Most cultures have some sort of traditional “pocket” or meat pie food. It’s quite simple — they’re very portable, easy to make, and can be a great way to use up leftovers. And, of course, they don’t have to be meaty.
Empanadas are the traditional Latin version of the hot pocket (Hot Pockets, natch, are the traditional American version). When I was little, my grandmother, who lived for years in South America, used to make a version with meat, golden raisins, olives, and hard-boiled egg. She would sometimes come to visit us without my grandfather, and cook weeks’ worth of meals for him to heat up, including a freezer full of empanadas. When we went to Argentina and Brazil earlier this month, we tried as many versions as we could.
Empanadas come in many shapes, big and small, and can be baked, fried, or grilled. They can be filled with any sort of meat, cheese, vegetable, or sweet. There are endless variations of recipes that you can find online, but I am partial to my grandmother’s version, which is very close to a traditional Argentine empanada.
On Friday we hosted a wee empanada-making party. I made a big hunk of dough and the meat filling ahead of time, and we had provisions for a cheese-spinach filling and a membrillo-ricotta one.
(I’ll say right now that I am not much of a cook. I’m a discerning and learned eater, for sure — and I am lucky to be married to a very ambitious, and natural, cook. I have an unnatural fear of dough, though this might be because my house is curiously missing a proper set of measuring spoons. My success at these empanadas proves that anyone — really, anyone — can make these.)
This dough is pretty hard to screw up. Even after I did, indeed, screw it up, it was easily fixed by Kim’s capable hands. I doubled the recipe — which in fact did not forestall the inevitable 11pm perceived need by certain people of extreme appetite to make another batch. Which is now sitting in our fridge, as yet unused. We will be eating empanadas all week.
4 cups flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 cup cold butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup cold water
Sift together dry ingredients. Add butter, mix with fingers until mixture is crumbly. Add cold water a little at a time until dough sticks together. It should be smooth and well-integrated, which it wasn’t, until Kim massaged it. The dough should be refrigerated at least half an hour.
For the filling, I used 2lbs lean beef and 1lb pork. (I also have no sense of scale. This was way too much meat. I repeat, We will be eating empanadas all week.) I’d suggest a mix of 1lb beef and 1/2lb pork. You can also use turkey or chicken or veal — it will all work.
The proportions for these ingredients is really largely to taste. Slice an onion, saute in olive oil. Add garlic. Add meat, cook it all through. Add olives, sultana raisins, and cilantro, mix well. Season to taste. Finally, chop up a couple of hard-boiled eggs and add to the mixture. Let it cool before you fill the empanadas.
Filling the empanadas is where the party guests come into play — put them to work. This would also be fun for kids, I think.
Roll the pastry into balls and then roll them out into approximately 5-inch diameter rounds. (I like these meat empanadas to be big, hand-sized.) Put a healthy spoonful or two in the center; rim the edge with egg wash (mix an egg with a splash of water). Guests generally enjoy a party where rimming is involved. Fold over the dough and crimp it tight to keep the mixture inside.
The oven should be at 375 degrees. Brush the egg wash over the empanadas and bake for about 30 minutes, or until brown. We had to turn them over to brown them, but this is because our oven is lame.
The other fillings were simple, just thrown together. We caramelized some onions and sauteed the spinach and mixed it all together with grated manchego cheese. This version can be made in smaller sizes — about 3-inch diameter rounds.
We also made some with a spoonful of ricotta and a little membrillo paste. These would be good with a very mild cheese.
Eat. Dance party optional, but recommended.