A native of Spain that traveled the world, touching down in Latin America, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, Africa, South Asia, and the British Isles.
Each culture put its spin on the idea, creating the humble Cornish pasty, the flaky French Chausson, the highly spiced Indian samosa, the peppery Jamaican patty, and the phyllo-wrapped Middle Eastern borek, not forgetting the gut-filling peripatetic knish. And that’s only scratching the surface.
Empanadas are a stuffed bread or pastry that is baked or fried. The name empanada comes from the Galician, Portuguese and Spanish verb em pandar, meaning to wrap or coat in bread.
Empanadas are made by folding the dough or bread around a seasoned stuffing. The filling usually is made from meat, cheese, vegetables or fruits but may be made with other ingredients.
A cookbook published in 1520 in Catalan, the Libre del Coch by Ruperto de Nola, mentions empanadas filled with seafood.
In the Southern and Southwestern United States, empanadas are called Creoles. They are a half-circle flaky crust filled with seasoned pork, beef or chicken, and cheese.
In the Southeastern United States, empanadas are referred to as a “fried pie” and are a pastry filled with fresh or reconstituted dry fruit such as apples, apricots, peaches or sweet potatoes and then fried.
In New Mexico, it is a winter tradition to make sweetmeat empanadas for Christmas. They are made with ground pork, sugar, pinon nuts, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, sealed in a tortilla-like dough and then deep fried in lard.
I still dream about a Mexican version I once sampled on the plaza in San Miguel de Allende. It was made to order by a local woman, who baked it on a clay comal set over burning coals. She had simmered chicken in a complex yellow mole sauce, and as she wrapped the filling in a dough of masa harina, she added a strip of hoja santa, a sweet leafy herb with a mysterious fragrance. Just the thought of it has my mouth watering.
But if there is an empanadas capital of the world, it is Argentina. The entire population is crazy for them. (For that matter, empanadas proliferate in Uruguay, too, and folks there also lay claim to consuming the most per capita.)
The Argentine empanada is diminutive, just two or three delicious bites. It is eaten throughout the day — as an afternoon snack or an appetizer before a big Porteño feast of multiple-choice meats from the grill, with good red wine from Mendoza. Everyone has a preference, either baked or fried. To me it does not matter - they are both good!
This recipe descends from the Argentine way of making these little meat pies. The Argentine empanada is small, just two or three delicious bites.
The technique to master in this recipe is holding the open empanada with one hand and using the other hand to crimp the outer edge and for a decorative braid. The less dexterous among us should use a fork for this.
Argentine Beef Empanadas
FOR THE DOUGH
4 ounces lard or butter, plus more for brushing tops
1 ½ teaspoons fine sea salt
750 grams all-purpose flour, about 6 cups, more as needed
FOR THE FILLING
1 pound beef chuck, in 1/8-inch dice (or very coarsely ground)
Salt and pepper
Lard or olive oil, or a combination, for sautéing
1 cup diced onion
2 ounces diced chorizo
½ pound potatoes, peeled and diced
4 garlic cloves, mashed to a paste
2 teaspoons chopped thyme
2 teaspoons chopped marjoram or 1 teaspoon oregano
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon pimentón dulce or paprika
Large pinch cayenne
Beef or chicken broth, as necessary, or use water
½ cup chopped scallions, white and green parts
¼ cup chopped pitted green olives
2 hard-cooked eggs, sliced
Make the dough: Put 2 cups boiling water, 4 ounces lard and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt in large mixing bowl. Stir to melt lard and dissolve salt. Cool to room temperature.
Gradually stir in flour with a wooden spoon until the dough comes together. Knead for a minute or two on a floured board, until firm and smooth. Add more flour if sticky. Wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Make the filling: Season chopped beef generously with salt and pepper and set aside for 10 minutes. Melt 3 tablespoons lard in a wide heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add beef and fry until nicely browned, stirring throughout to keep pieces separate, about 5 minutes.
Turn heat down to medium and add onion and chorizo. Keep turning mixture with a spatula, as if cooking hash, until onion is softened and browned, about 10 minutes.
Add potatoes, garlic, thyme, and marjoram and stir well to incorporate. (Add a little more fat to pan if mixture seems dry.) Season again with salt and pepper and let mixture fry for 2 more minutes. Stir in tomato paste, pimentón, and cayenne, then a cup of broth or water. Turn heat to simmer, stirring well to incorporate any caramelized bits.
Cook for about 10 more minutes, until both meat and potatoes are tender and the sauce just coats them — juicy but not saucy is what you want. Taste and adjust seasoning for full flavor (intensity will diminish upon cooling). Stir in scallions and cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
Divide chilled dough into 1-ounce pieces and form into 2-inch diameter balls. Roll each piece into a 4 1/2-inch circle. Lay circles on a baking sheet lightly dusted with flour.
Moisten outer edge of each round with water. Put about 2 tablespoons filling in the center of each round, adding a little chopped green olive and some hard-cooked egg to each. Wrap dough around filling to form empanada, pressing edges together. Fold edge back and finish by pinching little pleats or crimping with a fork.
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Place empanadas on a parchment-lined or oiled baking sheet, about 1 inch apart. Brush tops lightly with lard or butter and bake on top shelf of oven until golden, 10 to 15 minutes. Serve warm.