Beef Empanadas

Were you one of those kids who had to “brown bag it” for lunch when you were in school? In my family all the kids took a brown bag lunch to school. Before waking us up in the morning my mother would pack our lunches.  Every day was pretty much the same thing. She always made a sandwich and it was almost always peanut butter and jelly on white bread. A side note here; if my grandmother ever made us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches you could bet your life that there would be just the right amount of peanut butter but way, way, way, way too much jelly. The jelly would be so thick the bread would become a soggy mess and the sandwich was inedible. And the jelly was almost always grape jelly. I vehemently dislike grape jelly to this day. My mother’s sandwiches were not as bad as grandmas. For starters the jelly was almost always Tropicana brand; “Mixed Fruit” flavor, which wasn't that bad (plus she was nowhere near as heavy handed with it as grandma was).  

Anyway... so a peanut butter and jelly sandwich wrapped in plastic wrap was placed on the bottom of a small brown paper bag. Next there was a Snack Pack aluminum can (yes, I'm that old) of either fruit cocktail or chocolate pudding placed right next to the sandwich. Then a piece of fruit, usually an orange, was placed inside. And on top of everything we got a small bag of potato chips. The top of the lunch bag was folded over a couple of times and our name was written on the outside. When that was done she would wake us up. My sister had her own bedroom so I don’t know how she was awoken each morning but I imagine it was uneventful. I shared a bedroom with my two brothers and when my mother woke us, she did it the same way each morning.  For my older brother and myself it was a stern voice that woke us, “Michael, get up, let’s go,” she would start. “James, come on, get up, it’s time for school” she continued.  Then she would lean down to my younger brother’s bed and she would shake him ever so gently and with almost a soft whispering voice “Danny… Danny, honey… It’s time to wake up honey… good morning… time to wake up, honey”.  

Now I probably don’t need to tell you that usually none of us moved an inch.  This of course prompted a second visit from my mother five or ten minutes later. This time her voice was in command mode. She again started with my older brother, “Michael, NOW, Let’s Go, you've got 15 minutes”, then to me “James, I’m NOT telling you again, I mean it! Get Up”. It was at this point her demeanor would again shift, and she would lean down to my younger brother, and with a Cinderella like quality, she would softly tap him, “Danny… Danny honey… 5 more minutes honey… then you need to get up, okay…?”. I’m not saying she had a favorite or anything, but if I had to pick one, well it would be an easy choice. We teased my younger brother about this for many, many years (pretty much every time we possibly could) but not out of spite, I think more out of jealousy. So with us finally up, dressed and ready to go she would send us on our way. On the way out the door each kid picked up their lunch bag as we headed off to school. Now two things happened while you were carrying your lunch to school. First the bag was narrow enough that the snack pack cup always pushed into the side of the sandwich. Second, the orange always came to rest right on top of the sandwich. When you opened your bag at lunch and pulled out your sandwich it would have a giant compressed dent in the top from the orange and a U shaped dent in the side from the pudding can. In both of those areas the jelly would have soaked into the bread and I think I have mentioned before, I hate soggy food, so only a small portion of the sandwich was actually edible. Even at this young age I thought there had to be a better way of transporting your food, and I'm not talking about Tupperware containers. 

Fast forward to the dayI was sitting watching television and an advertisement came on for "Hot Pockets". I remember thinking - what an interesting idea, it’s like a Pop Tart but with actual food inside.  At that time, little did I know that these “pocket pies” were actually already a thing. Germany has the Strudel, Italy has the Calzone, Scotland has the Bridie, England has the Pasty, Asia has the Samosa, and McDonalds has the hot apple pie just to name a few. Fast forward again to the day I ate my first empanada.  I was at work and a fellow brought in a big box of these cute little mini “pies”. I assumed them to be small fruit pies, but when I took a bite and it had chicken in it, I was pleasantly surprised. I ate more than a few of those that day. David often talks about the empanadillas (the same thing as an Emapanda) that he ate while in Puerto Rico. Those he will tell you were deep fried instead of baked and were so good you could easily eat a dozen by yourself.  I would love to make fried empanadas, but I fear at this point, my arteries would rebel. Finally, fast forward to the day I was watching the Food Network and Good Eats came on. The show was all about pocket pies and I decided I would have to finally make some for myself.

I actually started by doing a little research on Empanadas. Of course I already knew that they didn’t have as flakey of a crust as regular pie, which makes them perfect for eating by hand. I also discovered you can make them as big or as small as you like. Small for appetizers or large for dinner, medium sized for snack or lunch. The fillings were varied too. People would fill them with beef, chicken, and even vegetables and cheeses. There were sweet ones too. Where it all begins though and what most folks had in common was the dough recipe and it’s quite easy to put together. Once you have that, the world is at your feet. They do take a little time to make, in that you’ll need to allow the dough to rest after mixing, the filling you make will need to chill as well, so it doesn't melt your dough, and after filling them it’s best to let them hang out in the refrigerator for a little while before baking, but I have decided I am okay with all of that. You can do it all in one day but I think what is super helpful is to make the filling the day before you make the dough so that it can chill completely, and I think the flavors are better after sitting overnight too. 

So let's get to it...  Here is my version of beef empanadas.

Ingredients

For the filling:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

  • 2 cups diced onion

  • ½ cup ¼-inch diced carrots

  • 1 medium red bell pepper, ¼-inch diced

  • ½ pound yukon gold potatoes, ¼-inch diced

  • 3 cloves garlic, minced

  • 1½ pound lean ground beef (80% to 85% lean)

  • ½ cup ¼-inch diced roma tomatoes (2 tomatoes)

  • ½ cup roughly chopped manzanilla olives

  • 1 cup water (divided)

  • 1½ teaspoons salt

  • ½ teaspoon fresh ground pepper

  • 1½ teaspoons new mexico ground chili

  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste

  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

For the Dough

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour

  • ½ teaspoon salt

  • 12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold – cut into ½ inch pieces

  • 1 large egg

  • ¼ cup cool water (up to ¼ cup additional water may be needed to bring dough completely together)

For sealing and brushing tops

  • 1 large egg, beaten with a teaspoon of water

 

Directions

For the filling:

I usually make the filling the night before I want to make the empanadas so we start there. 

In a large non-stick pan over medium heat add the olive oil. When the oil is hot add the onion and carrot to the pan and cook stirring often until the onion is pretty soft, between 8 and 10 minutes. 

Next, put in the ground beef, stirring it as needed to break it up and cook until it is well browned and crumbled, which takes about 7 to 10 minutes or so. You want it to be broken up as evenly as you can.

Stir in the potatoes, bell pepper, garlic and ½ cup of the water and continue cooking until the potatoes are almost cooked through about 6 to 8 minutes more, giving it a stir every now and then.

Toss in the tomatoes, olives, salt, pepper, ground chili, and ground cumin and stir everything around until the spices are fragrant and everything is well coated, that only takes about 1 minute.

Now add the tomato paste, the Worcestershire sauce, and the remaining ½ cup of water to the pan and stir everything really well.  

Cook until those potatoes are cooked completely through and a lot of the water has been absorbed or cooked away, which is about 8 to 10 minutes more. And don’t forget to stir it occasionally during this time too.

Taste for seasoning and adjust as you see fit. The end product should not be overly dry, it should be moist but able to hold together. If your mix is too dry drizzle it with a little olive oil and give it a stir. Trust me, if the mix is dry in the bowl it will definitely be dry in the empanada and you’ll need to have a giant bowl of chimichurri ready on the side when you start to eat!

Transfer the beef mixture to a bowl and place in the refrigerator and let it cool completely before making the empanadas.  Overnight is best, so the flavors can blend, but allow the mixture to come back to room temperature before filling your empanadas (I take mine out of the refrigerator an hour or so before I start making the dough). This will make more than enough filling for 12 empanadas, but the filling is great wrapped up in a tortilla or just eaten on it’s own… so don’t toss out the leftovers.  

To make the dough:

The dough is simple, just five ingredients and you can put it together either by hand or in a food processor, whatever you like best. I use a processor just to speed things up a bit.

Put the flour and salt in a food processor and pulse several times to mix them up well.

Add in the cold butter and run the machine until the butter is completely cut in and the flour looks a little like course meal.

Next, add the egg and ¼ cup of water and pulse the machine until the dough starts to come together into a ball. If the dough is too dry and doesn’t come together, add extra water, little by little, until the dough forms into a mass.

Dump the dough onto a lightly floured surface and kneed it a few times to bring it into a soft, smooth ball.  

Divide the dough in half (unless you have a very long rolling pin and a giant table to roll it out on), so it’s easier to work with. 

Working with one of the halves of dough at a time, roll it out on a lightly floured surface until it is very thin (under ⅛-inch). Use a bowl, or a template, or anything you have that is about 6 inches in diameter to cut circles of dough. Re-roll the scraps until all the dough is used.  You should get 12 discs if you cut them at 6-inches round. Alternately you can divide the dough into 12 equal portions, rolling the dough portions into a ball, and then rolling out each ball individually, into a 6-inch round disc. But, take note here that you can make your empanadas any size you like. If you want super large empanadas, go for it, if you want lots of small empanadas for appetizers, do that... you're in charge, no one is the boss of you, you raise your own roof! The only thing you’ll need to do is watch the cooking time as smaller ones will take a little less time to cook and bigger ones take a little more time to cook.

Once you have your dough discs ready, (working with one disc at a time) scoop a portion of your cooled filling into the center of the disc. Try to fill them as much as you can while still leaving at least a half-inch of space around the edge to allow the empanadas to be sealed. After you make one or two you'll be able to tell just how much filling you can pack in. 

Use your finger or a small brush to lightly wet the edge of the dough with a little water or the egg wash to help it seal, then fold the dough in half and press the edges together.

To seal the empanadas curl the edge of the dough over slightly and pinch it together or simply use a floured fork and crimp the edge together all the way around to seal them. Here is a link to a video (not mine – a "professionals") so if you want to really learn how to "repulgue", you can watch and see how it’s done.  I have watched it countless times, but still mine never look like theirs (I'm terrible with the repulgue), but it's still fun to try and they do look a little better than the fork crimping.

Once the empanada is filled and sealed, place it onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and continue making the rest.

Place the full sheet pan into the refrigerator for 20 to 30 minutes or so to allow the dough to rest and get a little cold.

While the dough hangs out in the refrigerator preheat the oven to 375°F, with a rack in the center position. 

Finally, just before baking brush the tops of the empanadas with the egg wash and bake them for 20 to 25 minutes or until they take on a nice golden brown color. – That’s it… serve ‘em up!

  

Empanadas and pocket pies are really just the original version of the “Hot Pocket”, a completely portable and easy way to carry your lunch and eat it on the go. Had my mother made these for us when we were kids, perhaps I would not have had to eat so many squished sandwiches for lunch. 

Riley is trying to tell us the table is too high and he can't see what's happening.