Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz claimed that one could write a small book on empanadas, empanaditas, pasteles, pastelitos, empadinhas and pastèzinhos … namely, “those delicious turnovers, patties and pies, stuffed with meat, poultry, fish, shellfish and other mixtures, and baked or fried, which are so popular throughout Latin America”. Such is the variety on offer, in fact, I’d suggest it would probably be quite a large book. As writer Naomi Tomky notes, perhaps a little wistfully, on Serious Eats, “it would take a lifetime of non-stop empanada-eating to try all of the infinite combinations of doughs, fillings and cooking methods that are so closely tied to the specific culture, flora and fauna in each region of Latin America”.
That’s a challenge I’d happily take on, but the Guardian has refused to extend my deadline, so I’ve chosen to concentrate on the simple, cheese-stuffed sort found almost everywhere. Even then, the range is such from country to country that (as ever) the below should be seen more as an introductory guide than a definitive recipe. Portable, cheap and infinitely versatile, easy to make vegan, gluten-free and even (relatively) healthy, empanadas are surely the ultimate democratic party food. Well … after crisps, anyway.
Generally speaking, wheat-based pastries are more popular at the southern end of Latin America, with corn becoming more common in Colombia and Venuezela, and starchy cassava doughs popping up in Central America and the Caribbean. I try several wheat versions made with lard or butter: some with raising agents such as baking powder and sparkling water (see Ecuadorian blogger Layla Pujol), others bready and crisp (Chilean cook Pilar Hernandez’s, and others still like Lambert Ortiz’s little short and crumbly Brazilian pies. All do the job nicely, holding together during cooking, despite my amateur crimping, but my head is particularly turned by the distinctive texture and flavour of Denver-based blogger Christa Jimenez’s Costa Rican version using ground corn, which emerges from the fryer deeply golden and deliciously crunchy.
To make it, however, you’ll need masarepa – that is, corn that’s been cooked, dehydrated and ground, as opposed to fine cornmeal or cornflour. It’s easily available online, or anywhere with a large Latin American community, but I’ve also given a recipe using wheat flour below, incorporating the lard and cider vinegar that writer Gaby Melian uses in her recipe for Bon Appetit to ensure maximum flakiness (Pujol replaces that orange juice), but omitting the sugar that some put in. If you’d prefer to keep them vegetarian, use butter instead.
Note that, although pastry doesn’t get much simpler than the corn recipe, it is trickier to work with unless you’re used to it (I tend to end up moulding it around the filling like play-dough); the wheat version is far more forgiving.
As Jimenez explains, the Costa Rican white cheese used for empanadas locally “is literally only found in Costa Rica (as far as I know!)”. The same goes for many of the recipes I try, with Hernandez calling for chanco queso de fundo, “a ripe cheese with a milky flavour”, and others mentioning fresh and farmer’s cheeses that are hard to track down outside their area of production. Happily, everyone is generous with their suggestions of substitutes, with mozzarella, havaarti, monterey jack and ricotta among the examples most easily available in this country. I also try halloumi (Costa Rican white cheese is apparently squeaky), creamy stracchino, crumbly ricotta salata and anari, a mild, milky sheep or goat’s cheese from Cyprus.
Frankly, they’re all welcome in my mouth, though if you use something low-fat such as Lambert Ortiz’s ricotta, I’d add an egg yolk, as she does, to give it a creamier texture, while dryer cheeses such as ricotta salata need a bit of textural help in the melting department. Pujol concedes that “really, the combinations for cheese empanadas are endless, but I do recommend using a mix of a melty cheese with a flavourful but less melty cheese.” With that in mind, I’ve gone for a mixture of firm mozzarella and salty halloumi, but mozzarella, crumbly lancashire or even feta would work – experiment with what suits you (west London pop-up Cocina Cuca tips raclette, and there are no doubt also plenty of excellent plant-based alternatives that I’m not qualified to advise upon).
Helian tosses the mozzarella in cornflour, saying that “this will prevent the mozzarella from liquefying as the empanadas cook”. I quite like the way it leaves the interior of the shell a little damp and doughy, but if you’d prefer maximum crispness, by all means add some to the cheese mixture after grating.
Onion is a common addition – I prefer it sauteed first, as Helian does, rather than used raw, as in Pujol’s recipe, but best of all for me are Lambert Ortiz’s spring onions, which add a fresh, green note (and, as a bonus, don’t require pre-cooking). Helian includes shredded ham, too, which is, of course, very nice indeed, though it reduces the cheese to a bit part when for me it deserves to be the star.
Helian seasons it with dried oregano, while Pujol gives another recipe using roasted poblano peppers, which sounds very much worth a try, if you come across them. But if you’d like a bit of spice, I imagine pickled jalapeños or smoky chipotle paste would also be welcome (alternatively, serve with hot sauce).
Pujol sprinkles her freshly fried empanadas with sugar, saying the contrast between the savoury cheese is “something characteristically Ecuadorian”. I’m sorry to say I struggled with the combination of raw onion and sugar, but if you’re more open-minded, she assures readers it’s delicious.
Shaping and cooking
Though they’re very easy to make (as long as you keep the corn dough moist and the wheat dough cold), the hard part is making sure the empanadas are completely sealed to minimise the exit routes for molten cheese. I say minimise, because if you manage to produce a batch with no leakage, you should probably go into professional production. (Consolation prize: the crisp puddles on the baking sheet are almost the best bit, as far as I’m concerned.)
I can’t deny I love the deep-fried empanadas I try – so crisp and flaky and, yes, ever so slightly greasy – but for a party, it’s more practical to bake them, so you’re not standing over the fryer in your glad rags. If appearance is less of a consideration, fry them (carefully) in a pan no more than a third full of neutral oil at about 180C, until golden brown. Either way, serve immediately, before the cheese cools and solidifies, with salsa or chilli sauce, and lots of napkins.
Prep 30 min + resting
Cook 25 min
For the pastry
285g masarepa (corn flour for arepas)
½ tsp fine salt
500ml lukewarm water
Oil, plant milk or beaten egg, to brush
55g lard, butter or vegan baking block
1 tbsp fairly neutral vinegar (eg, cider, white-wine, rice)
½ tsp fine salt
400g plain flour, plus extra to dust
Oil, beaten egg or milk, to brush
For the filling
300g firm cooking mozzarella, grated
100g halloumi, crumbly lancashire, feta etc
4 spring onions, trimmed, both white and green parts finely chopped (optional)
If you’re making the corn pastry, mix the flour and salt in a large bowl, then whisk in the water until you have a damp, but not liquid dough (add more water if it cracks) and leave to rest for 15 minutes.
If you’re making the flour pastry, melt the fat, then stir in the water and vinegar and tip into a large bowl. Gradually mix in the salt and flour (remember that the liquid will be hot), then turn out on to a floured surface and knead until you have a smooth, soft but not sticky dough. Wrap and chill for at least an hour, until cold.
Handling the dough with wet hands at all times, divide the corn dough into large golf balls and cover all but one with a damp tea towel.
Use a tortilla press, or cover a board with clingfilm, put a ball on top, cover with another sheet of clingfilm, then put a board or flat-bottomed glass bowl on top and push down until you have a thin circle of dough.
If you are using the wheat dough, divide into balls about the size of a large golf ball and, on a floured surface, roll into spheres. Cover with a damp tea towel while you make the first empanada by rolling it out or flattening into a thin circle.
Mix the cheeses, spring onion and salt, then put a large tablespoon in the middle of the dough circle (you want to fill it generously, but not so much it’ll be hard to close), then bring together the edges and pinch to seal (a little water may help) .
Put on a lightly greased baking sheet and repeat with the remaining dough and filling.
Once all empanadas are shaped and on the tray, put in the fridge to chill while you heat the oven to 200C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6. Brush the pastries with beaten egg or oil, bake for 25 minutes, until golden, and serve immediately.
Empanadas – wheat, corn or yucca? And baked or fried? What’s your favourite filling, and what do you serve with them?