A Pocket Full of Pumpkin Flavor


Every year after Halloween, when Yvette Marquez-Sharpnack’s carved jack-o’-lanterns looked soggy, her grandmother in El Paso saw an opportunity to repurpose them.

Jesusita Soza, who had immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, would cut the aging pumpkin into pieces and simmer it in cinnamon, cloves and piloncillo to make a purée that she stuffed into empanada dough.

Recipe: Pumpkin Empanadas

“As much as I thought my jack-o’-lantern looked sad and wilted, she still found something to make it amazing,” said Ms. Marquez-Sharpnack, a food blogger at Muy Bueno and an author of several cookbooks, who now lives in Highlands Ranch, Colo. “It’s a dessert that you crave, if you grew up with it.”

For many Mexican Americans, especially those living in states along the Mexican border, pumpkin empanadas are an enduring fall dessert, made at home or in bakeries, especially during the holiday season.

On Thanksgiving, the Houston restaurateur Sylvia Casares serves at least three dozen for dessert at her family celebrations. The recipe is from her grandmother Sarita Casares, who was born and raised in the late 1800s in the border town Reynosa, Mexico. Ms. Casares has tweaked the formula, sprinkling cinnamon sugar on top to give the empanadas a sheen.

“During Thanksgiving, I’ll have a pumpkin pie, but the empanadas are definitely the star of the show,” said Ms. Casares, the author of “The Enchilada Queen Cookbook: Enchiladas, Fajitas, Tamales, and More Classic Recipes from Texas-Mexico Border Kitchens.”

Empanadas have been around since at least 250 B.C. They made their way to Spain, and followed the Spaniards to Latin America, said Sandra Gutierrez, the author of several cookbooks including “Empanadas: The Hand-Held Pies of Latin America.”

The filling for pumpkin empanadas has its origins in calabaza en tacha (sometimes called ayote en miel or dulce de calabaza throughout Latin America), a squash dessert slow cooked with a spiced syrup, Ms. Gutierrez said. The squash, which is native to Mexico and Central America, is stewed in piloncillo or panela. In some areas of northern Mexico, the pumpkin filling also includes guava.

In Mexico, the empanada shell is made with wheat flour, yeast and cinnamon, yielding a texture that Ms. Gutierrez said is “almost like having a mixture of bread, a muffin and pie at the same time.” In the Southwestern United States, the dough has evolved into more of a flaky pie crust. Modern home cooks also sometimes use canned pumpkin or frozen store-bought empanada dough that is made specifically for baking.

For more than 50 years, bakers have made pumpkin empanadas every day at the Golden Crown Panadería in Albuquerque, N.M. The bakery’s founder, Pratt Morales, uses a recipe he learned in the 1970s from a New Mexican family whose members are no longer alive. They had been making the pumpkin empanadas — with a flaky pie-crust breading similar to a pastelito — for hundreds of years, he said, and taught Mr. Morales how to make the dessert that’s still served the same way today.

During the bakery’s busy season from October to January, Golden Crown will make nearly 5,000 pumpkin empanadas. Mr. Morales’s son, Chris Morales, said they taste like something you’d have “sitting at home with Grandma and making it together.”

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