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Empanadas from The South American Kitchen

Once we discovered Mariana Heeringa's empanadas, made exactly as we make them ourselves, we hung up our empanada hats for good. She differs from us in that she uses a sour cream pastry, but the filling is made to our original recipe. 

Originally from Argentina, Mariana worked as a pastry chef across the country, but her empanada dreams came alive while travelling across South America on a small motorbike with her then-boyfriend now-husband. We find out a little bit more.

When did you start making empanadas?

I've eaten empanadas my whole life. I remember the first time I made empanadas on my own (including the dough) was for my dad's 40th birthday. I was 16 then and made cocktail empanadas for all the guests. It was a big achievement! 

What inspired you? And what is it about empanadas that you love?

I met my now husband in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He had been traveling for 1.5 years and decided to go back to Buenos Aires to improve his Spanish. I used to manage a hostel there. The other staff were busy so I stepped in to help and ended up checking him in. Seven days later he moved in with me and since then, we’ve never been apart. We decided to come and live in Sydney, where he was born. But before that, we bought the smallest cheapest (terrible) motorbike we could find and travelled through South America for four months. Even though a mechanic told us "I wouldn't take this motorbike for a ride even to the corner of this street!", we ended up getting from Buenos Aires all the way down to Ecuador!

During our adventure (just like Che Guevara!) we had time to think of our future and I knew I wanted to do something new. I wanted to start my own business (I always felt one day I would, that's why after years of cooking I decided to work in a hostel and get some new knowledge as I thought one day I might have my own bed & breakfast with a small boutique restaurant in it). 

But the one thing we found in common in every country we travelled through, in every little town, was empanadas. This is the one meal that unites all South Americans. They change fillings and dough in every place. Sometimes they are baked, sometimes they are fried. But we all eat empanadas. 

So that was it... I arrived in Australia in 2013 and in late 2014 started planning my empanada business, which took a while to kick off as I fell pregnant, twice, since then. 

Tell us about the ingredients and method of making the perfect empanadas.

The perfect empanadas are the ones your grandma, grandpa, mum or dad used to make as a kid. There is no way anything can replace that. It's like the movie Ratatouille...it's all about memories and love. Empanadas take me home... But as always, you can only do the best if you have good ingredients and get to know the dough. They need to be juicy (we say they are not good empanadas if it doesn't get messy!) so it is vital to prepare the filling one day in advance, to let it rest and cool before assembling them.  The baking is important too, because good empanadas are juicy and if you overcook them, they will burst. A very hot oven and a short bake is the secret (In Argentina empanadas are made in pizza ovens!).

What is your favourite filling?

That is an impossible question to answer... My heart says my dad's Empanadas Cordobesas which are sweet and have beef, olives and sultanas. But I do enjoy our vegetarian empanadas that have pumpkin, feta and spinach. 

Can you tell us a bit about your pastry chef background?

I started my career working for a popular chef called Martiniano. He used to do lots of TV shows, cookbooks and events so that gave me a wide experience in different areas of gastronomy. After I finished my studies and became a professional chef, I moved to Patagonia (at the southern end of Argentina) and worked in hotels - always in the pastry area.

But before that I travelled to Spain and did a stage in the famous restaurant Mugaritz. That was an incredible experience that I will never forget. It was the equivalent of being part of the World Cup, if you are a soccer fan. We worked hard but what surprised me is that even though we were literally running for 11 hours nonstop from Tuesday till Sunday, we were always in a happy environment. Everything was precise, organised, well thought out, clean and efficient. I loved it. And from the head chef to the guys operating the dishwashers, we were all treated equally. 

I also did a short workshop with Ramon Morato who is a hero pastry chef in Spain. That was also a mind-blowing experience.

What inspired you to come to Australia?

I came to Australia at the end of 2013 and never looked back. I am now an Argentinian-Aussie citizen and enjoy mixing both cultures, ingredients, languages and recipes together. My kids speak both English and Spanish and they are empanada experts... I try to keep up with them.

The South American Kitchen pumpkin and spinach empanadas are on the Dinner Ladies Favourites menu all the time, but this week beef picadillo empanadas as well as chicken and chorizo empanadas are new to our Specials menu.