams fat (6 grams saturated), 66 milligrams cholesterol, 233 milligrams sodium.

Master Dough

This super-versatile dough can be used to make fried or baked empanadas. The dough can be refrigerated for 48 hours or frozen for one month.

3 cups (385 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

1 tablespoon baking powder

1⁄4 teaspoon fine sea salt

1⁄2 cup (115 g) unsalted butter, cubed and chilled (or vegetable shortening)

1 tablespoon orange juice

2⁄3 cup (165 ml) seltzer water

Place the flour, baking powder and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade; pulse for 5 seconds to combine. Add the butter and pulse at 1-second intervals until the mixture resembles coarse sand, 20 to 25 pulses. Add the orange juice through the feed tube while pulsing at 1-second intervals, then add the seltzer water while pulsing, until the dough starts to come together into a ball, 30 to 35 pulses. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead it for one to two minutes (the dough will look slightly cracked but it will smooth out when rolled out). Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for one hour at room temperature.

— Adapted from “Empanadas: The Hand-Held Pies of Latin America” by Sandra A. Gutierrez (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $19.95)

Per serving: 137 calories (percent of calories from fat, 39), 2 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 6 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 16 milligrams cholesterol, 122 milligrams sodium.

Fried Peach Hand Pies

Made with a peach cobbler-like filling, these empanadas are Southern in spirit. While it’s tempting to reach for vanilla ice cream, a dollop of creme fraiche is lovely, too.

1 pound peaches, peeled, pitted and sliced (may use fresh or frozen)

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 tablespoon corn starch

1 teaspoon lime juice

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg

pinch of kosher salt

1 inch of vanilla bean

1 tablespoon bourbon

1 recipe Master Dough

Vegetable oil for frying (may use corn, canola, vegetable or 100 percent olive oil)

Confectioners sugar for sprinkling (optional)

Creme fraiche for serving (optional)

Place peaches in a medium heavy boiler. Add sugar, butter, corn starch, lime juice, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Scrape vanilla bean seeds into the mixture, and stir. Toss in vanilla bean. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, and cook until the mixture is thick, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat, and stir in bourbon. (If the syrup seems a bit thin, cook another minute or two, or until the filling has thickened.) Cover and chill for at least two hours.

Divide master dough in half. Roll out about 1/8-inch thick, and cut into 8 six-inch circles. Fill the circles with about 2 1/2 tablespoons of peach filling. Fold and seal edges, crimping with fingers or pressing with a fork. Repeat with remaining dough; you will have 16 pies.

Heat 1 1/2 to 2 inches of vegetable oil in a heavy skillet to 35o degrees. Fry pies until nicely browned, about 3-5 minutes per side. Drain on wire rack over a baking sheet, or on a tray lined with paper towels. If desired, sprinkle with confectioners sugar and a dollop of creme fraiche. Serve warm. Makes: 16 pies.

Per pie: 294 calories (percent of calories from fat, 62), 3 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 20 grams fat (5 grams saturated), 17 milligrams cholesterol, 130 milligrams sodium.

Chicken Masa Pies with Lettuce and Radishes

“Doblada” means folded; thus half-moon shaped pies of all types are called dobladas in Central America. They are best eaten hot, straight out of the fryer.

2 cups shredded cooked chicken (may use rotisserie)

1 cup seeded and minced plum tomatoes

1⁄3 cup peeled and minced carrots

1/4 cup finely chopped sweet onion

1 large serrano pepper, minced (seeded and deveined, if less heat is desired)

1 teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste

1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

1 recipe Masa Dough (see recipe)

Vegetable oil for frying

1 recipe Raw Tomatillo Salsa (see recipe)

Shredded iceberg lettuce for serving

Thinly sliced radishes for serving

Hot sauce for serving (your favorite brand)

Make the filling: In a medium bowl, stir together the chicken, tomatoes, carrots, onion, serrano pepper, salt and black pepper until combined. Chill the filling, covered, for at least 30 minutes or overnight

Assemble the dobladas: After the filling chills, make the dough and let it rest, covered with plastic, for 10 minutes at room temperature.

Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper; set it aside. Divide the dough into 12 equal portions (about 2 1/2 ounces each). Roll each portion into a ball and keep them covered with a damp kitchen towel as you work. Line a tortilla press with a zip-top freezer bag that has been cut open on three sides so that it opens like a book. Place a ball of masa in the middle of the tortilla press and flatten it into a 5-1/2 inch disc about 1⁄8-inch thick. If you don’t have a tortilla press, use a flat-bottomed, heavy skillet to press the dough. Leaving the dough in the plastic bag, place 2 heaping tablespoons of the filling in the middle of the disc, leaving a small rim. Use the bag to fold the masa over the filling, forming a half-moon. Press the edges together with your fingers to seal. Transfer the dobladas to the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the rest of the dough and filling, keeping the dobladas covered as you go.

Fry the dobladas: Fit a large baking sheet with a metal cooling rack; set it aside. In a large skillet with high sides, heat 1 to 1 1/2 inches of oil to 360 degrees Fahrenheit, or use a deep-fryer according to the manufacturer’s directions. Working in batches, carefully slide the dobladas into the oil. Fry them until golden, 4 to 6 minutes, turning them over halfway through. If the oil gets too hot as you fry and they’re browning too quickly, lower the temperature and let the oil cool slightly before frying any more. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the fried dobladas to the prepared rack to drain. Let them rest for 1 to 2 minutes and then serve with the salsa, lettuce, radishes, and hot sauce. Makes: 12 doblados

— Adapted from “Empanadas: The Hand-Held Pies of Latin America” by Sandra A. Gutierrez (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $19.95)

Per doblada (excluding tomatillo salsa): 374 calories (percent of calories from fat, 63), 12 grams protein, 23 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 26 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 27 milligrams cholesterol, 341 milligrams sodium.

Masa Dough

Made from masa harina, this dough should not be baked, but it fries wonderfully, with a brown crust that tastes like crunchy corn tortillas. Though the masa dough is easy and forgiving to work with, it tends to dry out. So keep it covered, and have a glass of warm water handy so you can re-moisten as necessary.

3 cups (340 grams) masa harina, plus more as needed

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

2 to 21⁄2 cups warm water, plus more as needed

In a large bowl, whisk together the masa harina and salt. Gradually add 2 cups (480 ml) of the warm water, kneading the mixture with your hand until it comes together into a ball with the consistency of mashed potatoes (if the dough is too dry, add a few more tablespoons of water at a time; if it’s too wet, add a few tablespoons of the masa harina at a time). Turn the dough onto a clean surface and knead it until smooth, about 30 seconds or to the consistency of play dough; return it to the bowl, cover it with a damp kitchen towel, and let it rest for 10 minutes so that all of the liquid can be fully absorbed. To determine whether the dough is the proper consistency, shape a bit of the masa into a ball and press it flat into a disc. If the edges of the masa crack when shaped into discs, add a bit more water (a few tablespoons at a time); if the dough is too soft, add a bit more masa harina (a few tablespoons at a time). Makes: 12 empanadas

— Adapted from “Empanadas: The Hand-Held Pies of Latin America” by Sandra A. Gutierrez (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $19.95)

Per empanada: 104 calories (percent of calories from fat, 9), 3 grams protein, 22 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 1 gram fat (trace saturated fat), no cholesterol, 159 milligrams sodium.

Raw Tomatillo Salsa

This perky, slightly sweet salsa is delicious with the Chicken Masa Pies; any leftovers can be scooped up with chips or served over omelettes.

1/2 pound tomatillos, husks removed, rinsed and quartered

1 cup packed fresh cilantro (leaves and tender stems)

1/4 cup white onion, roughly chopped

2-3 green onions, roughly chopped, white and light-green parts only

1 medium serrano pepper (seeded and deveined for less heat), roughly chopped

1 large clove garlic

1/2 tablespoon honey

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a food processor, place the tomatillos, cilantro, onion, serrano pepper, garlic, honey, sea salt and black pepper. Pulse until smooth. Cover and chill for 30 minutes before serving. Leftovers can be kept in the refrigerator for up to three days.

— Adapted from “Empanadas: The Hand-Held Pies of Latin America” by Sandra A. Gutierrez (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $19.95)

Per serving: 22 calories (percent of calories from fat, 13), 1 gram protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 84 milligrams sodium.

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