My Pretty Apron: Empanadas With a Twist

“Empanadas? Did somebody say empanadas?! Save me one!!”

I’m used to hearing this. Empanadas are probably one of the most asked-for appetizers I make for the holidays or if it’s a relative’s birthday and they’ve specifically requested them. One of my aunts has her own business where she makes dozens of empanadas and sells them outside churches and businesses where people snatch them up as a quick mid-afternoon snack. I’ve made hundreds, literally HUNDREDS of these bad boys and people still do not get sick of them.

Sooooo….what the heck are empanadas?

Glad you asked! Because empanadas are at the heart of My Pretty Apron this week, and I’m REALLY excited to share this special recipe that I invented (yes, INVENTED!) from scratch.  I’ve got loads of information to share about these lovely little pastries, along with the ingredients I used, and a bit of an intro to Latino cooking.

WARNING: I’d rate this as an intermediate level of difficulty for you chefs out there. If you have no experience working with dough than this may be a bit difficult. There are a couple of shortcuts you can take here to make it easier though. I started My Pretty Apron as a challenge to create clean meals for weeknight cooking. I admit this is not a weeknight meal if you’re doing this from start to finish. Your best bet would be to pre-make the dough ahead of time, stick it in the freezer, and then pull it out when you’re ready to use.

Are you all ready?? I know, I am. Here we go!!

EMPANADAS: ORIGIN DEMYSTIFIED

Empanadas are essentially stuffed pastries. They can have a variety of fillings ranging from savory to sweet and they can either be baked or fried.  Most cultures have some sort of variation on a pocket food with ahearty filling and empanadas are the Latin version. Think of them as cousins to Indian samosas or Italian calzones.

The word empanada is derived from the Spanish word “empanar” which means “to coat with bread.” It is believed that the origin of the empanada in the Latino world was in the Iberian Peninsula (or modern-day Portugal and Spain) during the Moorish invasions in the 16th century. As with any history of invasion, culture was exchanged and new ideas and traditions were introduced into these newly acquired regions. In the case of Portugal and Spain, the Moors brought with them Arabic influences in art, architecture, language, and most especially their food.  This infusion of new spices and cooking traditions brought by the Moors with the existing food culture in the Iberian Peninsula became the birthplace of the empanada.  This melding of cultures was then transferred during the Portuguese and Spanish expeditions into the New World. Enter the Caribbean and Latin America. In some ways, you can consider the empanada as an edible representation of Arabic, African, Western European, Caribbean, and South American food culture all in one tiny little package. Neat, huh?

HOW DO WE MAKE THEM?

Simple question but there are so many different answers. Growing up I always ate them fried. When I was taught how to make them myself, I did the exact same thing. Fry them. I’ve found that through my travels and meeting people from different parts of Latin America, fried empanadas tend to be a Caribbean trademark. More common among the Puerto Rican or Dominican empanadas that I grew up with, whereas, baked empanadas were from Central or South American kitchens, specifically Argentina. This, of course, is a generalization. I’m sure there are baked and fried varieties all across each country in Latin America.  But my experience as a New York Dominican is that empanadas (or pastelitos as some people call them) are fried, never baked.

Also, I never made the dough. We always bought the pre-packaged dough from the supermarket which are cut into perfect discs and fry up beautifully once stuffed with whatever filling we used. Typically we used, La Fe, which you’ll see here where I actually pulled it out of my freezer.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with buying the pre-packed dough, especially if you’re trying to save time which I think most of do. But my challenge remains the same. How can I make my meals cleaner, healthier, and more appetizing? Can I turn these classic dishes on their head by changing a couple of ingredients and cooking them differently based on my research?

I decided to take on this very classic Latino appetizer, a staple in my household, and do exactly that. I’ve made Baked Whole Wheat Meat Empanadas with Flax Seed. Yes, that’s right. You read that correctly. Flax Seed.

OK, WHY?

Well, let’s go back to the original empanada.

You’ve got a meat patty that consists of white flour dough (made from white flour, shortening, eggs, and salt), stuffed with cooked ground meat in oil, and then deep fried in corn or canola oil.

I decided to make these changes:

–          Make my own dough using whole wheat flour and adding flax seed

–          Change the meat to premium grass-fed sirloin beef that I had ground by a butcher

–          Bake them instead of frying

I played mad-scientist today to try and make this work and I crossed my fingers that I would be able to produce an empanada my family would actually eat come Thanksgiving and Christmas (and yes, we eat empanadas and moro con gandules for Thanksgiving, NOT turkey and stuffing!). I had my brother and my dad sign up as willing test subjects to try out the end product, good or bad. Or maybe I forced them? I might have left out the flaxseed part. 🙂

Flax seeds have become a “super “ingredient” that are touted as one of the most “powerful plant foods” on earth. A bit overstated I think, as most of the research into the health benefits of flax seed are still in their preliminary stages, but here’s what we do know:

–          Omega-3 essential fatty acids: these are “good” fats (polyunsaturated fatty acids) that have heart healthy effects and are essential nutrients for our bodies. These acids control functions such as blood clotting and building cell membranes in the brain. Our bodies do not produce these acids naturally so we must get them through our food.

–          Lignans: these are potent antioxidants that when digested convert to phytoestrogens which can serve to reduce the risk of developing breast and prostate cancer. According to Elaine Magee, MPH, RD., flaxseed contains 75-800 times more lignans than other plant foods making them a prime source for these nutrients.

–          Fiber: flaxseed is high in both soluble and insoluble fiber which helps stabilize blood sugar, lowers cholesterol, and promotes proper functioning of the intestines.

With these health benefits, it’s no wonder why I constantly see recipes that suggest adding flaxseed to the mix. I hesitated to add flaxseed to the flour for the empanada dough, but I went with a more adventurous spirit and figured that worse comes to worse, I’ll get more fiber in my day, which isn’t really all that bad in my book!

APRON ON. LET’S GET COOKIN’!

STEP 1: THE DOUGH

I researched high and low to find an existing recipe for whole wheat empanada dough and came up empty. I decided to go with a whole wheat pastry dough recipe knowing that the consistency would probably be a bit off to classic empanada dough. But that’s okay. It’s all part of the fun of experimentation!

Ingredients:

1 cup of APF (All-purpose Flour)- spooned and leveled

1 cup of Whole Wheat Pastry Flour – spooned and leveled

2 tbsps flaxseed meal

1 tsp of kosher salt

2/3 cup of organic vegetable shortening

7-8  tbsps of ice cold water

Note on ingredients:

Whole wheat pastry flour is lower in protein that regular whole wheat flour and produces less gluten which produces a tenderer and flaky baked good. (more gluten = breads, less gluten = pastries)

I agonized over what kind of fat to use in this dough. Normally I use unsalted butter in almost all of my baked goods, but I’m interested in trying new things, especially if they’ll give me a healthy alternative. Now I debated:  butter, shortening, or olive oil?? Both butter and shortening are high in saturated and unsaturated fats, although butter is higher in saturated. I’d never worked with olive oil before so I decided to stay away from it this time. I opted for organic shortening which has no trans fat (trans fat increases your LDL/bad cholesterol levels and reduces your HDL/good cholesterol levels) and would hopefully produce a lighter pastry.

Combine both cups of flour, flaxseed, and salt in a bowl with a fork or whisk. Now it’s time to cut in that fat! I’m a big fan of kitchen gadgets, especially when it comes to baking. I LOVE things that may seem ridiculous to people who don’t bake, but I think it makes perfect sense to have 4 sets of measuring cups and dozens of spatulas in different sizes.  I really do.

Speaking of gadgets, I get to pull out my handy dandy pastry cutter. Now if you don’t have one of these, that’s ok! You can also use a food processor. Ok, don’t have one of those either?? Well, do you have a fork? Then go with that.

Take 1/3 cup of the shortening and ‘cut’ it into the flour with either your pastry cutter or fork until it starts looking like a fine crumbly meal. Now add the other 1/3 cup of shortening and do the exact same thing only this time stop when you see the shortening is in small pea size clumps. Now sprinkle in about 3 tbsps of ice cold water and start to gently combine it with the flour and shortening. Sprinkle another 3-4 tbsps of water, combine it, and then gently mold the dough together into a ball. Wrap it in plastic and stick it in the fridge while you prepare the meat for the filling.

If you’re using a food processor, you just need to add all the ingredients up until the water, pulse until the flour is in pea-size pieces, and then add the water little by little until a ball forms. Take it out of the processor and wrap in plastic.

This dough can be stored in the freezer for up to 2 months until you’re ready to use.  Just be sure to defrost it thoroughly beforehand.

STEP 2: MEAT FILLING

Ingredients:

–          ½ lb of ground sirloin beef

–          ¼ red bell pepper, minced

–          ½ small red onion, minced

–          ¼ green bell pepper, minced

–          4 garlic cloves, mashed

–          1 ½ tbsp of Worcestershire Sauce

–          2 tbsps no salt-added tomato paste (ie. Rienzi brand)

–          Maribel’s Adobo*

Rule number one when buying ground beef- go with premium sirloin. It’s expensive, no doubt. But it’s far leaner and cleaner than buying the mystery meat you get at the supermarket. If you have access to a butcher, I HIGHLY recommend you buy the cut you want and ask them to grind it for you. Not only does the end product taste so much better, but you actually know what you’re eating.

Also the garlic I use in meat is almost always mashed via a mortar and pestle, another staple gadget in a Latino kitchen. If you don’t have one of these then you can use a garlic press or just mince the garlic. TIP: If you’re using the mortar and pestle, add a bit of salt before you start banging away. This helps extract some of those juices and keeps the garlic from flying around in the mortar. Trust me, it works every time.

I mention my own Adobo as one of the ingredients here. Adobo has different meanings in Latino cooking, but mainly it’s an all purpose-seasoning used for meats, fish, or chicken and is a mainstay in Latino kitchens. You can buy Adobo bottled in stores, usually by Goya or other Latino food companies, but I’m accustomed to making my own by mixing a handful of the staple seasonings that’s used as a foundation in most Latino dishes.

Maribel’s Adobo (adjusted for ½ lb of meat ):

–          ½ tsp of ground black pepper

–          ¾ tsp of table salt

–          ½ tsp of ground garlic powder

–          ¾ tsp of crushed dried oregano (preferably Mexican if you can find it)

–          ½ packet of Sason Accent

Now that last ingredient may be a bit difficult for some of you to find if you don’t have an ethnic market nearby. Goya brand makes a ton of Latino food products and have all sorts of spices and sauces that you can use in your cooking. Of course, my mother always made things herself more often than she’d put a Goya jar in her cart at the supermarket. But the one thing that we always had stocked in our pantry, and is there to this very day is Sason Accent. Sason Accent is basically an all-purpose seasoning and coloring which includes paprika, chili pepper, cumin, garlic, oregano, and onion. I suppose you can take each of those spices and add them in small measurements to the adobo if you’d like to try something a bit different. Accent is my shortcut here. I’ll take the packet!

Once all of your ingredients are mixed, add it to a cast-iron dutch oven or pot that has been heated with a small amount of olive oil. Make sure the stove is on medium high; you want to hear that sizzle, but you don’t want the meat to burn. Adjust the flame so it’s at halfway and stir until you’ve picked up any bits and pieces that may have gotten stuck on the bottom from that initial sear. Because I’m using a sirloin here, I’m keeping a closer eye on the meat than usual. Ground meat that’s non-differentiated by cut is usually more fatty, so when it’s cooked a ton of that fat seeps out initially. Sirloin is a very lean cut and won’t release as much fat while cooking. You have to be careful not to let it sit too long without stirring because it will dry out and burn more quickly. Got it? Good.

Lower the heat for about 5-10 minutes and cover the pot, checking to stir every few minutes. This amount of meat should cook through in about 15-20 minutes. Once it’s cooked, you can check your seasonings and adjust for salt if necessary. I always undersalt to begin with and add more later but please don’t oversalt!. If everything is okay by this point, then that’s it. You’re done! Turn the stove off, take the pot off the heat, and let the meat cool down.

STEP 3: ROLL, STUFF, AND BAKE

Preheat your oven at 400 degrees F.

Take your dough out of the fridge and let it sit for about 5-10 minutes. Once the dough is pliable, it’s ready to roll!

I use a pastry mat (another fun little ‘gadget’) because I have practically no counter space and you need space to roll dough out. I’m going to admit something here. In all my years baking, rolling out dough is probably my least favorite thing to do. I’m not particularly good at it and for some reason I find it frustrating. I’ve admitted it! There! It’s on digital paper and documented! BUT this is a challenge, right?! I’m pushing myself here to try something new and to just roll (he he) with it. So for all you novice bakers out there, I’m right there with you!

Tips for rolling dough: Flour the surface, the pin, and your hands first. You should never move the pin at an angle across the dough. Move the board or mat around, but the pin should always be moved back and forth vertically. Make sure the dough is evenly spread and that the thickness is consistent throughout. For this recipe the goal is to have it be about an 1/8 inch thick, but really just try to get it as thin as possible without having it crack and tear through.

Now, we make pretty circles. Try to go for something circular that’s about 7” across that you can use to cut into your dough, unless you want to make mini-empanadas for an appetizer, then you can use something smaller. I used the top of a water-pitcher, but you can use a bowl or plate, whatever is handy.

Once you’ve got your circles, you can start stuffing with the meat that should now be cooled off. I put about 2tbsps of meat in each pocket which left me enough space for the seal. Once filled, fold the dough over to make a semi-circle. Then press both sides together and the pocket is closed. There are a number of different ways to seal the empanada. I’ve always gone with the fork and just pressed the tongs across the half-circle on both sides. Others are fancier where they twist the dough across the opening which is a whole lot prettier but far more difficult. Whatever you choose to do, just ensure that the empanada is completely sealed on both sides.

Lay the empanadas on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat, or Silpat like I have here. I prefer using the silicone mats for baking because nothing sticks to it and helps maintain an even cooking temperature on the tray. Place them in the oven and let them cook for about 20 minutes or until the edges start to brown. I rotate the trays about halfway through just to ensure more even baking.

Here we go- the final product! Woo!

Let’s engage the five senses:

Sight test: They look edible! 🙂 They kept their shape through baking and no dripping oil or pieces of crust flaking off. This is good.

Smell test: These were baked, and really the smell of frying empanadas just does something to me. Too many memories. BUT the meat smells fantastic!

Touch test: Yes, touch. The texture of the dough is very different than what I’m used to. More crumbly to the touch, less flaky than I expected, and of course my immediate reaction was, “no grease!” which meant no napkins necessary- except to pick up the crumbs that came off the pastry.

Hearing test: Not fried means no crunch when you bite into it. I like the sound of a good crunch. Oh well.

…and Taste test: The meat was delicious! I liked the dough and although it was very different than I expected, it was a nice change. I think it may be better for a pie or tart than for empanadas and I’d like to try it again with olive oil just to see how it would change the texture. But the taste was great, flaxseeds and all.

And for the kicker, my test subjects got to taste it for themselves. Drum roll please……prrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrmmmm!

I got a thumbs up from my brother and a “que rico” (‘it’s delicious’ in Spanish) from my father. They each ate two or three. I’ll take this as a success!

I’d definitely make this again, most likely on a weekend, and I’d adapt the dough recipe to use olive oil instead of shortening. But I’d actually love to try this dough as is with an apple pie recipe this fall. It’s very versatile and can be used for any number of pastries, especially during this time of year when I put my oven into overdrive.  Also, you don’t have to use meat here. This can be filled with pretty much ANYTHING. I saw a recipe online for salmon empanadas, so the sky is the limit.

Did you guys enjoy that?? Are you all ready to make some empanadas? I definitely enjoyed playing mad scientist and I hope I was able to give you guys a bit of insight into my food culture but with a healthy twist.

Until next time folks, happy eating! ¡Buen provecho!

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6 thoughts on “My Pretty Apron: Empanadas With a Twist

Add yours

  1. Maribel, that recipe looks great and the result looks delicious. I haven’t had an empanada in years….I’m ready to try it out some weekend I’m free. 😀

    I’ve made my own dough once for apple pie, it wasn’t easy -_-. Let’s hope this 2nd time is better.

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