Take a walk through the freezer section of any grocery store, no matter how small. You are sure to find several shelves loaded with “hot pockets’ and “totinos’ stuffers’ and other such foods. These filled hand pies are the modern incarnation of a centuries old food. There is a long tradition of stuffing dough with meat and vegetables for a portable meal. These hand pies go by many names across the world. They go by Pasty in England, or a Birdie in Scotland. They are also close cousins with Ravioli in Italy and Pierogi in Eastern Europe. Then there are the pot stickers of Asia. Of course we are talking about the Empanada. Popular in Spain, and throughout the Spanish speaking world. empanadas are easier to make at home that you think..
We didn’t walk through the freezer section. We did ours in Barcelona. The last time the Elegant Baker and I were there, we spent an afternoon strolling along one of our favorite streets. We left the famous Parc Guell, and walked to the Arc de Triomf, which is right outside the Ciutadella Park. It is a pleasant walk along the Passeig de Sant Joan. A wide boulevard through the Exiample district of the city make for a pleasant walk. The wide center ‘park’ is filled with playgrounds, small parks, and petanca courts (petanca is a bocce like game popular in Spain).
Either side of the street is lined with markets, shops, restaurants, and bakeries. Shortly after we left Parc Guell, we stopped into one of these bakeries. Bocatto forn de Pa Artesà drew us in with its window full of empanadas. We couldn’t resist. We got a couple each and enjoyed a wonderful snack along our walk. Although we’d had empanadas before then, there was something a bit different about these – wonderfully so. We’ve not thought of empanadas the same way since, and I continue to strive to achieve that same magic at home.
Brief history of hand pies
Scholars debate the origin of hand pies — some say they come from the Cornish coast of England. Others say they come from Portugal. It doesn’t matter where you come down on the historical origins, today you can find them almost anywhere. In Spain, the northwest corner, Galicia, seems an obvious place for to be Early Adopters. Close to both Portugal and Cornwall, There, the Galician Empanada is said to be the “original” Spanish empanada. Often filled with tuna, the emphasis is more on ‘pie’ and less on ‘hand’. Large, rectangular pastries are stuffed, baked, and then served as slices.
The more familiar hand pie format is available throughout Spain in small bakeries and tapas bars everywhere. They are often quite small, just two to three inches across. These smaller versions are called empanadillas. Same great flavor, just more bite sized. But of course you can also find the classic Empanada, sized more like our Hot Pockets convenience food in freezer cases everywhere. If you can’t get to Spain (who can these days?) to get the real thing, do the next best thing and make your own.
You will not be surprised to hear me say that making your own Empanadas is superior to those frozen, boxed, microwave versions. It is easier that you think, and you have many more options for fillings. And of course home made will bring both satisfaction and a healthier version. None of those monodiwhatchamacallits you find on the ingredients labels in the freezer case.
Homemade is Better
When making your own, there are really just two basic parts. The dough, and the filling. I want to share with you the dough that I use, as well as a couple of filling ideas. Both are easy, and the real trick is folding and sealing the filled empanada. That isn’t even that hard, it just takes a bit of practice so that your filling stays in the empanada, and not on the baking sheet in your oven.
When I first started making empanadas, I considered buying frozen, premade dough. But after being spoiled by all of the homemade baked goods from the Elegant Baker, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. So I set out to learn how to make the dough myself. I reviewed many dozens of recipes that I found in old cookbooks and online.
While there were minor variations in all of them, ultimately, they were the same basic recipe. Start with flour and salt. Add a fat, a liquid, an acid and an egg. Mix it all together, let it chill and rest, roll it out, and cut it. Empanada dough. Differences primarily involved the choice of fat and of liquid and acid. As for fat, the most common options were butter, olive oil or shortening. As for liquids, some choose to combine the liquid and acid in one using wine or milk when making the dough. Others used water and an added acid, typically vinegar.
For my version, I opt for butter for the fat, water for the liquid, and apple cider vinegar for the acid. I use these because they are what I am most likely to have on hand whenever I am inspired to make empanadas. More important than the specific choices is the technique. Specifically, you need to keep everything cold while making the dough. Cut you butter into cubes, and put let it chill before using. Use cold water — or better yet, use ice water. Be sure the egg has just come out of the refrigerator. You are much more likely to have a successful crust if you keep everything cold as much as possible.
I will also say that having a food processor greatly simplifies the process. Just put all the ingredients in the food processor, and run it until you have dough — generally less than thirty seconds. What I do is put the flour and salt in first, and pulse a couple of times to spread the salt out. Then I add the butter. Again, I pulse, this time five or six times until the butter and flour begins to look a bit like coarse sand. Then I add the egg and the acid. I turn the machine on to (not pulsed this time) and slowly add the cold water through the feed tube. You are done when the dough has formed into a ball in the work bowl.
I typically don’t use the full amount of water called for. Add enough until the dough comes together. Somedays I use more water than others. It all dependent on the temperature and humidity in your kitchen on any given day. So don’t worry if you don’t use all the water. You want to use ‘just enough’, and not any more.
Chill and Roll
Take the dough out of the food processor and place it on a lightly floured surface. What i do here is cut my dough in two. I shape each half into a large disk, about four inches wide, and three quarters of an inch high. I wrap each disk individually in plastic wrap and stick it in the refrigerator. Let it sit there for at least thirty minutes to let it chill again. I typically make my dough a day or two ahead and just leave the disks in the fridge. The dough will last several days, so don’t be afraid to make it ahead.
When it comes time to roll the dough out, it is quite easy to work with. I get about 4 large empanadas out of each disk of dough, so the first thing I do is take one disk out of the fridge and cut it into quarters. Put three of the quarters back in the fridge, and work with the fourth. Make sure to have a work surface that is lightly floured, and then shape the dough into a ball. Next I place it on the work surface, and flatten it with my hand. If it is sticky, I add a bit of flour to the top, but just lightly.
Cut to Shape
Using a small rolling pin, I roll the dough out, flipping and turning it occasionally to help make sure I get a more or less round shape. For size, I use a plate that is between 7 and 8 inches as a guide. I feel this is big enough to give me enough dough around the edges to fold them up when stuffing the empanadas. I roll the dough out until the inverted plate just fits on top. Using the tip of a sharp knife, I trace around the plate to cut the dough.
I repeat this process for the remaining dough, working one at a time, and leaving the rest of the dough in the refrigerator. If it gets too warm during the rolling process, it can get messy, so it is best to only have what you are working on out. As for the rolled out empanada shells, I stack them up on a baking sheet with pieces of parchment or waxed paper in between each one.
When it is time to fill them, I take each shell and put it back in front of me. I take whatever filling I am using, and scoop somewhere between a quarter cup and half cup of it. Place it in the middle of the circle, slightly off centered, to make the folding easier. Next, I take one side of the circle, pick it up, pull it gently over the topping, and bring it down on the opposite edge of the circle.
Perfection is Not Required
Now I have a large, stuffed half moon, and am pretty close to an empanada. Starting on one end of the half moon, I gently push the outer half inch of the half circle together around the edge. Then I gently fold it on top of itself in small segments. You end up with a vaguely ‘rope’ looking edge, but do not sweat making it look perfect.
Although my empanadas are delicious, they will never win awards for being the most perfectly shaped empanadas in the world. I don’t make hundreds of these a week, so I don’t expect to make mine look exactly like those found in markets and small shops in Spain. They all are slightly different from each other and some end up oddly shaped indeed. Far more important than a perfect look is that the entire edge is sealed. This keeps the air and the filling inside the empanada. The air is important so that it will puff up while baking. If the air has somewhere to escape, it will, and your empanada will stay flat.
Fill, Chill, and Bake
Repeat the whole procedure one by one until all you fill all the empanadas. As you finish each on, place it on a permanent lined baking sheet. When they are all assembled, it is best if you can stick them back in the refrigerator for at least thirty minutes or so. This allows the fats in the dough to re=harden, which in turn helps the whole thing keep its shape better when you cook it. This is also a good time to preheat the oven, to 400F
When it is time to cook, I like to give mine a quick brush with an egg wash to help them color nicely while cooking. This isn’t entirely necessary, but it helps make the finished product look more appealing. They bake 15 – 20 minutes, and are done when the pastry is a nice golden brown. You’ll notice in my photos that some got a bit more than golden brown — I was distracted and they cooked a couple of minutes too long. But they weren’t burnt and still tasted delicious. In other words, the process is pretty forgiving. Precision isn’t the most important thing here.
So let’s talk a bit about the fillings. There are any number of fillings you can use, and I encourage you to experiment. If you’re looking for inspiration, here is a site with that dozens of fillings to inspire you. But I went with what I considered a couple of basic choices. The first is a meat based filling that relies on fresh chorizo. I got a couple of whole fresh chorizo at a local butcher that makes them in house. I pulled the meat out of its casing, and sautéed it with pepper, onion, garlic, and some finely diced potatoes. Add some salt and pepper and a bit of smoked paprika, and it is a simple and delicious filling. The key is fresh sausage. If you can’t find chorizo, that’s OK, use what you can find, and add more smoked paprika if you need too.
The second filling is a vegetarian based filling. Sauteed spinach and mushrooms with garlic is a popular tapa in Spain. The Elegant Baker and I had it in half a dozen restaurants the last time we were there. It is such a simple preparation. Start with large pan over medium high heat. Add some sliced mushrooms of your choice (I used crimini because it’s what I had). Put them in the pan and let them just sit for three or four minutes. No stirring, no flipping, just leave them be.
After a few minutes add a tablespoon or two of olive oil, and start stirring the mushrooms. When they start to look done to you, add the garlic. About thirty seconds later, add the spinach. Toss it all around so that it combines and nothing burns. After a minute, turn off the heat, and continue to let the spinach gently wilt. Add salt, pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg. Give it one last stir, then remove from the hot pan and spread out on a plate.
If you were having this at a restaurant, this is how it would come to the table for you. But as a filling for empanadas, you want to let it cool a bit before putting it in the shell. Same with the chorizo mix. Let them both cool down, or their heat will melt the fats in the dough, and you will be disappointed with the finished product. When I add the spinach mix to the empanada shell, I top with some shredded manchego or mahon cheese. I don’t add cheese to the chorizo mixture. But that is what I do. You do what you like. Add cheese, change the fillings, make them the smaller empadillas, fill with chocolate. You can’t be wrong.
Empanadas are right up there with tapas, and sangria as fun foods that you can make at home for yourself or to share with a party. I hope you give it a try. All that is left is to experiment, have some fun, and enjoy your homemade empanadas.
- 3 cups All Purpose Flour
- ½ tsp kosher salt
- 6 oz Unsalted Butter Cubed and Cold. 3/4 cup, 1 ½ sticks, 12 TBS
- 1 egg, large cold
- 1 TBS Apple cider vinegar cold
- ½ cup water cold
- Place flour and salt in the bowl for a food processor. Pulse 2 – 3 times to combine
- Add chilled butter and pulse 8 – 12 times until mixture is consistency of coarse sand
- Add the egg and vinegar and turn the food processor to 'on'
- Slowly pour cold water through feed tube just until a dough ball forms
- Remove dough from work bowl and divide in half
- Form each half into a 5" – 6" disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Place in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes, and up to 2 days.
- Remove a disk from the refrigerator and divide into 4 equal portions. Return 3 portions to the refrigerator and work with just one portion at a time
- Take a portion of dough and and roll it into a small ball
- Place the ball on a lightly floured work surface and press to flatten
- Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out to approximately 8" circle
- Using a plate or template, use a sharp knife to cut the dough into a circle creating an empanada shell
- Place the empanada shell on a piece of parchment paper or waxed paper and set aside
- Repeat rolling and cutting process with the remainder of the dough
- Working with one empanada shell at a time, place between a ¼ cup and a ½ cup filling slightly off center of the empanada shell. Leave between ½ inch and ¾ inch along the edge without any filling
- Gently lift one edge of the empanada shell and carry it over the filling bringing it down to meet the opposite edge of the shell. You should form a semi circle
- Starting at one end of the semi circle, make a series of small folds around the edge to join the two halves of dough and to seal the empanada
- When all the empanadas are full, place them on a parchment lined baking sheet and place in the refrigerator to chill for 30 minutes.
- While the empanadas are chilling, preheat the oven to 400°F
- Remove the empanadas from the refrigerator. Brush them with an egg wash if you would like to help with the color while baking
- Bake the empanada for 15 to 20 minutes, until empanadas are golden brown
- Remove from the oven and let cool briefly. Serve warm, or store in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Chorizo filling for empanada
- ½ pound chorizo, removed from casing about 1 -2 sausages depending on size
- 1/2 cup potato small dice
- 1/2 cup onion small dice
- 1/2 cup red pepper small dice
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 TBS extra virgin olive oil
- Kosher Salt & Fresh Ground Black Pepper to taste
- smoked paprika to taste
- Heat a medium skillet over medium high heat
- Add chorizo meat (removed from casing) and brown
- When chorizo is almost fully browned, add potatoes and olive oil. Stir and allow potatoes to cook for 3 – 4 minutes
- Add onion, pepper, and garlic and stir to combine.
- Cook, stirring occasionally until potatoes are softened and onions are translucent
- Add salt, pepper, and additional paprika to taste
- Remove from heat and set aside to cool until ready to use
Spinach and Mushrooms
- 2 TBS extra virgin olive oil
- 4 oz mushrooms any variety, sliced
- 1 bunch Spinach leaves washed and trimmed
- 3 cloves garlic finely chopped
- 2 oz Manchego cheese shredded (optional)
- pinch nutmeg
- kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
- Heat a large skillet over medium high heat
- Add olive oil to pan
- Add the slice mushrooms and arrange in a single layer. Let sit untouched for 3 – 4 minutes
- Once the mushroom have sat for several minutes, begin to stir them to get even browning
- Reduce heat on pan to medium and add garlic. Stir to combine with mushrooms
- Cook until garlic just become fragrant
- Add spinach and stir to combine with mushrooms and garlic.
- After a minute, turn heat of in the pan, but continue you to stir the contents of the pan
- Add nutmeg
- Add salt an pepper to taste
- Remove from heat and set aside to cool until ready to use for empanadas
- If serving as a side dish or tapas, serve hot