The King of Empanadas

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Having tried the majority, if not all varieties of this glorious turnover across Latin America, I firmly believe the Chilean version, specifically Empanadas de Pino, represents the culmination, the summit, the end of the road for this dish.

There may be some bias here by virtue of having been born and raised in Chile, but I’m the same guy that unapologetically loves Asian food a lot more than Western food, and calls Tonkotsu Ramen his favorite dish.

The main reasons why I state they’re the best in my book is because they are baked, not fried, and that the dough quality, elasticity and flavor is as important as its filling. Besides, they are BIG. One empanada can be a whole meal. In the town of Pomaire, outside the capital of Santiago, they famously make the 1Kg empanada!

If they wouldn’t be so darn labor-intensive to make, they’d be the ultimate fast food: easy to eat with one hand, non-greasy, and good to the last bite. But for that reason (and the fact that we do mostly low carb at home), I make them once a year, always close to September 18th, Chilean Independence Day.

It may be a moot point to give you a recipe, given that there is a lot of art in putting them together effectively, but I’ll do it anyways. And again, this is my recipe, and it’s slightly different of what you’d buy commercially in Chile. Mine has a higher beef to onion ratio, uses more spices in larger quantities, and doesn’t shy away from using real lard, a key to obtain the right flavor profile. Also, the onion is cooked longer, making it almost disappear.

If you happen to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can actually buy these empanadas from Paula Tejeda at Chile Lindo in the Mission. Short than making them yourself, they’re the best you can buy.

The Pino

I have no idea where the name comes from. It means Pine in Spanish. It may have been the inventor’s last name, who knows. In any case, it refers to the filling, which is basically beef and onion, with spices and ingredients that give it a Middle Eastern note (cumin and raisins), complemented with hard-boiled egg, and the gigantic, meaty black olives common in the Azapa region of Northern Chile.

I typically make a large amount and freeze what I’m not going to use. It can also be used for another staple of Chilean cuisine: Pastel de Choclo (a recipe for another day). It’s also best to make the pino a day ahead. The flavors meld together better and it’s a lot easier to handle.

Time: About 2 hours.

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp of lard
  • 10 cloves of garlic, pressed
  • 6 medium-to-large yellow onions, finely chopped
  • 3 lb of chuck roast or brisket, excess fat removed, preferably grass fed to replicate the flavor you would get in Chile.
  • 1 lb of lean ground beef
  • ¼ cup of ground cumin
  • ¼ cup of paprika
  • ¼ cup of oregano
  • 2 tbsp of Merkén (smoked, ground red chili peppers). You can substitute by smokey paprika plus spicy Hungarian paprika for heat.
  • 2 tbsp of ground pepper
  • 5 tbsp of Vietnamese fish sauce (it gives a rich umami flavor to the dish. I use this brand specifically)
  • 4 tbsp of soy sauce (it enhances the flavor of the meat. I use this one)
  • 3 cups of beef broth
  • 2 tbsp of Wondra
  • 1 cup of golden raisins
  • Salt to taste
  • Large, black olives, 2 per empanada. I buy mine from here, but you can use what you can find.
  • Hard boil eggs, two quarters per empanada
  • 2 tbsp of flavorless gelatin

Procedure

  • Take the chuck roast or brisket, remove all extra big chunks of fat, and slice it vertically in pieces of about ½ to ¾ inch. Using parchment paper, put them in the freezer for 45 minutes to an hour. This will make them much easier to chop in little cubes later on.
  • In the meantime, chop the onions. Depending on your skill level, that can be the most time-consuming part. You can also use a food processor.
  • Take the meat out of the freezer no more than 2 slices at the time and chop it in small cubes. Set aside.
  • Place 2 tbsp of lard in the bottom of a large heavy pot. I use this Le Creuset Dutch oven for this purpose.
  • Set heat to medium. Add the pressed garlic and stir for 30 seconds.
  • Add the onion and increase the heat to medium-high, stirring regularly until translucent. This will take about 15 minutes.
  • Add the oregano, paprika, cumin and Merkén (if using) and mix well.
  • In a separate pan, add 1 tbsp of lard and heat up in high. Sauté the beef in batches to create a nice crust. When done, throw the pieces of beef into the onion mix. When finished, deglaze the pan with some beef stock and throw it in the pot.
  • Add the ground beef directly to the pot and separate well, avoiding forming clusters.
  • In a small container, place about 1 cup of broth and add the gelatin powder to hydrate for 5 minutes, then add it to the pot. Gelatin adds a certain oomph to the dish, creating a more mouthful experience, with the benefit of making the pino easier to handle the next day when building the empanadas.
  • In a similar way, take another cup of broth and mix with Wondra flower, mixing well with a whisk. Add to the pot and stir well.
  • Add the fish and soy sauces, stirring well.
  • Add the golden raisins and the rest of the stock, mixing well.
  • Lower the heat to low, and cook covered for 30 minutes, stirring every 5 to ensure nothing is burning in the bottom of the pan.
  • After 30 minutes, stir again and test for flavor, adjusting as needed. Cook uncovered for another 30 minutes, also stirring every 5.
  • Once finished, let it cool completely, cover and refrigerate overnight.

The Crust

Time: 1 ½ hours (including resting time)

Ingredients

  • 5 cups of bread flour
  • 1 cup of melted lard
  • 2 tsp of fine sea salt
  • 1 tsp of baking powder
  • 2 tbsp of white wine vinegar
  • 2 cups of warm whole milk
  • 1 cup of warm water

Procedure

  • Add the flower and baking powder to the mixer and mix well using the dough hook.
  • Slowly add the melted lard and let it mix well.
  • Dissolve the salt in the warm milk and add it slowly to the mix.
  • Add the vinegar.
  • Slowly add the water as needed. You need to test the dough to be nice and elastic, workable but with the right amount of moisture. Cannot be too wet or too dry, so you will need to adjust either water or flower until the proper consistency is achieved.
  • Wrap the dough in plastic and let it rest for half an hour.
  • After this, you can start working with it directly, but I’ve found it to be easier to store the dough in the fridge for 30 minutes to an hour in order to make it easier to extend later on.

The build up

The success and speed of this part depends a lot on the mise en place, or having everything properly laid out in front of you. Everything you need to become an empanada-making machine.

Start by preheating the oven at 400 F. If you have a convection function, use it for a more even cooking. Get two to three trays ready. If they’re not non-stick, then spray some cooking oil in the bottom. In addition to that, you will need:

  • A bowl with the olives
  • A bowl with hard boiled eggs, quartered vertically
  • A bowl with 2 egg whites, and another one with the respective 2 egg yolks, plus 1 tbsp of cold water.
  • A brush
  • A toothpick
  • Paper towel
  • A bowl with flower
  • A rolling pin
  • The pino
  • A large spoon for the pino

With all that in your view, grab a piece of dough, enough to fit in your hand, and roll it to form a circle. It should be up to the size of a dinner plate, if you want to make them to be meal-size. Take egg white with your hands and rub it around the edges. This will allow a more effective seal. Add a spoon full of pino in the center, 2 olives and 2 pieces of egg. Many traditional recipes add the raisins at this stage, but I prefer to mix them in the pino myself.

Carefully close the empanada by turning it over itself and sealing the edges. I do 3 main double seals, one in the front and one on each side. Once done with all empanadas, take the brush and “paint them” all over with the egg yolk/water combination, and puncture them with two small holes on the top using the toothpick.

Take them to the oven and bake for 30 minutes approximately, checking for doneness.

Let them rest for 10 minutes before serving.

And one important note: empanadas are always eaten with your hands. Cutting them in half or eating them with fork and knife will produce angry reactions by the connoisseurs, akin to eating a slice of pizza in NYC with fork and knife. You have been warned.

 
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