Saturday, April 4, 2009

Empanadas: a sweet version

The empanada is a curious thing. By name they're unabashedly hispanic, but the reality is that they're really small pies, variants of which you can find littered throughout most cultures in the world. They can be either sweet or savory, and make an acceptable breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, or anytime snack. You can bake them, pan fry them, or even deep fry them. So with all of those options, just what is it that makes an empanada an empanada? Well, to be honest, the only common tie is that its a filled piece of dough. So with all the possibilities in the world seemingly open to use, I looked around my kitchen looking for things that needed to get used or thrown out. I happened upon some apples that I had bought a week earlier but ended up not eating because I prefer firm apples and these were unfortunately too sugary for my tastes. I was tempted to make a traditional apple pie, but decided it was too much effort to find my pie plate (strangely it was in my bedroom, and no I wasn't eating pie in bed). Empanadas to the rescue!

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The finished products, you know you want one.

I decided to fill my empanadas with an unusual apple filling comprised simply of honey, balsamic vinegar, cardamom, and apples. The honey provides sweetness and a depth of flavor sugar can't. The balsamic gives a little bite from the acidity (which also keeps the apples from browning) and a tangy flavor that contrasts with the honey. The cardamom provides an oddly warm and subtle flavor that meshes well with everything else. As things often go with my cooking, that combination was completely unplanned, but I highly recommend you try it once because its really good (and people think anything with cardamom is impressive, and thus are impressed with you). But I'm going to present this so you can substitute any filling that you want (yesterdays beef stew?, home-made tomato jam?, curried whitefish?). So lets get on with it...

Empanada Dough: Adapted from Alton Brown's recipe
9.5 oz. flour (I split 1/2 & 1/2 "white" wheat and AP)
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
2.5 oz. shortening
3/4 cup milk (I used 1/3 cup non-fat dried milk and 3/4 cup water)

  • Sift together the flour, salt, and baking soda (if using non-fat dried milk, that too).
  • Cut the shortening into the flour mixture till you get fine crumbs.
  • Add the water and bring together using a silicon spatula.
  • Kneed the dough thoroughly for ~5 minutes, then form into a disc.
  • Roll the disc out on a floured work surface till ~1/2 inch thick. Cut out small circles using a cookie cutter or, in my case, your #0 half-cup Rubbermaid storage container.
  • Ball-up and re-roll the extra dough until you've used it all up. Keep circles under a moistened paper towel while you make the empanadas.
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Honey-balsamic cardamom apple filling: Can be made ahead of time
2 large apples, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch cubes
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1.5 tsp. freshly ground cardamom
1 tbsp. corn starch
1/4 cup cold water

  • Put the apple pieces into a 1 qt. saucepan over medium heat.
  • After the apples have given up some liquid, add the honey, balsamic, and cardamom. Mix the cornstarch in with the cold water to hydrate.
  • After the honey is very viscous and some of the apples have broken down, pour in the cornstarch slurry and heat till thickened.
  • When thick, remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
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Empanada assembly:
1 egg-white
dough circles

  • Roll out one of the dough circles on a floured surface till about 2 millimeters thick. You should flip it over and turn ~90 deg. as you roll it out to keep the circle shape.
  • Apply a thin coat of egg-white to one half of the circle. Add ~1 tbsp. filling to that side near the edge of the circle.
  • Pull the side with the filling and egg over onto the other side. Squeeze out as much air as possible and then use your fingers to press both sides together.
  • Using a fork, crimp the edges to form a tight seal. Using a knife or kitchen scissors, make three small slits on the top to allow air and water to escape during cooking.
  • Depending on cooking method (oven in my case) glaze the outside now with egg-white and then sprinkle on some demerara sugar.
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Cooking Empanadas:
  • Oven: 350F, bake for ~25 minutes on a parchment or silicone baking mat lined sheet pan.
  • Pan Fry: Heat ~2 tbsp. shortening over medium heat. Fry for 3-4 minutes per side. Sprinkle on sugar after removing from pan to cooling rack.
  • Deep Fry: Heat oil to ~375F. Fry for 3-4 minutes total. Sprinkle on sugar after removing to cooling rack.

The traditional cooking method for empanadas is to pan fry them. But if you're like me and don't feel like frying at 10pm, the oven works great just as well. It takes longer on a per pie basis, but you can cook the whole lot all at once if you have two sheet pans and an oven that keeps an even temperature. If you don't have an oven available, because you're living in the middle of the jungle (for example), then by all means pan fry these babies. I'm sure they're just as delicious (possibly more so) and easy if you try making them at a reasonable time.

So, call these what you wish (empanadas, pocket pies (the Alton Brown name), mini-pies, yummy filled dough thingies) they're good. And with the wealth of of fillings available, they're extremely versatile. The best part though, as far as I'm concerned, is that I've finally done a recipe for something that can> be made with out any fancy ingredients, requires no refrigeration, and can be made on a camp stove deep in the middle of the Panamanian jungle. The use of shortening and non-fat dry milk means the egg-white is the only thing that would normally required to be kept refrigerated (a fresh egg will keep at least 2-3 days if simply kept cool, ~50-55F). The good news there is that the egg isn't necessary, it just helps glue things together and promotes browning when you bake them. All this proves is that the empanada is an extremely useful food delivery system, and deserves as much respect and experimentation as you can give it.


1 comment:

Darius T. Williams said...

Okay- so that filling makes me really really excited!