Paola Velez's Ham-and-Cheese Empanadas

An inventive way to repurpose holiday leftovers.

Paola Velez’s Ham-and-Cheese Empanadas
Photo: Victor Protasio; Food Styling: Emily Nabors Hall; Prop Styling: Audrey Davis
Active Time:
40 mins
Rest Time:
30 mins
Chill Time:
10 mins
Total Time:
1 hrs 20 mins
18 empanadas

In Latin cultures, Christmas Eve is known as Noche Buena, and it's a night for big meals, big celebrations, and big gatherings. For our family, a Honey Baked Ham was always part of the feast. This recipe for ham-stuffed empanadas finds its inspiration in those lively holiday traditions as well as in some key moments from my upbringing.

I grew up in the Bronx in New York City, but every summer, my mother made sure I experienced a part of my heritage in the Dominican Republic. For three or four months, I stayed with my extended family in the countryside, or what we fondly called "El Campo" (the camp). That place always had such a rich sense of community. Spending time on my family's land made me extraordinarily appreciative of fresh herbs (like achiote, oregano, and cilantro), fruits (such as passion fruit, mangoes, and guavas), and other tropical produce (like cacao, tamarind, and avocado) because they all grew at El Campo. Those childhood summers shaped the person I am and how I cook and bake now, blending my culture with classic techniques in a fun and playful style.

These empanadas repurpose holiday leftovers in an inventive way. I take that traditional ham and cocoon pieces of it in a light and airy dough to make empanadas that hit on all the right notes of savory and sweet. After Noche Buena, I pair them with rice and beans for an easy lunch. They are a delicious way to bring core memories to life, especially when I'm not able to be with my family.

Paola Velez (@smallorchids) is the pastry chef and cofounder of Bakers Against Racism in Washington, D.C.


  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface

  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

  • ¾ cup water, at room temperature, plus more as needed

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for frying

  • 3 ounces leftover fully cooked spiral-cut ham, cut into ½-inch cubes (about ⅔ cup)

  • 3 ounces low-moisture cheese such as mozzarella, Cheddar, or queso blanco, cut into ¼-inch cubes or shredded (about ⅔ cup)


  1. Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt in a large mixing bowl until well combined. Make a well in middle of flour mixture. Add ¾ cup water and 3 tablespoons vegetable oil to the well in mixing bowl.

  2. Using hands, mix ingredients together until dough is tacky but not sticky. If dough is dry, add water (in 1-teaspoon increments) until dough comes together. Form dough into a ball, and place in bowl. Cover with a dish towel, and let rest at room temperature 30 minutes to an hour.

  3. Meanwhile, combine ham and cheese in a medium bowl; set aside.

  4. Lightly flour countertop. Divide dough into 18 (1-ounce) balls. Using a rolling pin, roll out each ball into a 4-inch disk. Spoon 1 tablespoon ham mixture onto half of each disk, making sure not to overfill. Dab finger or pastry brush in small bowl of water, tap off excess moisture, and run around outside edge of empanada dough on the half containing filling. Fold dough edges over to form half circles; crimp with a fork to seal. Place on a lightly floured rimmed baking sheet, and repeat process with remaining dough. If empanadas are too soft when you pick them up from tray, chill 10 minutes before frying.

  5. Pour oil to a depth of 2 inches in a large Dutch oven; heat over medium to 350°F. Working in 4 or 5 batches, fry empanadas until golden, 90 seconds to 2 minutes per side. Place on a paper towel-lined plate or baking sheet. Serve immediately, or cool completely and chill in an airtight container for up to 5 days. Reheat in oven.

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