For easy deadline cooking, the ethnic section of your grocer's freezer aisle has a hidden gem - frozen empanada shells.
These simple pastry disks (usually about 6 inches around) are intended to be folded over a filling, then fried or baked (either way, cooking takes just minutes) until flakey and crisp. They work wonderfully with both sweet and savory fillings.
And while empandas are a Mexican food, don't limit yourself to that cuisine when deciding what to stuff them with. Curried vegetables are wonderful (with mango chutney as a dipping sauce), as are chicken and beef in teriyaki sauce.
For a quick and party-friendly dessert, stuff the empanadas with lightly caramelized fruit, such as apples, plums, bananas or pears. Eat them as is, or dust them with powdered sugar or cocoa powder.
Whatever filling you use, it is important it be cooked before putting it in the shell. Once stuffed, empanadas cook for only about 10 minutes, enough time to melt cheese or heat the fillings, but not long enough to cook most foods.
Empanada shells should be kept frozen until ready to use. To thaw, remove them from the freezer about 15 minutes before you are ready to stuff them, remove them from the package and separate them.
Empanada dough is sticky, so place the thawing shells on parchment paper (or the sheets of paper that separate them inside the package). As you fill the empanadas, arrange them on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, or they will stick.
Asian markets sell inexpensive wonton folders. These work by placing a wonton over the round clamshell-style device, adding the filling to the center, then folding it and pressing to create a seal. These work well with empanadas, too.
If you don't have one of these devices, simply fold the empanadas by hand and use a fork to crimp and seal the edge.
CARAMELIZED PEAR TARTS
Start to finish: 30 minutes (15 minutes active)
8 frozen empanada shells
2 large pears
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
Preheat oven to 425 F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
Remove the empanada shells from the package and separate them, arranging them on parchment paper (or the paper dividers from the package) to thaw. This will take about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, cut each pear in half down the center. Use a spoon or melon baller to core the pears, then cut each half into quarters. Set aside.
In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Sprinkle the cinnamon and cardamom over the melted butter, then place the pear slices in the pan. Cook for 2 minutes, or until the pears are lightly browned on the bottom.
Use tongs to gently turn the pear slices and cook for another minute. Remove the pan from the heat.
Place two pear slices in the center of an empanada shell, then carefully fold the dough clamshell-style over it. Use a fork to gently press and crimp the edge to seal.
Transfer the empanada to the prepared baking sheet, then repeat with remaining ingredients.
Lightly mist the empanadas with cooking spray, then bake for 10 minutes. Use a spatula or tongs to flip the empanadas, them mist again with cooking spray. Bake for another 5 minutes.
Serve plain or dusted with powdered sugar.
EDITOR'S NOTE: J.M. Hirsch can be e-mailed at jhirsch(at)ap.org.