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  1. Cooking

Cooking Challenge: Making Pumpkin Empanaditas and Black Pepper and Bourbon Caramel Chews for fall

e_SDLqIt feels like fall," my friend Tori says. "Not weather-wise, but in my soul."

She's wearing a sweatshirt and leggings, even though the high is 91 degrees. I breathe in the smell of cinnamon as she stirs the dough for pumpkin empanaditas. She's right. Who cares if Florida is sweltering? It's October, and our souls feel like autumn.

Like the characters in the beginning of a horror flick, we are blissfully naive.

To celebrate this time of year, we're challenging ourselves to make two recipes: savory Pumpkin Empanaditas (tiny empanadas) and sweet Black Pepper and Bourbon Caramel Chews. We play music from The Nightmare Before Christmas on Pandora, which is the closest we can get to Halloween music.

Eerie piano music creeps into the kitchen as we prepare the empanaditas. Tori is concerned because I got this recipe from my old American Girl cookbook, which I've saved since 1998. The red cover still looks glossy and brand new. Inside, illustrations depict Josefina, the American Girl doll who lived in 1824 New Mexico, and her favorite dishes.

"I don't know how well-vetted Josefina's empanaditas are," Tori cautions.

She is too kind to ask why we are cooking a doll recipe. Here's the thing: As a kid, I loved reading the cookbook, but was too scared to actually make anything. Still, it imprinted on me. I now associate Pumpkin Empanaditas with luxurious fall feasts. Almost 20 years later, I'm finally ready to bake them.

Tori and I laugh over the tips for child cooks: "You will need an adult to help you." Actually, we do. We can't figure out why the empanadita dough feels so dry. My mom drifts into the kitchen and helps us add cold water until it forms a ball.

"It feels like brains," I say, massaging the dough.

"It does," Tori says. "It feels like innards."

Frenetic piano music plays on Pandora, reminding us of circus clowns. I feel a chill of fear.

All too quickly, we forget this moment of foreboding. While the dough sets in the fridge, we work on our Halloween candy recipe. I'm shocked to learn that caramel is not an extract, like vanilla: It's made from heating sugar. Tori knew this all along.

To make the candy, you begin by heating sugar, heavy cream, honey, bourbon and salt in a heavy-bottomed pot.

Tori hands me a wooden spoon. The liquid bubbles, bubbles, toils and ...


Sticky caramel sauce boils over the pot, coating the stove. It's impossible to get the mixture to reach 245 degrees without boiling over. After stirring for half an hour, we give up and add the remaining ingredients. The recipe says to let the caramel cool completely until it is set to a semifirm consistency, so I stick it in the fridge. The caramel sauce only reached 220 degrees, but that's good enough, right?

"Do you want to make the egg wash?" Tori says. "We want to make sure at least the empanaditas come through."

That's when I realize she has lost faith in the caramels.

Rolling out the empanada dough, we use a 2-inch cookie cutter to form discs. They are perfect and miniature. Tori looks up at me, her smile frozen.

"Are these for dolls?" she asks.

I assure her that no, the food is not made for dolls, even though it's from a doll cookbook. But the empanadas do look creepily doll-sized, so we switch to a larger cookie cutter. Now for the fun part: We place one tablespoon of spiced pumpkin filling in the center of each disc, then fold it over and seal the edges with a fork. It feels like wrapping a gift.

Fifteen minutes later, we remove the mini empanadas from the oven. I don't even wait for one to cool. I break off a piece of crust and pop it into my mouth, then dash into the other room to rescue my 10-month-old puppy from her latest mischief.

When I come back into the kitchen, my mom and Tori wear identical expressions of horror. They each hold an empanadita.

"It tastes very hearty, like something Josefina would eat," Tori says tactfully.

"It tastes like a dog biscuit," my mom says.

Tori rushes to the fridge and kneels before the caramel, shaking the pan.

"It's getting less liquidy! There's a crust on it!"

I never feel hopeful when my food forms a crust.

After cooking for three hours, I'm determined to enjoy this empanadita. I stuff it in my mouth, marveling at the bizarre combination of flavor and texture. Why does the filling taste like pumpkin-flavored cough syrup? Why is the crust so pale, yet so tough? Then I reach for a second one.

"No," Tori says gently, laying her hand over it. "No."

Her eyes plead with me not to embark on this suicide mission. That's when I know she has lost faith in the empanaditas.

We return to the caramels, which still haven't hardened, even though they have chilled for an hour. There's no way we can form them into candy shapes. Resigned, we stick spoons into the liquid and lick it.

The flavor is … bad. It's a slippery, almost-caramel texture that oozes down your throat and lodges somewhere above your esophagus.

We gag.

We shove the vat of caramel goo back in the fridge, then stuff potato chips in our mouths until our stomachs stop rocking. We wrap the empanaditas in foil. We order pizza.

The verdict

The next morning, I coat the empanaditas with melted butter, stick them back in the oven and cook them on the broiler setting until they brown. I eat one for breakfast. It's no better.

I re-read the subtitle of my American Girl cookbook, which promises "A Peek at Dining in the Past With Meals You Can Cook Today." That explains it. These empanaditas really taste like something from the 1800s — incredibly dense, and not remotely sweet. Even my puppy showed no interest in sneaking a bite.

No amount of refrigeration can save the caramels. What happened? I suspect we didn't use a large enough pot, which is why it continually boiled over. Because it couldn't reach the required 245 degrees, the ingredients never truly combined.

On the bright side, now I don't need to attend Halloween Horror Nights. I got a free ticket to terror, without leaving my kitchen.

Contact Emily Young at