Saturday, 1 October 2011

Empanadillas à la Puerto Rico: A Latin Cultural Cooking Experience

On Denison's campus, Preston House is the residential site for language students. With language at the core of cultural exploration and identity, students are organised by target language and meet regularly to celebrate cultural dimensions of the language. During my Filipino food and culture program, I was invited to join the Spanish language students on a Latin cooking venture of their own. Little did I know beforehand that I would soon be learning so much from the starting point of a dough-filled pastry and its culinary (and cultural) variations. On the menu: empanadillas of chicken and pizza; yellow rice with turkey sausage; potato salad; and chocolate chip cookies.

Chicken-filled empanada / Empanadilla de pollo

By the time I arrived at Preston, the yellow rice--with turkey sausage--was being kept warm on the stove with tin foil to keep in additional moisture under the lid. I would later find out that the rice had turned yellow with the addition of a green sauce--sofrito--to the rice in the cooking process. (For sofrito recipes with more complex flavour profiles, click here or here.) In addition, boiled eggs were nearly finished in the same pot as potatoes were cooking for the potato salad. This left us with the empanadillas to work on. An empanadilla, or "little empanada," is the stuffed dough variety from Puerto Rico. In contrast to empanadas, the dough of which is egg-based and typically includes vinegar and shortening and the end product of which is typically baked, empanadillas can be baked but are oftentimes fried. Moreover, empanadilla dough is prepared more like a pie crust (i.e., butter-focused) and without the addition of any eggs. More or less eyeballing the ingredients, I went to work on making an empanadilla dough by scratch, while the other students encased a chicken filling using defrosted pie crust. Using this receipe by blogger Layla as a guide, I used a combination of knife and fork to cut and incorporate the butter into the flour. Make sure not to use your hands at this point, as the heat will release moisture from the butter and when mixed with flour will create more gluten than you would like. Pie doughs are usually made in food processors, but without such a great kitchen device, we went with the manual (read: with love) process. With the flour at the point of representing clumped sand (midway through, add in the salt and baking powder), add in just enough water (a few tablespoons) until the dough is reminiscent of very pliable play dough that does not easily stick to your hands. When the dough starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl, you know you're almost there. Add a little bit of flour or water to balance out the consistency and one you think you're ready, turn out the dough and lightly knead it. To prepare the dough for filling, pinch a few tablespoons of dough, roll it into a ball, and then flatten it to a small-medium disc. Layer in the filling leaving enough room to fold one half over the other and seal the edges with the tines of a fork.

Adapted Bay Ridge empandas (beef-filled)

The past two times I ever made empanadas, they've always been Sunny Anderson's Bay Ridge empanadas which is to say I know beef is a great filling for these. Alongside the chicken-filled ones being wrapped by the pie crust, a popular Puerto Rican variety which we made with the handmade dough is the "pizza-filled" one (empanadillas de pizza: pasta sauce, mozzarella, and pepperoni). While one may recognize this more as a calzone than anything else, it's important to note that the Italian variation of this dish uses pizza dough instead of the pie crust dough.

To cook our empanadillas, we heated canola oil until the point at which it started to sizzle when a light dusting of flour was introduced to it. After a few practice rounds, we determined that cooking the empanadillas about 2-3 minutes per side (or until golden brown) was more than sufficient. Be prepared for the dough to thicken up and, with the handmade dough, a rather buttery (much like you would expect from a pie crust) quality to this savoury pastry variation. (I would like to note that in this process, I accidentally finally figured out an easy way to make a non-time consuming pie crust which does not necessitate leaving the dough alone to rest.)

Empanadillas de pizza

Ah yes, and don't forget to use the crinkle technique I learned from Carla Hall and which noted in my Filipino food and culture program post.

With the empanadillas finished, it was time to set up the table with all the delicious food and their enticing smells. As the rice and empanadillas were brought out, the potato salad (which though perhaps not fully Latin fare seems to anecdotaly be a part of many Latino/a gatherings) was put together to include celery, shredded carrots, mustard and the hard-boiled eggs which had been cooled and peeled earlier.

For the complete album from this culinary and cultural cooking adventure, click here. And many thanks to the Spanish-language students from Preston House for the invitation to join in!

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