Earning a clinical psychology degree may not have been the most direct way to launch an empanada business, but Luisa Masliah, a youthful 50-year-old Springs resident, is happiest when her agile hands are dancing in dough.
Growing up in Montevideo, Uruguay, the youngest of four, Masliah, who goes by Luchi, helped her mother prep meals for their extended family. “With 10 or more at the table, every meal was a production,” she says. “I remember a tower of chicken Milanese and the kids, assembly-line-style, flouring, dipping and breading.”
Masliah, a true citizen of the world, learned to cook with her mother and grandmother, embraced their Eastern European heritage and melded it with her father’s Turkish roots to create her own culinary persona. One summer near Punta del Este, the fashionable enclave on the Atlantic coast often called the Hamptons of South America, she founded a catering company and named it Gula Gula, meaning a double dose of gluttony.
“I came to the United States because in Uruguay,” she says, “I felt I was missing out on the world.” Age 18, Masliah landed at JFK on a Saturday in 1988 and found a job by Monday. Soon she became a chef assistant at the New School so she could afford the cooking classes. “I walked all around New York and couldn’t believe the different foods I was seeing,” she says. At the time, there were no Thai, Japanese or even Mexican restaurants in Uruguay.
Later, when her roommate Kathy quit the trading floor on Wall Street, they started making warm lunches for hungry traders. “We would walk into the Twin Towers with our coolers filled to the brim,” she says. “It was a different time.”
Masliah then met her husband and with him moved to Amagansett where they ran the Amagansett Fish Co. It would take a few years and a sprinkling of professional twists and turns until the Saturday she found herself staring at the vendors in the Sag Harbor farmers market. “I kept thinking, ‘What could I make that I could bring?’ And suddenly it hit me: Empanadas! The epitome of portable food.”
From raviolis to dumplings and turnovers, every culture has found a way to wrap deliciousness in dough. It is believed empanadas made their way to South America from Galicia, the northwestern Spanish province, and that pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela may have already known about them in the 12th century.
But of course, with her multiethnic palate, Masliah had to create her own interpretation. In her test kitchen, she came up with three different kinds of dough: olive oil, whole wheat and corn masa.
At this point, Masliah offers frozen and fully baked ready-to-eat empanadas with nine different fillings, including six vegetarian options. Among the varieties are: greens—meaning kale, Swiss chard, garlic and manchego cheese; Indian spiced potato and spinach; Tex Mex without beef; and for carnivores, bison with green olives, raisins and onions.
She has also come up with her own chimichurri sauce. “Typically empanadas are not served with sauce since all the flavors are concentrated in the fillings.” But customers kept asking for something to dip the pastries in. “One morning at Quail Hill Farm, I picked mint, cilantro and parsley, and started playing with them in the kitchen.” The result is a bright-green, intense dip. It’s not spicy per se, but more akin to a vibrant river of spring.
“Do you mind if I continue while we talk?” she asks, because Masliah does everything by hand and only rents the Dreesen’s kitchen in East Hampton three days a week, she is pressed for time. “I don’t want to ever mass-produce,” she says, “but beyond the farmers markets and SagTown Coffee, which carries my empanadas, I would love to find a small shop somewhere.”
Her fingers seem to have a life of their own as she cuts the circles of dough, spoons out a miniature packet of diced ham, cheese and basil before folding the pocket and pressing tightly. “I could have a whole line of products, I could invent new combinations.” The fingers keep moving but Masliah finally stands still, her eyes dreamy.