Saturday, January 28, 2012


I lived in Buenos Aires for a bit longer than 2 years, during which time I ate 37,452 empanadas, approximately. Anytime I was starving and looking for something quick to eat, I ducked into a shop and bought one cheese and onion empanada and one chard-stuffed empanada, or maybe two corn and cheese ones. Sometimes I'd even buy a chicken one, though my vegetarian upbringing still makes it hard for me to admit. They're kind of the perfect food-- portable, filling, satisfying. They are also the sort of thing that I, at least, was not particularly interested in making at home. I missed a lot of foods living in Argentina, and cooking at home was one way to help fill that void. Making empanadas, as much as I loved them, was not a big priority, not when I could buy perfectly good ones down the street, around the corner, and up the block. 

We did occasionally buy the premade empanada wrappers which are readily available and inexpensive. I hope no Argentine ever reads this, but...I used them to make peanut butter, banana and honey empanadas. They were the perfect breakfast alongside a mug of hot chocolate. Really, if any Argentines are reading this, I'm so sorry, I couldn't help myself. It was blasphemy, I don't deserve to have access to ready-made empanadas wrappers. If you're not Argentine, let me explain: I'm not going to make any blanket statements, but most Argentines I know hate peanut butter...and they don't generally take to people screwing with their national cuisine. On the other hand...Brazilians put chocolate sauce on carrot cake, which makes me want to gag and kind of offends me. Chocolate sauce! Carrots! So it's not like I don't understand the feeling.

I'm only confessing to all this because what follows is an attempt to redeem myself. I've been making lots of empanadas lately, the real kind, no peanut butter in sight. There are a lot of different varieties of empanadas in Argentina, but in my mind they are primarily divided into two camps: the baked kinds and the fried kinds. I always tend to go for the baked kind, though I have nothing against the fried ones, and an empanada salteña (fried empanada from Salta, in northern Argentina) is a beautiful thing. For baked empanadas, there are two general kinds of dough. The first kind is a bit like a thick wonton wrapper-- pliable and not particularly oily. It's a pretty sturdy envelope, and most empanadas on the cheaper end of the spectrum are made with this kind of dough. The second kind of dough is flaky, buttery and less sturdy (due to the flakiness). Though I like both kinds, I think of the first kind primarily as a vehicle for the filling. I wanted to make a dough that I really liked the taste of, and at the end of the day the best empanadas I've ever had definitely had were made with the flaky kind of dough, called masa hojaldrada. It was tricky to get the dough right; the first time, I used a recipe I found on an Argentinean blog, and quite honestly it was one of the more inedible and disappointing things I've made in recent years. Empanadas are a bit of a project, so when they suck it's depressing and frustrating. After screwing around with the proportions of a quick puff-pastry recipe, I came up with a recipe that I'm very happy with. I've been making extra and freezing them; like tamales, it's not much more work to make 12 than it is to make 24, and they work great as a last minute lunch or dinner that you pop in the oven while you make a big salad to go alongside. As far as the filling goes, you really can use anything you like, but I've been making a lot of chicken (cough) ones lately, and they are lovely, full of chopped green olives and sweet stewed red pepper and onion. They are the type of thing that, every time we have them, Felipe goes, man these are so good. And he should know-- he lived in Argentina for twice as long as I did, ate twice as many empanadas and it never, not even once, occurred to him to make a rice and bean one.*

*in my mind, beans and rice is to Colombians what peanut butter and jelly/honey is to's by no means a perfect analogy, but it's definitely what they eat, happily, when there's nothing else around

It's difficult to give exact quantities as to how much filling you will need-- making empanadas takes practice and at first it can be difficult to close them successfully if they have a lot of filling. If you bear with it, though, you'll quickly get a feel for how much filling you can squeeze in. 

 Chicken Empanadas

1 batch empanada dough (see recipe below), or 10-12 premade wrappers
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 medium onion, quarted vertically and thinly sliced
2-3 scallions, chopped
1 small red pepper (or 1/2 a large one)
1/4 tsp. turmeric
10 green olives, pitted and very roughly chopped
white or apple cider vinegar
2 chicken thighs, or 1 thigh and 1 breast (you'll need a generous 6 oz. shredded meat), poached/roasted and shredded 
egg wash (optional) 

Cut the onion in half through the root. With the cut side down on the cutting board, cut the onion in half vertically almost to the root so the pieces stay connected, then thinly slice the onion crosswise. Repeat with the other onion half. Finely chop the scallions. Saute the onion and scallions in the oil over medium heat, covered, until soft and translucent. Quarter the red pepper then thinly slice it crosswise. Add the red pepper, turmeric, and a pinch of salt, and continue to cook, covered, stirring every once and again, until very soft and nicely stewed, about 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the olives and shredded chicken. Check for salt. Sprinkle a bit of vinegar-- less than a teaspoon-- to brighten the flavors. You want the filling to be well-seasoned. Leave to cool completely-- a hot filling will immediately melt the butter-heavy dough.

When both the chicken and the empanada dough are completely cool, preheat the oven to 400F. Remove the empanada dough circles from the fridge. Take one circle and roll it out very lightly with a rolling pin. Place ~2 tablespoons of chicken filling on the half of the dough closest to you, leaving an inch of border free of filling. Fold the empanada dough over the filling, towards you, lining up the edge to make a half moon, and pinch the edges together to seal the border. You want to pinch quite hard, making the two doughs into one thin one. Now to make the border, you can either continuously fold the dough over on itself (which is what I did in the pictures), or you can simply use the tines of a fork to seal the border, the way you would with a pie. Place the empanada on a baking sheet and continue with the rest of the dough. If the dough gets too warm, return it to the fridge for a bit. 

Once the empanadas are formed, you can either freeze them or bake them right away. If you want to freeze them, I would recommend freezing them on a covered baking sheet first, then once they are frozen you can transfer them to a plastic bag. If you plan on baking them right away, you can paint them with a bit of beaten egg, which will give them a nice sheen, though I find this unnecessary. Bake them until they are golden brown underneath, and the crust is flaky and no longer appears transparent. Serve fresh out of the oven but be aware that the filling can be extremely hot.

Empanada Dough

7 oz. (200 g.) very cold salted butter, cut into cubes
7 oz. (200 g.) flour
1/4 tsp. salt
3 oz. (85 g.) ice water

Rub the butter and flour, and salt together with your fingers, leaving some large flattened pieces of butter the size of almonds. Drizzle in the ice water and lightly mix the dough with a spoon just until the water is incorporated. Use your fingers to push the crumbly dough into a ball. Flour your counter well and have 2 sheets of wax paper ready on the side. Working quickly, roll out the dough into a long rectangle. Fold the two sides in, overlapping them to make a square, then flip the square over and proceed to roll out the dough again. Repeat the process one more time for a total of 3 times, then roll out the dough to 1/2 cm. thick, making sure to flour well underneath so the dough doesn't stick. Using a small bowl or cookie cutter, cut out 4 in.-diameter circles. Transfer the circles to the wax paper. Gather up the scraps and re-roll the dough, working the dough as little as possible. Continue to cut out circles until you have used up all the dough, transferring the circles to the wax paper. Place the sheets of wax paper with the dough circles on a large plate or cookie sheet (you can stack one sheet over the other), cover the plate with plastic wrap or a plastic bag, then place it in the fridge to chill for at least 30 min. Well covered, the dough will last a couple of days in the fridge. Makes enough for 12 empanadas.

1 comment:

  1. I already added this recipe to my favorite recipe list. Thank you so much for sharing!