New Year’s Empanadas

Man of La Muncha and I were both on vacation for the week between Christmas and New Year's, which opened up many possibilities for cooking and eating some of the bounty from our Crown S Ranch meat CSA, using recipes that aren't really possible during a work week, and not something we tend to want to try on weekends, when time can be at a premium. We discussed the dinner possibilities for New Year's Eve, and decided that I would try my hand at making Argentinean-style empanadas with some of our ground beef.

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Back in 1989, I spent a semester in Argentina with about twenty classmates, where we lived primarily in Mendoza, though we also spent time in Bariloche and Buenos Aires. And while all those locations are known for slightly different things (Mendoza has a thriving wine industry, Bariloche, the Switzerland of South America, is known for its chocolates, and Buenos Aires is known as...well, being Buenos Aires), the one thing they all had in common was beef. Lots and lots of beef--steaks, breaded and fried cutlets, and the pocket-sized wonders that are empanadas.

Empanadas are common, inexpensive street food that are available throughout Latin America and can be fried or baked. The ones that I fell in love with those many years ago were very straightforward--ground beef mixed with onion, garlic, hard-boiled egg, chopped green olives, and spices, folded into a flakey pastry shell then baked. I haven't had a really good empanada since then, so I took as my challenge to make an empanada as close to what I remembered as possible.

I found a recipe for empanada dough in The Book of Latin American Cooking by Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz. Armed with the dough recipe, I set out to recreate my empanada experience.

First, I made my dough, wrapped it in wax paper, and set it in the refrigerator to chill. Then I added finely chopped yellow onion and garlic to a pre-heated skillet well-coated with olive oil. As the onion/garlic mixture simmered, I set about pitting the green Cerignola olives I'd picked up earlier in the week. I decided to use Cerignolas because of their mild flavor profile and Spanish provenance. Unfortunately, what I hadn't realized is that Cerignolas are nearly impossible to pit, which meant that I spent about a half-hour painstakingly prying bits of olive flesh from the individual pits. On the plus side, I didn't need to chop them up, as the olives were already in pieces.

After the onion/garlic mixture had cooked enough to become transparent, I added the ground beef (about a pound), some black pepper and some cinnamon, and stirred. As I sautéed the beef, I boiled three eggs in a pot of water and set them aside to cool.

Once the beef was thoroughly cooked, I added my olive chunks and the hard-boiled eggs, which I'd roughly chopped up, and turned the heat down to low. I then pulled the dough from the refrigerator and rolled it out. Using a cereal bowl as a guide, I cut twelve circles from the dough, which would give me and Man of La Muncha enough empanadas for New Year's Eve, New Year's Day, and possibly all of January.

I placed my dough circles on an ungreased cookie sheet and added a small mound of the ground beef mixture to the center of each. After brushing the edges with a mixture of egg and a little water, I folded the circles over, crimped the edges to seal in the filling, and created a crescent shape by slightly bending the turnovers. I baked them in a 400° oven for 10 minutes, then reduced the heat to 350° and baked them for another 30 minutes.

And how were they? The dough was flakey and rich, and the filling was close enough to what I remember to make me nostalgic. Since New Year's is typically a time of looking back, I think I will make empanadas again next year, and remember my time in Argentina.

New Year's Empanadas

Dough (courtesy of The Book of Latin American Cooking by Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz)

4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups lard or 3/4 cup each lard and butter

Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. If you're using a Kitchenaid or similar, use the dough hook and, at the lowest speed, add the fat to the flour mixture. If you're working by hand, use a pastry blender to cut the fat into the flour mixture. In either case, continue processing until you've got a coarse meal. Add cold water, a little at a time, until you have a fairly stiff ball of dough, then cover with wax paper and refrigerate for one hour. Roll out your dough on a floured surface to about 1/8 inch thick, and cut into circles using a cereal bowl or small plate as a guide.

Filling (courtesy of Butter Bitch's fond memories)

1 yellow onion
2 cloves garlic
1 lb ground beef
1/2 cup chopped green olives (Cerignolas are tasty, but far too difficult to manage)
3 boiled eggs, roughly chopped
Cinnamon, black pepper, salt to taste.

Finely chop the onion and garlic and sauté in a skillet with some olive oil over medium heat until the onion is transparent. Add the ground beef and seasoning, stirring until the beef is cooked through. Add the chopped green olives and egg, and turn heat down to low. Add a small mound of the meat mixture to the center of each circle of dough, leaving about 1/4 inch around the edges. Moisten the edges of the dough with a mixture of 1 egg beaten with 1/4 teaspoon of water then fold the pastry over to make a turnover. Curve the turnover slightly to form a crescent shape, and place on a greased cookie sheet. Prick the tops of the turnovers 2 or 3 times with a fork and then brush with the egg mixture. Bake them in a 400° oven for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350° and bake them for another 30 minutes.

The result? Empanada tastiness. Happy New Year!

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