Empanadas! Little turnovers, filled with tasty stuff, you had me at hello. Every culture has some kind of dough-wrapped goodie that is irresistible, from the calzones of Italy, the samosas of India, the pasty of Britain, to the steamed dumplings of China. But Empanadas are their own little parcel of heaven.
Thanks to Sandra Gutierrez, we can now delve deeply into the delectable ways that the empanada is perfected in its many home cuisines. Her new book, Empanadas The Hand-Held Pies of Latin America (Stewart Tabori and Chang, $19.95) is a compendium of the many varieties that have evolved from the earliest bread wrapped pies.
According to Gutierrez, the ancestor of today’s empanada was made by the Persians in 250 BCE. Originally the dough was not meant to be eaten, but just to help preserve the foods inside. Eventually the casings became as delectable as the fillings, and the meandering ways of the Ottoman Empire took the form across the Middle East and Europe. The Spanish gave it the name, derived from “empanar,” meaning “wrapped in bread.” Thanks to Columbus, Spain’s foods crossed the ocean to the Americas.
Fast forward a few hundred years, and the empanada has been embraced all across Latin America, where the greatest diversity and variety of empanada types have flourished. From the savory to the sweet, simple to elaborate, Gutierrez captures the mouth-watering array of hand-held treats.
Gluten-avoiders will be thrilled that there are five crust recipes that you can try. Masa, masarepa, tapioca and even yucca and plantains are used to make GF doughs, and the crusts that result are so good that you will want to use them for all sorts of pies. For vegetarians and vegans, there are veg recipes, and plenty that you can veganize by subbing your favorite mock meat for beef.
For today’s blog, I made the Spicy Potato and Peanut Empanadas, a recipe that hails from Columbia. I opted to use the masa dough, although it is usually made with the equally gluten-free cornmeal and cassava dough. The results were spectacular.
Honestly, The filling was so delicious I had to hold back from just eating it with a spoon. It would be a fine stuffing for a burrito, if you find the idea of making the masa crust too daunting. But don’t miss this crust- it fries up like a corn chip, almost as it your tasty filling were encased in Fritos.
The filling takes a little chopping, and it is fine to make it a day ahead, so it can chill and set up overnight.
Gutierrez offers two options for rolling out the dough: you can use a rolling pin, or a tortilla press. I just happen to have a tortilla press, and this is a really wonderful way to do it. The soft, delicate dough is easy to flatten to an even, thin disk in the press, something that is harder to accomplish by hand.
The recipe says the masa dough makes 12, but I divided it into 20 pieces to match the filling.
I made the little pastries in a simple turnover shape, but the book describes all kinds of variations, from round to torpedo shaped. These held about 2 tablespoons of filling, and you need to leave room to seal them without breaking.
And yes, I dug out my ancient deep-fryer for this. If you want to make yours without frying, there are doughs that work just as well in the oven. I figured it was a rare and special occasion, and I wanted to try these the authentic way.
The resulting empanadas, golden and crispy, were a delight. Filled with the savory, nut-crunchy potato medley, they were absolutely irresistible. I’m sure that all the other recipes are equally delicious. There are chapters of vegetable, chicken, beef, pork and fish empanadas, and I will definitely proceed to the dessert empanadas chapter next. The salsas and sauces chapter gives you options for gilding the lily, and manages to surprise with some salsas you may not have had before.
Thank you, Sandra Gutierrez, for bringing these little packages to the table. Everyone will find a recipe or two that will thrill their friends and family, even the ones with special diets.
They are truly little gifts, the kind that you can unwrap with your mouth.
Fried or Grilled
In Mexico and Central America, you’ll find empanadas made from corn that has been soaked in water mixed with lye (the chemical known in Spanish as cal ). The process is called nixtamalization and it loosens the outer germ of the kernels, causing them to swell and become plump. The moist corn is then ground into masa or dried and ground into very fine flour called masa harina, used to make tortillas, empanadas, and other things. Empanadas made with this kind of dough can be either grilled or fried, depending on whether one wishes the dough to remain meaty in texture or to turn crispy. When working with masa harina, understand that brands will vary in the amount of water they’ll need to reach the desired consistency. So I recommend testing the dough before rolling it, as described below, and always keeping the dough covered as you work, so it doesn’t dry out. See opposite for more tips on working with this dough.
Makes 12 empanadas (I divided it into 20)
3 cups (340 g) masa harina, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 to 21⁄2 cups (480 to 600 ml) warm water (110°F/43°C), plus more as needed
In a large bowl, whisk together the masa harina and salt. Gradually add 2 cups (480 ml) of the warm water, kneading the mixture with your hand until it comes together into a ball with the consistency of mashed potatoes (if the dough is too dry, add a few more tablespoons of water at a time; if it’s too wet, add a few tablespoons of the masa harina at a time). Turn the dough onto a clean surface and knead it until smooth, about 30 seconds or to the consistency of play dough; return it to the bowl, cover it with a damp kitchen towel, and let it rest for 10 minutes so that all of the liquid can be fully absorbed. To determine whether the dough is the proper consistency, shape a bit of the masa into a ball and press it flat into a disc. If the edges of the masa crack when shaped into discs, add a bit more water (a few tablespoons at a time); if the dough is too soft, add a bit more masa harina (a few tablespoons at a time).
Note: The dough is best made just before using but, if needed, it can be made up to 4 hours ahead of time (keep it wrapped in plastic and refrigerated). Empanadas made with this masa dough can be filled up to 1 hour before cooking; keep them covered and refrigerated until ready to grill or fry (depending on what each recipe calls for). Once cooked, the empanadas freeze beautifully (see individual recipes for instructions).
Spicy Potato and Peanut Empanadas
Empanadas de Pipian
These gluten-free and vegetarian empanadas are spicy, comforting, and exotic all at the same time. They combine the best of African and native Colombian flavors that define the cuisine of the Cauca region. The tomato-based sauce that moistens the filling is called hogao, and although most times it’s not spicy, my recipe carries a good kick courtesy of a hot chile. The potatoes must be diced finely and then cooked just until tender, so that each cube can retain its shape. The result is perhaps the most elegant empanada you’ll find in the Latin American culinary landscape, juxtaposing creamy and crunchy textures that explode on the palate. In Bogota, they’re served as tiny appetizers, dipped into a silken peanut sauce (see Creamy Peanut Sauce, page 165). My empanadas are on the larger side and I serve them as an entree.
Makes 20 empanadas
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup (120 g) finely chopped white onions
1⁄2 cup (50 g) finely chopped leeks (white and light green parts only)
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground annatto (achiote) or Bijol (see Notes)
1 cup (185 g) seeded and finely chopped plum tomatoes
1⁄2 cup (60 g) roasted red bell pepper , cored, seeded, and finely chopped
1 small serrano pepper, finely chopped (with seeds)
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 cup (150 g) ground roasted peanuts (unsalted or lightly salted preferred)
3 cups (455 g) peeled and finely diced Yukon gold potatoes, boiled until fork tender
1 recipe Cornmeal and Cassava Dough (page 27)
Vegetable oil for frying
Make the filling: Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions, leeks, garlic, and annatto or Bijol and sauté them for 1 minute, or until fragrant. Add the tomatoes, bell pepper, serrano pepper, salt, and cumin; continue cooking until the mixture has thickened, about 3 minutes. Remove it from the heat and add the peanuts and potatoes. Cover and chill the filling for at least 4 hours or overnight.
Assemble the empanadas: After the filling chills, make the dough as directed on page 27. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper; set them aside. Divide the dough into 20 equal pieces (about 2½ ounces/70 g each). Roll each portion into a ball and keep them covered with a damp kitchen towel as you work. Line a tortilla press with a zip-top freezer bag that has been cut open on three sides so that it opens like a book. Place a ball of dough in the middle of the tortilla press and flatten it into a 5½-inch (14-cm) round, about 1⁄8 inch (3 mm) thick (or roll it out with a rolling pin). Place 3 heaping tablespoons of the filling in the middle of the round, leaving a small rim. Use the bag to fold the dough over the filling, forming a half-moon; press the edges together with your fingers to seal. Transfer the empanada to a prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the rest of the dough and filling, keeping the empanadas covered as you go.
Fry the empanadas and serve: Fit a large pan with a metal cooling rack and set it aside. In a large skillet with high sides, heat 1 to 1½ inches (2.5 to 3 cm) of vegetable oil to 360°F (180°C). You may also use a deep-fryer according to the manufacturer’s directions. Working in batches of 4 or 5 empanadas at a time, carefully slide them into the oil and fry them until golden, 3 to 4 minutes, turning them over halfway through. If the oil gets too hot as you fry and they’re browning too quickly, lower the temperature and let the oil cool slightly before frying any more. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the fried empanadas to the prepared rack to drain. Serve them immediately or keep them warm in a 250°F (120°C) oven for up to 1 hour before serving.
Notes: Once fried, these can be frozen for up to 3 months. Freeze them in a single layer on baking sheets lined with parchment paper; once frozen solid, these can be transferred to freezer boxes or zip-top bags. Reheat them at 350°F (175°C) for 12 to 15 minutes or until their centers are hot.
Bijol is a seasoning made with powdered annatto, which dissolves quickly in liquid and tints food yellow. If you use annatto paste in its place, dissolve it in an equal amount of hot water or stock before using it.
Cornmeal and Cassava Dough
In Colombia, empanadas from the Cauca region will sometimes be made with a mixture of precooked cornmeal (called harina pan or masarepa) and yuca or cassava flour called almidón de yuca, also known as tapioca starch or tapioca flour. Cassava flour produces both a crunchier crust (almost like a corn chip) and a chewier bite than dough made strictly with cornmeal. The dough is made golden with ground annatto seeds or with a product made of seasoned annatto, called Bijol, which is easy to find in Latin American supermarkets (see Sources, page 172). Use whichever is easier to find, as the taste will be the same. Try my tortilla press method (see page 22) to simplify the process or stay traditional and roll out the dough with a rolling pin. This is a terrific gluten-free recipe that can be used in place of the Master Dough (page 29) used for fried empanadas; they won’t be authentic, but they will be delicious and wheat-free.
Makes 20 empanadas
3 cups (420 g) precooked yellow cornmeal (masarepa or harina pan) (see Note), plus more as needed
1⁄2 cup (64 g) cassava flour or tapioca starch
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon ground annatto (achiote) or Bijol
3 cups (720 ml) hot water (about
115°F/46°C), plus more as needed
In a large bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, flour or starch, salt, and annatto or Bijol. Add the water slowly, in a thin stream, kneading the mixture with your hands until it comes together into a ball with the consistency of mashed potatoes (if the dough is too dry, add a few more tablespoons of water at a time; if it’s too wet, add a few tablespoons of the precooked cornmeal at a time). Turn the dough onto a clean surface and knead it until smooth, 45 seconds to 1 minute or to the consistency of play dough. Return the dough to the bowl, cover it with plastic wrap or a damp kitchen towel, and let it rest for 10 minutes (to allow the fine grains to absorb all of the liquid).
See page 38 for instructions on how to fill and shape this dough and a recipe for an empanada that uses this dough.
Note: Masarepa is a product that has been made with precooked cornmeal (there is no need for you to cook it before using here). Empanadas made with this dough must be fried as soon as they’re shaped or they’ll crack open. Plan to make the dough just before you have to fill the empanadas. This empanada dough is not suitable for freezing.