Food — Empanadas - The Agony and the Ecstasy

Favorite of Latin American cuisine is difficult but delicious treat

Empanadas are both food perfection and perfect terrors.

These crescent-shaped meat pies that serve as staples of Hispanic cuisine can be dressed up as a fancy small plate or served en masse as the cornerstone of a down-home meal.

They come in as many variations as there are older female relatives to pass down a much-practiced recipe and, depending on their region of origin, they can be sweet, savory, fried, baked, golden brown or harvest moon orange.

And, despite the ease with which they can be served and devoured, they are a real headache to make.

The tough part is not the filling—which, whether it’s spicy meat or cheese and guava, is usually no more difficult than mixing and sautéing—it’s that damned flakey crust. The prefect empanada has a crust that’s light and crispy but substantial enough to hold in a scoop of meat.

This is so much harder than it looks.

At the city’s recent Latino Festival, empanadas were one of the popular food offerings. The ones I sampled were Puerto Rican—orange and fried to the perfect crispy but not greasy consistency.

Yum, I thought. These would be perfect to have around for snacks and dinners. I’ll whip up a batch—after all, how hard can it be? The people at the festival had to make hundreds of empanadas, I’ll only be making about 20.

Ha.

Had I, like all good empanada makers, only listened to my mother I would not have been so cavalier. As the running joke goes in my family, my mother will do anything to avoid making empanadas. So much so that when I called her for the recipe—handed down, as all empanda recipes seem to be, in our case, by my great-aunt Lolly—it took her quite a while to unearth it.

“I might have tried to hide it,” she said.

The problem with empanadas, you see, comes when you must spoon out a bit of the filling into the crust. Most of the empanada crusts are some variation of a standard pie crust. Assuming you can get it to roll out without tearing and cut out a circle of dough without having it stick to your not-quite-floured-enough surface, you must get the dough to not just fold over the filling but to stretch slightly, without ripping and dumping the whole of its (often quite warm) filling onto the pan, floor or, if you aren’t quick enough, your arm.

Though the filling might initially land in these doughy little catcher’s mitts without damage, the process of folding the dough in half and then sealing it (the fork marks around the edges work the best) can cause all sorts of bursting and ripping.

The key, as I learned after creating many a tiny little pastry volcano with a lava-like meat spewing out the top or sides, seems to be getting the dough just a notch greasier than you think it should be. (This includes keeping the dough a little oily after you’ve put the seal on the empanada. Try spraying a light coat of Pam on the pastries and then finishing them off with an egg wash to keep both dough and meat intact.) The margarine or shortening in the crust helps to lend the dough a bit more give and increase the chances that you will successfully create a creaseless crescent.

In my case, I succeeded maybe once. The other key being, apparently, swearing a whole lot. Making empanadas is apparently a rated-R-for-language activity. Luckily, eventually, the swearing subsides and crumbly empanadas taste just as good as the whole ones.

My mother would be so proud.


Aunt Lolly’s Empanada Recipe

Filling

1 pound ground beef

1 small onion, chopped fine

½ green pepper, chopped fine

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

1 can Aurturo sauce

In a skillet, brown meat over medium heat.

Add Tabasco sauce.

Add the onions, green pepper and garlic. Sauté.

Add the Aurturo sauce. Simmer until the sauce is mostly absorbed by the meat.

Crust

2 cups flour

½ teaspoon salt

2/3 cup margarine

5 tablespoons cold water

Fluff the flour and salt together in a bowl.

Add the cold margarine. Cut it into the flour using forks or a pastry mixer. Work the margarine in until dough looks like small peas.

Slowly add water as you form the dough into a ball using the forks.

Let dough rest for 10 minutes.

Take half the dough, roll it out on a floured surface. Keep roller and surfaced floured—dough will stick.

Using a biscuit cutter (or some other circular mold that is about the size of your palm) cut out circles.

Place about a tablespoon of the meat mixture in the center of the dough circles.

Carefully fold the circle, creating a crescent-shaped pastry.

Seal the ends with a fork.

Empanadas are good hot but also can be stored in the refrigerator and reheated in the oven or toaster oven or fried.

Also good cold.

Variations

Aunt Lolly was lucky enough to live where Aurturo sauce was fairly easy to find. Though this weird Italian-ish tomato-like sauce is available online in boxes of 24, it can be substituted with an 8-ounce can of tomato sauce and an extra teaspoon of Tabasco. Or you can leave it out all together—the meat just as moist and plenty flavorful without it (though I bumped up the Tabasco just to add extra heat).

Many recipes for empanadas substitute ½ cup of flour in the crust with a finely ground corn meal (called masa harina and available at most Hispanic markets). In addition to changing the texture of the crust, this can give the empanadas a deep orange color.

For extra flavor in the crust, try adding ½ to 1 teaspoon of smoked sweet paprika to the flour mixture.

And, as with most pie crust recipes, keeping your dough pliable without making it rubbery is the key. Shortening or, for true authenticity, lard can substitute for the margarine or butter (shortening can often be easier to work with). Also, to bring back dough that has become unwieldy mixing with too much flour during the rolling out processes,  throw the dough back in the bowl and, using your hands as little as possible, knead in a few drops of olive oil.

 
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