Empanadas de Queso de Crema is a simple empanada pastry recipe from Elena Zelayeta, author of several well-received cookbooks in the 1940s and 1950s. Zelayeta’s penchant for cooking is made all the more remarkable by the fact that she was entirely blind. For those interested, I’ve written a more in-depth biographical sketch in my review of her cookbook, Elena’s Secrets of Mexican Cooking. If you’re just here for the pastry recipe read on.
Up until a few years ago my personal experience with empanadas was limited to appetizers at crappy Mexican restaurants and an occasional run in with the dessert variety, like Taco Bell’s discontinued caramel apple empanada. Then I fell in with a group of Chileans and discovered empanadas de pino, stuffed with spicy shredded beef, olives, and hard-boiled eggs. This wasn’t a simple appetizer or Hostess-stuffed pie – this was a rich and glorious meal. Or at least it should have been. The way that my Chilean friends would party this was the first course in a meal that lasted all night long. I’ve tried my hand at making them myself – first with store-bought pie crust (not bad) and then with a simple flour-and-lard pastry dough (better). Still have some kinks to work out in the preparation, but I may get my honorary Chilean citizenship one of these days. Now Chile is about as far south of the (American) border as you can get, but I’ve since discovered a variety of delicious empanadas from all over South and Central America.
Elena Zelayeta devotes a full chapter of Elena’s Secrets of Mexican Cooking to empanadas, which she describes as “Mexican turnovers”. She provides a basic pastry dough that’s quite similar to what I use for empanadas de pino as well as a sweet dough for the dessert variety. Empanadas de Queso de Crema kind of splits the difference. It’s nominally a savory pastry but the main ingredient – cream cheese – works well in both savory and sweet settings. The remainder of the empanada chapter is devoted to simple fillings, from crushed fruits to stewed meats to deviled ham – this recipe will work with any of them.
And it’s crazy simple: butter and cream cheese in roughly equal proportions – cut in the flour, work into a ball, and refrigerate. That’s it. Total prep time is less than 15 minutes. Two things to know when working with Empanadas de Queso de Crema. First: the dough gets rock hard when refrigerated, and needs a good hour or more at room temperature to be pliable. Second: this dough works best for little tiny empanadas – no more than two or three inches in diameter. The dough is a little bit too delicate for full-sized empanadas de pino, but they make for brilliant little empanaditas for parties.
As mentioned above, these will work with nearly any filling that you can dream up. When I made these for my family I filled them with leftover Puerco con Chili Verde but any shredded or stewed meat will work just fine. This is also a good fit for Diana Kennedy’s Oaxacan Chicken, or frankly even ground beef tossed with Lawry’s Taco Seasoning. If you’re thinking of dessert empanadas, Zelayeta recommends everything from fruit jam to sweet potatoes mashed with pineapples. Once you get the hang of working with the dough you can’t really make a mistake.
Elena’s Secrets of Mexican Cooking is available used at Amazon and elsewhere. An earlier cookbook, Elena’s Famous Mexican and Spanish Recipes has been reprinted and is available in both hardcover and digital formats. Enjoy!
- 6 oz cream cheese (at room temperature)
- 1 cup butter (at room temperature)
- 2 cups flour
- empanada filling (see notes)
- Using an electric hand mixer cream together butter and cream cheese. Cut in flour with a pastry cutter and work into two or three small balls of equal size. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
- Bring dough out of the refrigerator at least an hour before cooking and allow to come to room temperature. Roll out to around an eight of an inch thick, and cut into circles no more than two or three inches in diameter.
- Fill with desired filling (see notes), fold and cinch together, and bake for 10 - 12 minutes in a 400º F oven.
For savory empanadas: any leftover shredded or ground meats will work as a filling. Suitable recipes from this site include Oaxacan Chicken or Carne con Puerco de Chile Verde.
For sweet empanadas: fill with your favorite jam, or with sweet potatoes mashed with nuts, pineapples or cranberries.