Everyone in the world seems to love the idea of wrapped hand-held foods — Jamaican beef patties, Indian samosas, or Cuban pastelitos. But the wrapped food with the best shot at making the top of the list of classic street food snacks is the empanada (from the Spanish empanar “to fill”), a half-moon of flaky crust filled with spicy beef, shrimp, chicken or vegetables.
It is made by folding a circle of thinly rolled dough over a filling into a semicircle and then sealing the edge. There are controversies among South Americans about the origin of this turnover. Some think the Portuguese first brought them to Brazil; others claim it was the Spaniards. The undisputed fact is empanadas are among the most widespread snacks all over Spain and as far away as Latin America and the Caribbean.
Each country has its own traditional empanada — a wide array of doughs enclosing an even wider range of fillings. Empanadas can be eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They can be served as appetizers or snacks, but they can also easily make a full and satisfying meal.
Some folks prefer them baked, while other like them fried. Either way, they taste terrific.
Empanadas are usually made with savory fillings, but sweet ones make an excellent dessert. They can be served alone or with dipping sauces like an Argentine chimichurri sauce. The dough can be made with a variety of ingredients, and every country has its preference — cornmeal, yuca, wheat, green plantain.
Empanada dough also is available in specialty markets in the form of frozen discs usually sold in 10-disc packs, but homemade empanada dough is very easy to make, especially if you have a food processor. Making the dough at home allows you to be more creative with personal touches such as the addition of favorite herbs and spices.
To freeze, lay unbaked or baked empanadas side by side on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Make sure they don’t touch, or the empanadas will freeze together. Freeze until solid, and then transfer the empanadas into a freezer bag. Frozen empanadas will keep for up to three months and can be baked or fried straight from the freezer. Add a few extra minutes to the cooking time.
Empanadas with Queso Fresco
For the dough:
- 2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1/2 cup cold water
For the empanadas:
- 1/4 pound queso fresco, grated (2 cups) (see note)
- 2 quarts vegetable oil, for frying
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar, for sprinkling
Note: Queso fresco — “fresh cheese” — is a Mexican cheese, traditionally made from raw cow milk or a combination of cow and goat milk. In the United States, you’ll most likely find pasteurized versions.
To make the dough: Sift the flour, salt and sugar together in a bowl. Use a pastry blender to cut the vegetable shortening into the dry ingredients until it is fully incorporated. Add the egg yolk and mix well. Adding 2 or 3 tablespoons at a time, knead in the water with your hands until a smooth dough forms. Pat the dough into a round, flat disk and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate it for at least 1 hour or up to 1 day before making the empanadas.
To assemble the empanadas: Divide the chilled dough into a dozen 1-inch balls. Using a manual tortilla press, a rolling pin, or the heel of your hand, press each dough ball into a circle about 1/8-inch thick and about 6 inches in diameter. Mound about 2 tablespoons of cheese in the center of each round and fold the dough over to form a half-moon. Use a dinner fork to crimp the outer edge. Alternatively, use a plastic empanada press from a Latin market.
To cook the empanadas: Heat the oil to 350 degrees F in a stockpot, using a candy or deep-fry thermometer to monitor the temperature. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Fry the empanadas in batches until they are golden brown and crispy, 3 to 4 minutes each, turning once in the oil. Drain them on the baking sheet and sprinkle with sugar before serving with chimichurri sauce or salsa.
Makes 12 empanadas.
Recipe adapted from: “The Latin Road Home” by Jose Garces,
Lake Isle Press ($35)
Today’s Special is a Tribune News Service column by Carole Kotkin, manager of the Ocean Reef Club cooking school and co-host of Food & Wine Talk on southfloridagourmet.com.