When I lived in South America, empanadas were a staple of my diet. Back in the United States, however, good empanadas are few and far between. Therefore, when I saw an empanada cooking class advertised as a Claiming Williams event, I immediately signed up. (Sometimes, reading Daily Messages can really work out in your favor!)
The class was pretty popular, so participants were selected from a lottery of all those who signed up. I was one of the lucky ones. On Claiming Williams Day, I arrived in Paresky Bakeshop at 2 p.m., decked out, as instructed, in a pair of close-toed shoes. I’d chosen to be rebellious and ignore the advice that we wear clothes we wouldn’t mind getting some flour on, instead donning a black shirt and a pair of my favorite pants. Luckily, when we arrived, we were given aprons, so my clothes remained flour-free. We were also given paper chefs’ hats, which we labeled with our names.
We gathered around the counter in the bakeshop, and Chef Miguel Gutierrez of Dining Services began the class. He first told us that it was important that we wear our hats, because no one likes hair in his or her food. He then explained that empanadas originated in Spain but are now a popular food throughout the Americas. The chef added that he and his wife Reina had worked really hard to get the correct proportions of the recipe we were about to use.
With that introduction, Gutierrez sent us to wash our hands and outfitted us with gloves. Gutierrez then counted us off and divided us into five groups. Although there was some initial confusion, four groups were assigned to make meat-filled empanadas, while one group set up at a separate station to make vegetarian ones. The necessary supplies were set up ahead of time for us in trays, so each group retrieved its bin and got to work chopping up vegetables for the filling.
My group members were Paul Hwang ’19 and Karen Swann, co-chair of the Claiming Williams Steering Committee and associate dean for institutional diversity. We quickly realized that with only one giant knife and a single cutting board, chopping was not a group project. We took turns slicing different vegetables. First, I cut the green peppers, then Swann diced the tomato, and then Hwang took one for the team and volunteered to slice the onion. With tears in his eyes, Hwang offered to cut the rest of the veggies, too.
As Hwang moved on to the garlic, Swann and I began to make the dough. We started with corn flour and added some baking soda, salt and warm water. The dough began to form as we struggled with the directive: “Add water until proper consistency is achieved.”
A short while later, Gutierrez collected our chopped up tomatoes, garlic, peppers and onions to combine them with the ground sirloin that he had cooked for the filling. Swann and I split the dough into 12 equal parts while Hwang began to chop a second round of veggies to make the gazpacho. Gutierrez showed us how to use a little machine to form the balls of dough into rounded disks. After waiting patiently, as there was only one machine for five groups, Swann and I began to create the discs that would soon contain the meat mixture and become the shell of our empanadas.
After we’d finished, Hwang and I began to fill the shells and create our empanadas. Theoretically, we would put a spoonful or two of filling in the middle, fold over the disc and use a fork to close it. However, we experienced great difficulty in doing this, because the dough had been out too long and had dried out considerably. Thus, when we would try to fold it over, it would crack right on the seam and our empanada would fall apart. After consulting Gutierrez, we began a new approach of sprinkling some warm water on the dough to try and keep it from falling apart. We had more success with this new technique, but the dough was still a strange consistency that seemed to crack easily.
At last, our 12 empanadas were constructed, albeit with varying levels of cohesion, and sent off to the deep fryer. The gazpacho was mixed and divided into little bowls for individual consumption. After a few minutes of cleanup, we gathered once more to enjoy the fruits of our labor. The empanadas were tasty and well worth our labor. The gazpacho accompanied them well, and as one peer commented, “All of these veggies almost make you feel better about the deep-fried element of the empanadas.” Although I only tried the meat empanada, many people in the class said that the vegetable ones were delicious.
For those curious to taste the chef’s empanadas for themselves, Gutierrez said that the staff at ’82 Grill, where he works, are currently trying to add empanadas to the menu. While our dough may have been less-than-perfect and we remained in the audience for much of the actual cooking, this class was a tasty and enjoyable way to participate in Claiming Williams.