Empanadas and Other Tasty Turnovers

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by Nancy Gerlach, Fiery-Foods.com Food Editor Emeritus

Nancy Gerlach


  • Empanada Pastry Recipe

  • Recheio de Camarao (Brazilian Shrimp Empadinhas)

  • East Indian-Style Samosas

  • Argentine Empanada

  • Polish Meat-Filled Pastries


If you traveled the world, I think you would be hard pressed to find a cuisine or culture that didn’t include some variation of a turnover! The Polish have perogies; the Russian piroshkis; calzones are a favorite in Italy; English Cornish pasties traveled to the British West Indies where they became Jamaican patties; in India and Pakistan they love samosas; and in countries where Spanish is a native language, you will find empanadas. Whatever they are called, filled turnovers are a popular snack, appetizer, entree, or dessert just about everywhere.

The word “empanada” comes from Spanish for “breaded” and means “in dough” or “that which is covered with bread.” This Medieval finger food was introduced to the Iberian peninsula by the Moors and from there to the New World with the Spanish conquistadors. Whether called empanadas, empadas, pasteles, or empadinhas, these tasty turnovers have been dubbed the “great food passion” of South America. The saltena, or empanada, is even the national dish of Bolivia. According to chef Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, the use of the diminutive form of the word relates to the number of bites it takes to finish the pastry. An empanada yields about three bites, while those that can be polished off in just one, are empanaditas. Whatever you call them or whatever their size, empanadas aren’t difficult to prepare.

There’s a number of pasty recipes that are suitable for the crust, but the basic, most popular one consists only of flour, shortening, salt, and enough water to hold the mixture together. Lard is the traditional shortening used, but any solid vegetable shortening, cream cheese, butter, or margarine can be substituted. Whatever recipe you use, just remember that the dough must be elastic enough to be folded over the filling without cracking and allowing the filling to leak. If you are short on time, a ready-made pie crust can even be used, just don’t roll out the pastry before cutting. For added flavor, seasonings such as ground achiote, curry powder, and, of course, ground chiles can be added to the dough.

Just about any food or any combination of foods can be used as a filling—meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, cheese, and/or fruits. Even leftovers make wonderful empanadas. There are only a couple of rules that apply. First the filling needs to be moist enough so that it doesn’t dry out during cooking, yet be dry enough so that the empanada can be eaten as finger food. It’s also important that the filling is very flavorful as so little is used in each turnover. Remember that the filling may become more liquid in the oven, so don’t overfill the empanada or they will overflow and burn on the bottom.

No special tools are needed to make an empanada, just anything that will cut a circle out of the dough. A biscuit or cookie cutter, a glass, or even a clean tin can will work. For a snack or entree-sized empanada you’ll need a circle 5 ½ to 6-inches in diameter and for an appetizer empanidita, a circle 2 ½ to 3-inches.

And lastly, empanadas can be either fried or baked. The fried versions should be served immediately, while the baked ones need to rest for a few minutes after being removed from the oven. They are best served warm not piping hot. I prefer the al horno or baked empanadas as they can be prepared in advance and once baked they freeze beautifully. To reheat, place the frozen empanada in a 350 degree oven for approximately 30 minutes. Do not defrost first.

That’s all the basics on empanadas that you need to know to get started. I’ve included a variety of recipes for fillings, some for more traditional empanadas, and some from countries with similar pastries with different names. Now all you need to do is put together your favorite filling and create your own tasty turnovers. The only limitation is your imagination!

Empanada Pastry Recipe

This recipe works well with all of the following fillings, and because it’s baked, the empanadas can be prepared in advance of serving. For more flavor and heat, add ground chile to the dough before rolling out and cutting the pastry.

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 2/3 cup vegetable shortening, lard or a combination of the two

  • 4 to 5 tablespoons cold water

  • 1 large egg beaten lightly with 1/4 teaspoon water (for glaze)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Combine the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Cut the shortening into the dry ingredients using a pastry cutter or two forks. The mixture should resemble coarse cornmeal.

Add the water, one tablespoon at a time, and lightly toss with a fork to incorporate it. Add only enough water for the dough to hold together and be gathered into a ball. Wrap the dough in plastic and chill in the refrigerator for an hour. Bring the dough back to room temperature before rolling.

To make the crust, gently roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of 1/4 inch and use a cutter to cut circles to the desired diameter. Place a couple of spoonfuls of the filling off-center on each circle. Brush the edges with water, fold in half and seal securely using either your finger or a fork.

Brush the empanadas with the egg glaze, place on a lightly oiled baking pan, and bake them for 10 to 20 minutes, or until golden.

Remove them from the pan and cool them on a rack before serving.

Yield: 2 dozen appetizer-size empanadas

Recheio de Camarao (Brazilian Shrimp Empadinhas)

Brazil, the largest country in South America, was colonized by the Portuguese hence the spelling empadinhas or empadas. This Bahian-style empada filling can also be made with scallops or for a variation, used in puff pastry.

  • 1/4 cup chopped onion

  • 1/4 cup diced green bell pepper

  • 1 habanero chile, stem and seeds removed, minced or substitute 3 jalapeno chiles

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • Juice of 1 lime

  • ½ cup chopped palm hearts

  • 1 small tomato, chopped

  • ½ teaspoon ground cardamom

  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

  • 1 egg yolk

  • ½ cup thick coconut milk

  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

  • 1 pound small or medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

  • Salt to taste

In a heavy skillet, heat the oil and saute the onion, bell pepper, and habanero until they are softened but not browned. Add the lime juice, palm hearts, tomato, cardamom, and cloves, and cook for a couple of minutes until the liquid has been reduced and the mixture thick. Salt to taste.

Beat the egg together with the coconut milk in a bowl.

Slowly stir the coconut milk into the palm hearts mixture, and cook over a low heat, stirring frequently until the mixture has thickened to the consistency of a medium white sauce. Stir in the cilantro and shrimp.

Allow the mixture to cool slightly before filling the empadas.

Yield: 2 cups

Heat Scale: Hot

East Indian-Style Samosas

Similar to empanadas, traditional samosas are conical shaped filled pastries that are a popular snack throughout the sub-continent. Although they are typically fried, I prefer the filling in a baked empanada pastry. Potatoes and peas are common ingredients in samosas and I like to add a little yogurt so the mixture isn’t too dry.

  • 1 onion, finely chopped

  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped

  • 3 serrano chiles, stems removed, chopped

  • 1 tablespoon chopped ginger

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 1/3 to ½ cup plain yogurt

  • 2 small potatoes, boiled and cut into ½ -inch cubes

  • ½ cup frozen peas, defrosted or if using fresh, cooked

  • 1 tablespoon curry powder

  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds

  • ½ teaspoon ground cayenne

  • 1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds

  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint or cilantro

  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice, fresh preferred

  • Salt to taste

In a heavy skillet or wok, heat the oil and saute the onion, garlic, serrano, and ginger until the onion is translucent, about 3 minutes. Stir in the yogurt. Add the potatoes and peas, curry powder, fennel seeds, cayenne, and cumin seeds and continue to cook for an additional 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the mint and lemon juice, stir well and salt to taste.

Cool slightly before filling the samosas.

Yield: 2 to 2 ½ cups

Heat Scale: Medium

Argentine Empanada

In this land of the pampas and gauchos, beef is king. And beef is a traditional filling for empanadas that are a very popular appetizer, snack and/or picnic fare in Argentina. This recipe is rather similar to a Puerto Rican picadillo, so substitute pork if you wish.

  • ½ pound ground beef

  • 1/4 cup chopped onion

  • ½ cup chopped red bell pepper

  • 3 ají chiles, stems and seeds removed, chopped, or substitute 3 jalapenos

  • 1 small potato, cooked and finely diced

  • 12 green olives, chopped

  • 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed, drained and chopped

  • 2 tablespoons raisins

  • 2 tablespoons dry sherry

  • 1 tablespoon ground paprika

  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

  • 2 hard cooked eggs, chopped

  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Saute the beef in a heavy skillet until almost browned. Add the onion, bell pepper, and chiles and continue to saute until the onions are soft. Add the potato and continue to cook for an additional minute. Pour off any accumulated fat.

Combine all the remaining ingredients in a large bowl, add the meat and mix well.

Yield: 2 to 2 ½ cups

Heat Scale: Medium

Polish Meat-Filled Pastries

These small, tasty, meat-filled turnovers are a traditional accompaniment to many Polish soups. They also make an excellent finger-food for buffets and cocktail parties. The Poles cut the pastries into squares not circles, but no matter the shape, they still taste the same. This is a recipe that was collected by Sharon Hudgins on one of her trips researching the use of chile peppers in the area.

  • 1/4 cup finely chopped dried apricots

  • ½ cup warm chicken broth

  • ½ cup shredded or very finely chopped cooked pork equal to a chop

  • 1/4 cup finely chopped prunes

  • 1/4 cup raisins

  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts

  • 2 teaspoons sweet paprika

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

In a bowl, cover the apricots with the chicken broth and let them soak for an hour to soften. Add all the remaining ingredients and mix well.

Yield: 1 ½ to 2 cups

Heat Scale: Mild

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