Today, we will be looking at one of the most traditional Argentinean recipes of this country’s cultural tradition. I’ve been wanting to bring this recipe to the blog for a long time, and finally I’ve tested it and tried it and I’m so excited to share it! Many of you might be thinking, “It’s the fall. Shouldn’t we be focusing on apples and pumpkin and cinnamon?” But like I said in my prior post, there is a big repertoire that makes up the flavors of fall, and I believe Empanadas Tucumanas can fall in that domain. Let me persuade you why!
When we think of fall, we think of cozy flavors, but oftentimes they lean too much to sweet treats like pies, crisps, and cupcakes. The autumn season can encompass a lot of other flavors in other parts of the world that still resonate with a lot of the unique flavors and aromas of fall here in North America, too. For me, fall means back to school and cooler days. I have so many memories of going back to school in the rainy season and seeing trees shedding their leaves, opening packed lunches with prized alfajores tucked in the pocket of a school jacket. It’s also the mouth-watering aroma of beef empanadas made from scratch, especially the ones that are served on almost every patriotic holiday at school festivities. It would be unthinkable to go back to school and not recollect the handmade empanadas of Isabel, the cook for our school, who for every school play, national festivity, and other scholastic event, made hundreds of empanadas for the students and families. How did this empanada madness get started? I can tell you the roots go to Argentina and beyond.
The origins of all empanadas can be traced to Galicia in Spain and Portugal, and they first appeared in Iberia during the time of the Moorish invasions. Believe it or not, recipes for empanadas have been found as early as the beginning of the 16th Century. It’s a testament to their deliciousness and nutritional value that empanadas are ubiquitous in Argentina and other parts of the world. They are a fast-food staple in Buenos Aires that can be easily found in takeaway shops and pizzerias throughout, as well as in many restaurants.
In Argentina, every region has its own type of empanada, slightly tailored to the area’s abundance or history. In the province of Tucumán, the smallest province, nestled in the heart of the country where independence was declared on July 9, 1816, we find the gem of Tucumanas: large empanadas stuffed with a salty filling of hand-cut flank steak, finely-chopped hard-boiled egg, and green onions. The Tucumán province is actually home to the National Empanada Festival, held every September, where contestants compete to make the best empanadas. Tucumanas are moist and are different from the empanadas found in Buenos Aires. They are handmade according to very old traditional recipes dating back to colonial times and it would be considered a sacrilege to use ground beef, Dios mío! The most authentic Tucumanas are baked in a clay oven and served with a glass of red wine on the side. Perhaps the most characteristic flavor associated with Tucumanas is the spiciness of smoked Spanish paprika, or pimentón, which I associate with autumn in Argentina, and is somewhat reminiscent of campfire smoke. I think that smoky flavor goes hand in hand with fall in North America too, when people start lighting bonfires or using their chimneys, and the wonderfully evocative smell of smoke invitingly fills the air on autumn evenings. There’s truly nothing in the world like it! We associate the fall with warm spices, like nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon, but I think there is room to expand the repertoire and include flavors like cumin and smoked Spanish paprika, just as we’ve made room for other spice blends like chai, from other parts of the world and made them part of our fall flavors. Believe me when I say paprika goes beautifully with cinnamon for a medley of fall flavors! Plus, the fun thing about paprika is that it’s such an original flavor, unmatched by the other spices: it doesn’t taste like anything else. It can range from mild to hot, smoked or unsmoked, and can be earthy, fiery, or slightly sweet, depending on the variety. It’s truly perfect for fall because it has so many possibilities and tastes just right for the season.
I’ve explained a little bit about what makes the character of the Tucumanas filling unique, so I should say a word about the dough too. I don’t always make the dough from scratch because it is very time-consuming and labor intensive. It really does lengthen the recipe quite a bit. You can most definitely make the filling from scratch and use purchased empanada dough, which can usually be found in your local Hispanic market. The most popular brands are Signo de Oro and Goya, and I have used them countless times. Using purchased dough really makes the recipe a lot more practical, especially since you can make the filling in advance, and you can go straight into assembly and baking, saving yourself the time to mix the pastry dough and create discs. However, I felt like the Tucumanas recipe would be incomplete if I didn’t provide instructions for making the dough from scratch too. It might come in handy if you do not have access to purchased empanada dough and want to make the entire recipe from scratch. The scratch dough adds a little extra depth of flavor to the finished pastry, and complements the filling. The traditional dough is made with beef lard and adds to the unique texture and flavor typical of Tucumanas and once baked, the dough is crispy and flavorful. I can see how some people might really want to avoid using lard, and I don’t blame you if you do. So if you’re really opposed to lard, you could use butter or duck fat. I have not tested the dough with shortening yet, but I will plan to do that the next time I make them. I’ve made the dough with butter a few times and you would still achieve a very nice result. The resulting dough is soft, pliable, and stretchy, and you can roll it out by hand, or you could use a tortilla press and rolling pin, and then use an inverted cup or plate to make circles of dough to make the tapas. I can promise you nobody has ever complained about empanadas, regardless of the type of fat used in the dough!
Finally, in regards to the assembly, this recipe does require a bit of a head start and to make the filling a day ahead, but if you make the dough, so I recommend adopting a second day for prep work. A second pair of helping hands would also be invaluable! It will make things so much faster and easier, plus it’s companionable and fun and a truly Argentinean process to make the food with a relative or friend while chatting. Making them over the weekend would be ideal, and I recommend having a set of helping hands. In an ideal situation, make the filling on the first day and chill it ahead, then on the second day, make the dough, then assemble the empanadas and bake. If you need an extra day, you could roll out and shape the tapas on the second day, then assemble the empanadas on the third day.
Whether you make the dough yourself or not, I hope you will give these smoky, delicious Empanadas Tucumanas a try. They will make an exciting addition to your autumn table and give you a savory dish to complement your sweet desserts. I promise you, in the time it takes to eat a bite, they will transport you from your table to the Argentine prairies and valleys of the province of Tucumán.
Prep time: 1 hour (30 filling, 30 dough)
Cook Time: 25 min.
Assembly: 45 min
Servings: 30 empanadas
For the Filling (Picadillo):
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 2 cups white onion, finely-chopped
- 2 tablespoons smoked Spanish paprika
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- ½ tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
- ½ tsp ground black pepper
- 1 ½ lb diced flank steak, uncooked
- 1 ½ cups beef broth
- 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 3 hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped
- ¾ cup green onions, thinly-sliced (both white and light green parts)
For the Pastry Dough:
- 4 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
- ¾ tsp kosher salt
- ¼ cup + 2 tbsp beef lard (or butter if you prefer)
- 1 ¼ – ½ cups warm water
- Parchment paper, cut into squares
- Egg wash: 1 egg + 2 tsp water
Make the Filling
- Heat the oil in a tall, large skillet.
- Add the white onions and cook, stirring them until softened, about 5 minutes.
- Season with the smoked paprika, salt, cumin, black pepper, and if desired, red pepper flakes.
- Add the diced beef, stirring well to combine, making sure that it browns slightly.
- Incorporate the broth and bring the mixture to a boil, lowering the heat to medium-low, and continue cooking uncovered until all of the liquid has been absorbed. This can take sometimes even longer than 30 minutes, depending on the surface area of your skillet.
- When the liquid has been absorbed, the beef mixture should still be moist, and the filling is ready to be removed from the heat.
- Stir in the red wine vinegar and mix thoroughly. Transfer to a storage container, cover, and chill the filling for 4 hours or overnight, until the day when you assemble the empanadas. The filling can be stored in the fridge for up to 3 days.
Make the Dough
- In a large bowl, mix together the flour and salt.
- Make a well in the center and gradually add the beef lard and 2 cups of the water. Stir with a spatula until the dough starts coming together.
- Working with your hands, add the remaining water. It could take between ½ cup to ¾ cup of water. It’s important to add the right amount of water because if it’s too little, the dough will be brittle, but if it’s too much water, the discs or tapas will stick to each other, making it much harder to work. Start adding the water gradually and, if you can make it work with ½ cup to get the desired texture, stick to that; and if you need more, feel free to add it gradually until you complete ¾ cup but no more than that. Knead until the dough comes together and is soft and sticky to the touch.
- Turn the dough onto a lightly-floured surface and knead it for 2 minutes, until the dough holds together in a smooth ball and no longer sticks to your fingers. You may need to add more flour as necessary. The important thing is to reach the right texture.
- Place the ball of dough in the bowl and cover it with a cheesecloth or linen towel and let it rest for at least 1 hour.
- After the dough has rested at room temperature, the dough can be cut to form discs or tapas, and it should be cut while it is still warm. Cut the dough into 28 pieces and roll each piece into a ball. Place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment and cover them with a clean tea towel, letting them rest for 10 minutes.
- To form the first disc, on a well-floured surface, press a ball of dough into a flat disc with your fingers first shaping it and flattening it with your hands, and then using a rolling pin to flatten it into a thickness of about 1/8 of an inch. If you want a perfectly-formed circle, you can use the bottom of a small snack plate to trace the outline of the empanada and cut the discs with the sharp end of a knife. I recommend using a plate 5-6 inches in diameter.
- Once you have assembled the first disc, place it on one of the squares of parchment paper and then cover it with another square as you set to work on the second disc. This way, you will make a stack of tapas, or discs of dough, separated by parchment paper to avoid sticking. Continue this process with the remaining 27 balls of dough.
- You can store some of these discs in the fridge for up to 3 days, but it is best if they are used right away. The dough is extremely elastic and gives a lot when working with it.
Assemble the Empanadas
- Make the egg wash by mixing 1 egg and 2 tsp water.
- Prepare two baking sheets lined with parchment paper and set aside.
- When you have enough discs, and you are ready for the assembly, remove the chilled filling from the fridge.
- Stir the finely-chopped eggs and green onions into the filling, stirring to incorporate until they are evenly distributed in the filling.
- Take one disc of dough with your left hand and place a heaping amount of filling in the center of the disc, leaving a ½ inch border free.
- Fold the disc in a semi-circle so that the borders of each side of the circle can meet, encasing the filling and forming a half-moon. Moisten your index finger and trace a half-circle around the dough, then press together to seal.
- Press the edges together firmly, making a ½ inch edge and then using your fingers, use the traditional crimping method for repulge to create a firm and decorative edge to the empanada that will prevent the filling from leaking when baking. Please see this video. It will really help. Do not get discouraged! If at first the repulge is not even, it just takes practice. If you are in a hurry or don’t feel like using the repulge method of crimping, you can also use the tines of a form to seal the empanada.
- Place the sealed and crimped empanada on the prepared baking sheet. Continue assembling the empanadas until using all of the tapas or discs and all of the filling.
- The empanadas can sit uncovered at room temperature for 15 minutes before baking; they can also be refrigerated up to 1 hour before baking. If you have to freeze them, it’s best to freeze them after baking.
- To bake the empanadas, preheat the oven to 400°F. If you like your empanadas shiny, brush them with the egg wash. Bake the empanadas for 15 minutes, rotate the pan in the oven back-to-front to ensure an even bake, and then increase the oven temperature to 450°F and bake for an additional 8 minutes, until the empanadas are golden on the top and bottom.
- Remove from the oven and let them cool at least 5 minutes and transfer them to a cooling rack. Serve warm.
- To freeze, cool them to room temperature, set them on a single layer on a covered glass container or baking sheet, and freeze them until solid. They can be frozen up to 3 months.
- To reheat, warm them in an oven preheated to 350°F for 10-12 minutes.
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