One of my favorite desserts my grandmother made were her empanadas. She stuffed them with apples, guyabas, cherries, pineapple and that favorite of my Papa Chava’s; pumpkin. He adored empanadas de calabaza and so did I. I couldn’t get enough of them and I especially loved them hot out of the oven where I could only nibble because it was so steaming. I burnt my tongue many a time and I still kept eating.
My grandmother Lupe still had family in Ventura County up a couple of hours north from L.A. Occasionally, someone would show up with boxes or bags of fruit or vegetables and especially the delicious Valencia oranges that were her favorites. One day, I think it was her brother Maximo came by and brought a MASSIVE banana squash. It literally was about 4 feet long. The thing was a beast and we all just marveled at it. I had no idea what we’d do with it, but my grandmother did. She took one look at it and said, “empanadas.”
No one could cut it. The squash was so huge that no knife in the house worked and while the men tried to saw away at it, all they managed to do was chip it. That was when my Papa took the beast out to the back and took an ax to it, while we small children watched wide-eyed and whispering. It was beyond cool.
Once the giant squash was split open we could see it was the most beautiful orange color. Just gorgeous, deep orange like the inside of a papaya and lightening to the edges to a pale pearly pink. It has to be about 40 years since that squash was split open but I still vividly remember the colors of it. It was like a jewel or a magic fruit in a fairy tale. It captured my imagination then and has never left it.
My grandfather got it into piles of manageable pieces and my grandmother and aunts set about to steaming it in large stock pots. Some of it went into the oven with butter and a little brown sugar. When it was done, we ate it with a spoon happily and washed it down with milk.
I remember seeing big mixing bowls full of the squash pulp now turned to a puree with my grandmother mashing it. In went the spices, ginger, cinnamon, mace and sugar and the masa for the empanada was sitting in large covered bowls. My Aunt Jessie formed the masa into small balls and covered them with a damp kitchen towel so they wouldn’t dry out. It took all the aunts and uncles, my Papa and us kids helping but tray after glorious tray of empanadas came out of the oven piping hot, steaming their goodness all over. Tons of the squash puree went into the fridge and freezer too for another day’s empanadas.
There have been years and years of empanadas since and lots of good times, but nothing compares to my wide-eyed wonder of a gigantic banana squash that was magically turned into pumpkin-tasting empanadas and my grandfather’s super hero powers with the axe that split it open. I’m steaming pumpkin for the grandkids to help me make empanadas tomorrow (we’re doing some apple ones and fig ones too so stay tuned for pictures and recipes) with but I am finding myself wistful for another time and place – one with a huge banana squash and a houseful of loved ones that now only exist in memory.