Caprese empanadas

Back in 2015, I posted here some recipes for empanadas. Well, just a few months ago, before lockdowns and quarantines, I spent time in the kitchen of an Argentine chef in San Diego whose entire business revolves around empanadas. I surely hope he’s still in business because these pastries are so divine.

Empanadas are traditionally shaped into crescents — a form that comes from simply pulling the edge of one half of a circle of dough over the filling to the edge of the other half and pressing together the edges to make a seam. But, as Matias Rigali, owner of Empanada Kitchen, explained, the array of beautifully shaped pastries and twisted seams that you can find in a home or a shop is a way of distinguishing pastries with different fillings. Beef and chicken filled empanadas tend to have the usual crescent shape, but the twisted seam of the beef has smaller folds than a chicken empanada. His Caprese and Ham & Cheese empanadas are both shaped into circles by pulling together the two ends of the crescent and sealing, but the ends of the Ham & Cheese variety are crisscrossed. The Mushroom & Goat Cheese variety has a more rectangular shape. And on it goes.

While beef is considered the classic version, Rigali explained that there are endless types of fillings. Many have an Italian influence, which aligns with Argentina’s population.

I got to learn Rigali’s dough recipe and his Caprese recipe, which I thought I’d share since we’re in the thick of spring, and tomatoes and basil are coming into season. This dough is home-cook friendly so even if you’re dough phobic, as a chef you should have no problem. And this dough, which uses Spectrum, an organic vegetable shortening, or Nutiva, an organic shortening that’s a blend of red palm and coconut oil, as the fat, is far more heart healthy than his country’s traditional beef tallow. Rigali said it also makes for a flaky pastry.

The dough is simple, made with all-purpose flour, salt, the vegetable shortening and water. Mix the first three ingredients together and slowly add the water. If the dough is still a bit dry, you can add more but a very little at a time. After forming balls, chill the dough for an hour. Rigali highly suggests using a pasta machine to roll it out, with the roller set at 8. But you can also roll it out with a rolling pin. It needs to be as thin as a flour tortilla. Then cut into 5 1/2-inch circles.

To make the Caprese filling, clean Roma tomatoes of the seeds and dice. Mince fresh basil just before using it to keep the edges from browning. And finely shred mozzarella cheese. Combine the mixture, which also includes salt and pepper, in a bowl, using your fingers to keep the tomatoes from breaking and to more evenly spread the spices. Then you’ll form 2-ounce balls.

The fun part comes with the assembly. Place a ball of the filling in the middle of the rolled-out dough circle. If you’re a beginner or teaching a child, do this on the counter, then fold over half the dough to meet the other half and use the tines of a fork to pinch the edges together and then pull the ends together and pinch to make a circle. Once you’re feeling a little more confident and competent, place the circle in your hand, place the filling in the middle and fold one half of the dough over the other and use your fingers to first seal together and then draw together the ends of the crescent to form a circle. Once assembled, each hand pie should be pricked with a skewer or toothpick twice on the upper side to allow steam to escape while baking.

Rigali stressed a great trick to perfect this hand pie: freeze the raw empanadas overnight and bake from frozen. This allows the pastry to cook briefly at high heat without either burning the dough or overcooking the filling. Before baking, give each pie a quick brush of egg wash. Bake a single layer 10 at a time at 550 degrees for 10 minutes. Then keep checking 1 minute at a time until they are a light brown. Serve them with a bowl of chimichurri.

Empanada Dough
Makes 20 empanadas

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons un-hydrogenated vegetable shortening
1 cup of water

Mix flour, salt and vegetable shortening in a bowl. Start adding water until it is absorbed. Add more water if necessary. Divide the dough ball in smaller balls, wrap each in plastic, and chill for at least an hour. Stretch the dough, ideally with a pasta machine set at 8. If rolling it out with a rolling pin, the dough should be about the thickness of a flour tortilla. Cut the dough into circular shapes about 51/2 inches in diameter.

Caprese Empanada
Makes about 20 empanadas

1 1/2 pounds Roma tomatoes, cleaned of seeds and diced
2 ounces fresh basil leaves, finely chopped just before using
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 pounds mozzarella cheese, finely shredded
20 empanada dough circles
1 egg, beaten

Mix the tomatoes, basil, salt and pepper in a bowl with your fingers to better disperse the spices. Let sit for 20 minutes.

Add the mixture to the mozzarella. Blend carefully, trying to avoid breaking up the tomatoes. Make 20 small balls of about 2 ounces each.

Assemble the empanada by placing a ball of the mixture on the center of the circle. Fold over and seal the edges, either with the tines of a fork or pinching the edges closed with your fingers. Poke the top side with two small holes to release steam while baking.

Freeze overnight on a baking sheet.

Preheat oven to 550 degrees. Brush the frozen empanadas with the beaten egg and bake in batches of 10 for 10 minutes, checking in one-minute increments after that until they’re golden brown.

Do you make empanadas? What varieties do you enjoy?

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