Men are from Mars and women are from Venus… but empanadas are from heaven!
That’s right! Empanadas are from heaven because they are absolutely amazing! If you’ve never heard of these flaky, ambrosial pastries before, you may be wondering: what is an empanada? And why did I choose this recipe for Pi(e) day? And wait, what is Pi(e) Day? Here we go…
Once upon a time, deep-thinking, brilliant mathematicians worked to explain the world’s shapes in formulas and ratios, leading to the discovery of Pi π. This beautiful, whimsical little symbol represents the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, an infinite number we typically approximate to 3.14. And so it is that on March 14th or 3/14, Pi Day was observed.
As useful as Pi might be in all sorts of calculations, the day didn’t really gain greater popularity until in our food-obsessed world, Pi Day became Pie Day. Pie is often circular. We can measure a Pie using Pi! The two of them even sound the same! Could Pi and Pie truly collide in one wonderfully delicious day of celebration? Yes! It seems mathematicians, bakers and everyone in the world basically agreed that it is wonderful to dedicate this day to celebrate a symbol by having a slice of Pie on Pi Day.
Now, when thinking of pie, most of us think of the fruit-studded variety, the kind that has a flaky, buttery crust enclosing a fruit filling bursting with summer flavor: cherry pie, strawberry-rhubarb pie, blueberry pie. But there are some very wonderful savory pie varieties as well. There are many different renditions of hand-held savory pocket pies made in many countries around the world going by different names: Cornish pasties, Italian calzones, Indian samosas, Somali sambusas, and American “hotpockets” to name only a few, and of course, South American empanadas. Curiously enough, several of my friends recently pointed out, upon tasting an empanada for the very first time, that an empanada is a bit like the Latin American version of a pocket pie, with a savory instead of sweet filling. And they would not be wrong to describe empanadas in such a way. Empanadas could well bring about world peace, you know? After all, they seem to be a universally appealing dish to all cultures around the world. Except that…to Argentineans, empanadas are a dish unto itself, a much beloved pocket pie variety that carved itself its own province in the vast culinary landscape of world pies.
Empanadas are popular throughout South America, but these days they have become a dish that is a quick identifier of Argentina’s national culture. Together with soccer superstars like Messi and Maradona, The Pope, Evita, tango, and our beautiful, vast, grass-covered pampas stretching as far as the eye can see beneath impossibly wide, cloudlessly-blue skies, nothing screams Argentina as loudly as a plate of baked empanadas. In Argentina they are extremely popular and are closely associated with the national cuisine and patriotic festivities. They frequently appear at parties, asados, as part of a “tapas” meals, etc. If you live in Buenos Aires, or any city in Argentina for that matter, it’s oh-so- easy to get an empanada meal without having to make them yourself: you can order empanadas and have them delivered right to your very doorstep from just about every take-out joint or pizzeria.
Empanadas are portable, versatile and just plain delicious. They can be served as a hearty appetizer, or as the main dish. They are the ultimate snack food; they make excellent finger food and are easily shared by everyone. They are lunch-on-the-go; the unofficial party food of every informal social gathering and celebration; the simple, satisfying appetizer that preambles the hours-long traditionally communal meal of asado campestre –Argentine barbecue made with indirect heat from wood-fire and slow roasted for hours under the open skies.
There are countless varieties of empanadas, which I find to be part of their appeal. They’re customizable to the ingredients that you have on hand. It’s fun to experiment with different and unexpected flavor combinations. They can be filled with meat, raisins and olives, or ham and cheese, or cheese and fine herbs, various vegetables, seafood, and so on. Although lesser-known, there are also sweet ones filled with membrillo (quince) served for dessert. Most empanadas are baked, while others are deep fried. The options are almost endless.
Given my love for empanadas, this is only the first of many installments of empanada recipes on the blog. I have decided to start with Empanadas de Vigilia, filled with albacore tuna, roasted red peppers and olives because we are in the season of Lent; fish empanadas can come in handy on those meatless Fridays. Additionally, the ingredients are inexpensive and easy to combine. Chicken or beef empanadas are a bit more time consuming, requiring more time to prep and cook the meat, as well as extra steps for seasoning.
A quick word about empanada dough or pastry shells. The tremendous popularity of empanadas in Latin America ensures that every supermarket there carries pre-made tapas, disks of unbaked empanada dough that are similar to pie crust. In the U.S., it is possible to find La Salteña, Signo de Oro and Goya brands of empanada shells at grocery stores that stock a wide variety of Hispanic foods and ingredients, or other supermarkets with a broad selection of ethnic products. If you live in the Twin Cities, check El Burrito Mercado on the west side of St Paul or Bill’s Imported Foods in Minneapolis’ uptown area. Making the empanada shells does take time and a bit of patience, so if you don’t have the heart for it, buying the pastry ready-made will save you a lot of time and effort and will allow you to enjoy this dish more frequently. And yes, your empanadas are still totally legit if you make them with store-bought pastry shells. If you cannot find empanada shells in the stores in your area, you can buy ready-made piecrust and cut smaller circles out of the dough using a saucer or a small bowl as a template.
Pie dough won’t work quite as well as real empanada dough, but it’ll do in a pinch. For the truly dedicated, you can always make the dough from scratch and I will be posting the recipe for the empanada dough. (I’m in the process of testing 9 recipes! Wish me luck!)
I hope you all have a wonderful Pi day and making empanadas… and above all… I hope you enjoy eating them!
Empanadas de Vigilia
Prep time: 1 hour (30 min for the filling, 30 min for the dough)
Cook Time: 30 min.
Assembly: 45 min
- 3 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 cup white onion, chopped
- 3 cans of tuna in water, drained
- 2 teaspoons salt
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- ¼ teaspoon white pepper
- ½ teaspoon sweet paprika (regular paprika, not smoked paprika)
- 3/4 cup roasted red peppers, chopped
- 20 green olives, chopped
- 2 hard boiled eggs, finely chopped
- ¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped and loosely packed
- 6 tablespoons tomato sauce
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 packets of 12 empanada pastry shells each, unbaked, or 2 boxes of pie crust
- 1 egg, beaten, for brushing the pastry
Make the Filling
- Heat the oil in a large skillet with high sides over medium-high heat.
- Add the white onions and cook, stirring, until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.
- Add the tuna, and season with the salt, pepper, white pepper and paprika. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring well to combine.
- Add the roasted red peppers, green olives, eggs, fresh parsley and tomato sauce, stirring gently to combine.
- Remove the filling from the heat. Cover and chill the filling completely, at least 3 hours in a refrigerator, so that the flavors can blend together. If you prefer to let the filling sit overnight and bake the empanadas the next day, that works well too, and it allows you to break down the recipe in two parts essentially. You can also freeze the filling for a later time.
Assemble and Bake the Empanadas
- If using pie crust, use a saucer or wide-mouth cup or mug to cut medium-sized circles. I used a saucer 6 inches wide. You can use something smaller if you want snack-sized empanadas, or even larger than 6 inches, if you like very large empanadas with more filling. When cutting circles of dough, if you stack the rounds, place parchment paper in between to avoid their sticking to each other. If using purchased and already-made tapas Goya or La Saltena empanada pastry shells, you can skip this step.
- Place 2 heaping tablespoons of filling (or as much filling as you can comfortably fit) in the center of an empanada shell.
- Moisten the edge of the empanada shell’s edge with water. You can use a small brush or your fingertip.
- Carefully, so that the filling doesn’t drop, fold the empanada shell in half so that both edges meet the top of the disc, encasing the filling in a half-moon shape.
- Press the edges firmly together to seal. Keep the border of the empanada as dry as possible. Don’t be discouraged if these steps seem slow at first. It is best to work in a slow or unhurried manner; let your speed develop naturally with increased practice!
- Preheat the oven to 360°F.
- Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
- While the oven preheats, if you wish, you can crimp the edge of each individual empanada, formed by folding and twisting the edge of the pastry shell. This is called “repulgue” and it adds some visual appeal to these little handheld pocket pies. In addition, the different types of repulgues or crimping are used so that guests can identify the different empanada flavors by their appearance, without having to bite into them and guess what kind of empanada they’re getting.
So, to crimp the edge by hand… Start by placing your two index fingers 1/3 inch away from the edge of the half-moon empanada. Using the two index fingers fold the border of the empanada forward and press the two index fingers firmly. Release, and move another 1/3 of an inch to the left of the empanada border, and repeat. In this way you keep moving all along the edge of the empanada border, to the left, folding to create a repulgue. Use the pictures here to see how this is done.
- Alternatively, if you don’t feel up to folding it by hand, you can simply press the edge of the pastry dough with a fork. They look just as pretty with a fork too!
- Place the crimped empanadas on the prepared pans and brush them with the egg wash.
- Bake for 28 to 30 minutes until the bottoms are golden.
- Let cool for 3-5 minutes before serving. You can also store them for up to 4 days. They make an excellent portable breakfast, lunch or snack when in a hurry!
- Eat, share and enjoy!