lessons from abuela, and sausage and potato mini empanadas

When my children were transitioning to solid foods, moving beyond the rice cereal phase, I gave them simple things to try – simply prepared chicken, unseasoned peas, mushy carrots, and whatever the little jars of baby food held. I am sure that I read in a baby book or was advised by A Knowledgeable Person that bland is better, because this was my mantra when preparing the kids’ meals back then. That technique worked well for my daughter. She was a good eater, and she liked just about everything we put in front of her.

Oliver was another story. My son picked at his food, spit out what was in his mouth, or just played with the indistinguishable bits of mushy, overcooked vegetables. Food, or at least the meals that I prepared back then, never seemed to interest him.

For Oliver’s first birthday, we invited his nanny to the party. Meri, or Abuela as we fondly called her, had watched Madeline until my daughter was two, and she was doing the same with Oliver. The party food that day was simple – ham and turkey sandwiches, potato chips, and likely some other equally boring, unmemorable fare. Oliver nibbled on a sandwich roll, and in typical fashion, ignored the rest of the food.

Abuela arrived carrying a wrapped present for the birthday boy and a platter of ham croquetas, a traditional dish from her home country of Cuba. Abuela’s croquetas were still warm and a little greasy from their stint in the fryer, wonderfully crisp on the outside, and soft and creamy on the inside. After the first few he devoured, I lost count of how many Oliver ate.

A light bulb went off for me then. Oliver was spending nine hours a day in a home permeated with the scents of garlic and onion mixed with the aroma of café con leche. His breakfast, lunch, and snacks consisted of the traditional Cuban meals that Abuela prepared daily. His earliest meals of that first year of his life were black beans and rice, arroz con pollo, empanadas, ropa vieja, and more. And, after our work each evening, we picked our little boy up, took him home, and fed him unseasoned peas and chicken.

While I made these sausage and potato empanadas for my daughter’s end of the year class party this past week, I reflected on that experience with Oliver. I learned from Abuela not to be afraid of exposing my children to seasoning and spices, simply because they were unfamiliar to me and I wasn’t comfortable using them yet. Those baby books I read that advised bland diets for babies were old fashioned and written for scared American moms like me. I’m happy to see that the rules are now changing and parents are now being counseled differently.

Right before Oliver turned two, we took him out of Abuela’s home and put him in a preschool. He was becoming a bit of a handful for her – and she was spoiling him rotten – plus, her health was failing. Not long after that, she was diagnosed with acute leukemia. She didn’t survive very long with the cancer. It weakened her and made her susceptible to infections. At Abuela’s funeral mass, her friends and family gathered to pay tribute to her life. One by one, over the course of an hour, men and women stood up from the church’s pews and recounted stories of their time with Meri, her love for her family, and her love for the children she cared for. They all spoke of her amazing cooking, and every one of them radiated joy when they did so.

Yield: 22 to 24.

Sausage and Potato Mini Empanadas

These savory hand pies are easy to make ahead and freeze for later. The filling can be adjusted to your taste -- use chorizo or chicken sausage instead of regular pork sausage or add some chopped pepper.


For Dough:
2 cups (8 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup water
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon white vinegar

For Filling:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
½ pound pork sausage
½ Vidalia onion (or other sweet onion), finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/8 teaspoon coarse salt
1 small Yukon Gold potato (about 4 ounces), diced into ¼-inch pieces
3 tablespoons golden raisins, coarsely chopped
1 egg
1 tablespoon milk


Make Dough:

Whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt. Add to bowl of food processor, and using the blade, pulse the flour with the chilled butter pieces until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Beat the eggs with the water and vinegar; pour over the flour mixture in the food processor. Pulse until the dough just comes together. Pour the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and gently knead until smooth. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour.

Make Filling:

Over medium heat, heat oil in a 10- or 12-inch skillet. Remove sausage from casings, crumble into skillet, and cook sausage, breaking up larger pieces with a wooden spoon, until browned and no pink remains, approximately 5 minutes. Transfer sausage with slotted spoon to a medium bowl.

Add onion and garlic to the skillet and cook until the onion is soft, about 5 minutes. Add the salt and diced potatoes; stirring occasionally, cook until the potatoes are just tender, approximately 15 minutes. Add the onion and potato mixture to the sausage, toss in the raisins, and stir well to combine. Allow to cool to room temperature.

Form and Cook Empanadas:

On a generously floured work surface, roll out the dough 1/8 inch thick. With a 3-inch round biscuit cutter, punch out as many rounds as possible. Reroll the dough scraps and punch out additional rounds if possible. You will have approximately 22 rounds.

Work with 1 round at a time, keeping the remaining rounds covered with plastic wrap. Spoon 1 heaping teaspoon of the filling on one side of the dough round. Fold the dough over to enclose the filling and crimp the edges with a fork to seal. Place on a parchment-lined sheet pan and cover with plastic wrap while you form the remaining empanadas. Place in freezer to set while the oven is preheating.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and place rack in the middle of oven.

Once oven is heated, make an egg wash by beating together the egg and milk. Brush the empanadas with the egg wash and space evenly on the lined baking sheet. Bake for 25 minutes or until golden brown.

Make ahead: Filled but uncooked empanadas can be placed on a parchment lined sheet pan and frozen. When frozen, transfer empanadas to a freezer bag. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 to 35 minutes.


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7 Responses to “lessons from abuela, and sausage and potato mini empanadas”

  1. 1
    Tammy — June 8, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

    What delightful memories she created with her love for children and yummy Cuban cooking. This was a wonderful story and great recipe. Americans are fearful of spices and many of them are very good for you. They offer a wealth of health benefits without calories and add flavor to your food.

  2. 2
    Tamara — June 8, 2012 @ 6:00 pm

    Abuela’s lessons and legacy will always live on through you and your kids 🙂 Thanks for sharing them! Oh, and empanadas are my favorite! 🙂

  3. 3
    DessertForTwo — June 12, 2012 @ 1:24 pm

    I so enjoyed reading this and it made me smile to think about little Oliver enjoying delicious Cuban food and coming home to bland chicken & peas 🙂

  4. 4
    Jenny @ BAKE — June 15, 2012 @ 6:37 am

    It sounds like she was a wonderful lady, your empanadas look incredible!

  5. 5
    Stephanie — June 15, 2012 @ 7:33 am

    I used to make emanadads with pre-made dough. I’m so glad you published this reciepe, now I’ll try to do my own dough! 🙂

  6. 6
    Elin — June 22, 2012 @ 10:44 pm

    What a touching story from the memories of Meri. It makes me want to appreciate any good empanada even more.

  7. 7
    Kelly Stilwell — January 18, 2013 @ 9:59 am

    You were blessed that you had such a sweet nanny. We are still friends with the sitters we used when our girls were small. These empanadas look amazing. Can’t wait to make them!

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