When my husband and I were recently traveling in Ecuador, we visited a beautiful old town in the southern part of the country called Cuenca. Many centuries ago, it was the second largest and important city in the Inca days (second only to Cuzco in Peru), and is today a World Heritage Site. The first day we arrived there, we walked all over Cuenca and saw street vendors everywhere selling street food. While we saw lots of different food, almost everyone sold fried empanadas filled with cheese. In Ecuador, it is common practice to fry the empanadas versus baking them, and in fact didn't see one baked empanada the entire two weeks we were there. While some are filled with meat, it's much more common to see them filled with cheese, sometimes sprinkled with sugar. After a little pleading, the owner of one restaurant where we lunched, Villa Rosa Restaurante, wrote down her recipe for me. I've made theirs a few times at home now and while the original recipe is delicious, I couldn't help but make my own changes with each batch. In this version, I've switched out the shortening for butter, added honey and orange zest, and increased the flour just a bit. I've experimented with the best way to fry them to prevent any filling from seeping out, and have played with the temperature of the oil quite a bit to determine the optimum temperature for quick browning, but not so quick the cheese doesn't have a chance to melt. I've included all these tips in the directions. The result is a consistently beautiful, delicious treat. I hope you try these - and if you go to Ecuador I strongly encourage you take a side trip to Cuenca and try the cheese empanadas. You won't regret it! - ChezSuzanne —TheWimpyVegetarian
Test Kitchen Notes
It's hard to argue with a fried sweet treat that is stuffed with melty cheese, and ChezSuzanne does a great job creating an exceptional empanada. I love the touch of orange in the dough. Chilling it in eight small balls helps it chill quickly and makes for easy empanada making. I like mine a little smaller, but to each their own. - biffbourgeois
all purpose flour (9 ounces)
butter (2 ounces)
honey (I used orange blossom honey)
orange zest from 1/2 large navel orange
Mexican white cheese (I used Queso Fresco)
Combine the flour, salt, and butter in a food processor. Process while you pour in the water. Add the honey. Process until the dough comes together into a ball (about 30 seconds). Remove the dough and knead a couple minutes until it's smooth.
Divide the dough into 8 pieces. Roll them into a tight ball and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Roll the balls out with a dusting of flour until they are very thin, about 1/8" thick. Sprinkle a little orange zest over the top and roll it into the dough with 1 clean sweep of a rolling pin.
Roughly grate the cheese and form a small ball of it, about 1 ounce in weight or a big heaping tablespoon. Place the ball on the round of dough a little off center. Stretch 1/2 of the dough circle over it and seal it on top of the other 1/2 of the dough circle. As you seal it, make sure you are fitting the dough around the cheese as tightly as you can. Any air trapped in there will expand with the heat of the oil, and while the bubbly surface is desired from the air expansion, you don't want so much expansion that the cheese starts to leak out. If the dough is not sealing well, brush a little water on the bottom half of the semi-circle and stick the top half of the semi-circle to it. You can press down the edges with the tines of a fork, or do what I did (pictured) which was to stretch and fold sections over each other.
Heat oil in a pot (I used a Crueset casserole pot) at least 2" deep to 380F. You want to use an oil that has a high smoking temperature like grapeseed oil or Canola. Pop the empanadas into the hot oil. They will immediately puff up and float to the top. Keep the oil between 375F and 385F for the best results and fry for 1 minute on each side or until they are a golden brown. I was able to fry 3 at a time in my pot. If you fry many more than that, the browning will get away from you since it's very quick work.
Remove the empanadas from the oil, place on paper towels and lightly dust with sugar immediately. Serve warm.