In Ecuador, I had quite a few empanadas. The small filled pastries used all kinds of crusts, from flour-based pie crust type doughs to tender cornmeal and/or masa-based doughs, as well as ones that contained a mixture of those ingredients. The baked empanadas were consistently good, while the fried empanadas were either perfectly crispy or disappointingly soggy and greasy. Fillings varied from cheese to meat to veggies. They ranged from excellent to awful, with more good than bad, and left me with a desire to make some of my own at home.
Taking the highs and lows into account, I looked for a suitable empanada dough to try making at home as soon as I got back. Tyler Florence made empanadas on an episode of Food 911 a while back and, after checking out the recipe, I decided to give it a try.
The dough is easy to make: stir everything together in a large bowl. It uses both flour and masa harina, so it has a good flavor (from the masa) and is very easy to work with once you’re rolling out the dough. Once your dough is rolled out, you’ll need a 4-inch (3-inch, if you want more of a 1 bite empanada) round biscuit cutter to punch out pieces for the individual empanadas. Add the filling and pinch to seal. A bit of water will help the edges stick if your dough gets dry, but because cheese has a way of oozing out of baked goods in the oven, it is a good idea to use the prongs of a fork on the edge to create a tight seal.
As for fillings, I used some leftover beef (from carne asada the night before), which I shredded so that it would fit into the small pastries. You could use any kind of meat and just about any kind of cheese that goes well with it. Mild, melty cheeses like Monterey Jack tend to be good choices. If you want a veggie version, just dice up some veggies (squash, onions, garlic, peppers, mushrooms, etc.) and sautee them in a frying pan with a bit of oil. Cool, then add to the pastry as you would with meat. You can also make a cheese-only version, just take extra care to seal it all in before baking.
Beef and Cheese Empanadas
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup masa harina
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter, melted and cooled
3/4 cup water (plus or minus 1 tbsp)
cooked, shredded beef (leftovers are great!)
mild, melty cheese (monterey jack, or similar)
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, masa harina, baking powder, and salt. Stir in the melted butter. Gradually stir in the water until the dough comes together in a smooth ball. It should not be sticky, nor should it be dry, when it is done. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for 30-45 minutes.
Organize your filling ingredients while the dough chills and prepare a lightly floured work surface.
Preheat your oven to 375F.
Working with 1/3 of the dough at a time, roll out dough to approx 1/8-inch thickness. Use a 4-inch biscuit cutter to cut out rounds. Remaining dough can be rerolled once (save all the scraps until the end, then roll them all out together to give yourself a larger piece of dough to work with).
Spoon 1-2 tbsp filling into the center of each pastry round. Fold edges together and pinch tightly, wetting your fingers if necessary, to seal. Crimp edges with a fork to ensure pastry is closed.
Place on parchment-lined baking sheet and repeat with remaining dough.
Keep prepared empanadas in the fridge, covered with a damp towel, until the tray is full and you are ready to bake.
Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the pastry is golden brown.
Serve immediately, with salsa or other dip.
Makes about 18.