I love traveling with fellow foodies. They may occasionally try to scarf your share of food, but mostly, the best of fellow foodies got your back.
So there we were, in Mendoza Argentina, munching on yet more empanadas and sipping Malbec, courtesy of Hostel Lao's regular Saturday pre-dinner generosity for its guests. UK native hostel owner Michael Elder is chatting with fellow Singaporean foodie and South America travel companion "Hollow Legs" Jas, and asks her if there's anything in particular she's looking to do while in Mendoza.
Jas immediately responds, "I really want to learn how to make empanadas."
And then a little magic happens.
"We can do that," says Michael, "My (Argentinean) wife's mother does cooking classes occasionally. She's picky about who comes to the class. But you 2 girls are from Singapore. Everybody knows you guys are serious about your food. I'm sure she'll take you."
Have I ever been prouder to be a Singaporean?
A couple of calls are made, a price of ARS 100 per person is agreed on, and taxis are booked to take us to Litto and Maria Viotti's home on Monday (Aug 23), the day after we are to spend my birthday at Termas de Cachueta.
Getting Educated About Empanadas
Soon after brief introductions, Dom and Babs are put to work slicing 8 (surprisingly not overly teary) onions at the kitchen table.
Maria heats up a pot generously greased with beef tallow, chucks the sliced onions in, and seasons the onions with coarse salt, aji (ground red chili pepper), pimenton (paprika) and oregano.
She lets the onions soften on medium heat for about 10 minutes, then adds in about a half kilogram ground beef.
Stir the beef and onions for another 5-10 minutes, making sure to break up all the lumps in the beef. Transfer the beef and onions onto a tray. Spread as thinly as possible to help the beef and onions to cool down quicker.
Meanwhile, it's time to start preparing the empanada skins. We were disappointed when Marie whipped out packets of factory-made skins rather than teaching us how to make them from scratch. Admittedly, I've read since then that most Argentinians use store-bought skins, and focus their creativity on the (endless variations of) fillings. In any case, the brand we used is Danica, if you want to look for it in stores, and it worked pretty well. I'll just have to figure out how to make the skin myself at home at some point -- probably using these posts by Cooking with the Single Guy, Laylita's Recipes and this Chowhound thread for reference.
We dust the kitchen table with flour, lay out some 40 skins, and Babs cuts up 3 hard boiled eggs and places an egg segment onto each skin.
We all pitch in to place about 1 1/2 tablespoons of the spiced beef and onion mix onto each skin. The first few dollops -- as demonstrated by Maria and followed by Babs and Jas -- are picked up by hand and squeezed so that the filling will be sufficiently dry to stay manageable on the skin. Once the filling has cooled and congealed enough, we switch to spoons.
If you have enough lead time, you can make the filling the day before you make the empanadas, and leave the fillings to cool overnight.
While we're working, Maria and her her brother Juan regale us with tales of empanadas epics, like the time they made 1,200 empanadas for a school party. Between our broken Spanish, their broken English and a few hand gestures, we work out that they had to store empanadas in refrigerators all over the neighbourhood!
A couple of times, Juan peers at an empanada Babs is making, scrunches up his face, shakes his head, and says something that sounds like an accusation that Babs is making a commercial empanada. He points to the beef and says "Mas! Mas!" (more, more).
I like these people.
Right. Time to seal the empanadas. Maria brushes water onto half the rim of a skin, folds the empanada in half and presses the seam together. Crimping the seam is a stylish but surprisingly simple 2-finger job.
Here's a quick video of Maria showing how!
Next, place the empanadas on flour-dusted baking trays. Leave space between each so they don't stick together (they expand a little in the oven).
Brush a little glaze from a beaten egg on the empanadas, and bake in the oven (maximum heat / gas mark 8) for about 20 minutes.
Every oven is different, so watch your first tray of empanadas carefully. Extract them when they've turned a golden brown. A pale yellow is too early and a deep brown / black is too late!
Dig in while they're hot!
Our "anthropological research" on empanadas continues. Between the 4 of us we've sampled specimens from Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina now. But since Monday Dom continually insists after each sampling that the ones we made at Cucina Viotti are the still best ones yet.
He did eat 7 of them at one go...
A damn fine way to spend my first day of being 32!
Many thanks to Jas for asking (we all received!) , Michael for setting this up for us, and Maria, Litto and Juan for having us.
This wasn't a formal regularly-offered cooking class, so if you're interested, best to get in touch with Michael or Celeste at Hostel Lao.