ELMWOOD PARK — Empanadas are simple—that's why people all over the world eat them.
In most countries, an empanada is made by flattening dough, piling stuffing on top, folding the dough over and sealing it shut.
That last step is what Hipatia Lopez thought she could improve on.
In her household, her husband Henry is the cook. He makes upwards of 100 empanadas at a time for family meals during the holidays.
Lopez's job is to close them, with the help of her three kids.
The most common way to seal an empanada is to press down on the edges of the folded-over dough with a fork, which mashes it together and leaves neat-looking ridges. But after several dozen empanadas, Lopez's thumb would always start hurting, and her kids would grumble too.
That's how she came up with what she calls the empanada fork. It looks sort of like a potato masher, but with a horizontal handle and a stainless steel head shaped like a half-moon with about two dozen tiny prongs pointing inward along the curved edge.
Instead of using a fork several times on an empanada, Lopez can use the empanada fork to press down once for each pastry.
And that's it. It's so simple, Lopez was sure it already existed.
After her thumbs recovered from that Thanksgiving meal, Lopez searched for an easier way—on the Internet, in department stores—but turned up nothing. But that wasn't enough for her to do anything about it—yet.
"I sat on the idea for a year," she said. "A whole year."
She was finally moved to action when the next Thanksgiving rolled around, and she was faced with the prospect of sealing another 100 empanadas with a fork. Lopez went back to her computer and started looking up patent lawyers.
Eventually she connected with Michael J. Feigin, a patent attorney with an office in Passaic. The process took a year, which was a "huge headache," Lopez said, made worse by the fact that she couldn't talk about it.
"The secrecy of that kills a person," she said.
But Lopez got her patent [pdf]. Dated Dec. 4, 2012, it declares Hipatia Lopez the inventor of the "Empanada Utensil" and protects her claim on the design for 14 years.
Lopez still thinks it's "mind-boggling."
"I'm sure hundreds of people thought of it," she said. "I couldn't have been the first—it just makes no sense."
Now, Lopez wants to see her invention on store shelves, in restaurant and home kitchens. Soon after receiving her patent, Lopez formed a limited liability company called HL Unico, and put up a website where she's selling the Empanada Fork for $19.99.
She's taken the empanada fork to restaurants serving Hispanic food. She's told people about it on Facebook. She's walked into supermarkets with it.
"All they can say is no, and I'll never see them again," Lopez said.
Along the way, she's heard of other uses for the empanada fork. Bakers said they could use it to seal apple turnovers. Cooks at Spanish restaurants ended up using it to mash plantains.
And people already want a smaller version. Italian cooks want something for ravioli. Polish cooks want something for pierogies.
But that's still a long way off, Lopez said. Making a mold is expensive, and it took two designs—one plastic, one aluminum—before Lopez and her supplier in Hackensack settled on a stainless steel model that didn't break with repeated use.
HL Unico is Lopez's first business. After studyng accounting in college, the Hackensack native worked part-time while raising her three children in Elmwood Park.
For years, she's paid to renew her real estate license, though she hadn't done anything with it. She'll stop this year.
"I had an idea that I thought would only be a dream, but I decided to follow through," she said. "Dreams come true."