Unlike flan, empanadas were most definitely a major part of my upbringing. Of course they were beef, and at least when my grandmother visited, they were sometimes fried instead of baked.
As is always the case with a food so elemental, empanadas were something of a flash point, because everyone had strong opinions about what should be in them. Grandma and Dad both liked a bit of sweetness in theirs, either in the form of raisins or, in Grandma’s case, a sprinkling of sugar over the filling as she took each bite. This was anathema to Mom, me, and my brother. The grown-ups all liked green olives, but my brother and I hated them, and although I liked hard-boiled eggs, baby brother has loathed them since he was pre-verbal and still does. To navigate this minefield of preferences, we ended up defaulting to the simplest possible filling of lightly seasoned ground beef with no additions whatsoever.
Later, of course, I completely voided this carefully-achieved detente by becoming a vegetarian.
While there are certainly vegetarian-friendly empanada varieties that boast their own long-established authenticity — my favorites being creamy corn or spinach and cheese — I still periodically have attacks of nostalgia serious enough to have conducted a couple of experiments with meat substitutes. The trouble is that soy- or wheat-based faux beefs never really do the job, and at this point I’m steering away from the super-processed stuff anyway.
Empanadas remained a head-scratcher until recently, while I was making my shepherd’s pie, when it occurred to me that I’d already cracked the ground-beef substitution problem. The pie’s lentil filling was pretty much everything I was looking for: substantial, protein-rich, just saucy enough to be moist but not so liquid that it would run right out of a pastry pocket. Encouraged, I made a smaller pie and reserved half the filling for use later in the week, when I had time to make pastry. I was quite happy with the little pockets, both freshly-baked and warm, and cold the next day for lunch.
While I’m sure several generations of my ancestors are still spinning in disapproval at my giving up the almighty cow, lentils would have been a familiar food, especially during the meatless days of the Catholic calendar. Unorthodox it may be, but I still think they would have understood and even liked this empanada as much as I do.
I will add that, as usual, I’m not unequivocally satisfied with the pastry recipe. While it does produce a moderately crispy-flaky, firm but not muscular crust that securely contains the filling and holds up well to refrigeration, it’s also rather bratty to work with, both as you’re mixing it and as you’re stretching and filling. It must be really cold in order to stick together and hold a nice edge, and requires a good long chilling or freezing step before going in the oven. That is more aggravation than I need for a simple snack.
Now that I have the filling down, I may go back to this dough from Saveur, which I make with butter instead of lard. It’s not as flaky and it does leave your fingers a bit greasier, but it’s also way less troublesome and much friendlier to shape. It also responds excellently to my flattening method of choice:
I like to use a tortilla press for filled pastry not just because I lazily avoid the rolling pin as much as the piping bag, but also because it completely eliminates the issue of scraps. Re-rolled dough made from scraps will never come out as tender as first-rolled, and I hate throwing the scraps out. With a press, you get perfect, uniform circles without bothering with cookie cutters and with absolutely no waste.
Since it’s difficult to adequately explain in writing how empanada dough is crimped to form the traditional rope-like edge, check out this video for an easy-to-understand how-to. If the technique still eludes you, just seal them well with the tines of a fork.
Empanadas de Lentejas (Lentil Empanadas)
(Pastry adapted from Cook’s Illustrated’s The Best International Recipe)
Makes 32 snack-sized empanadas
For the pastry:
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) very cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
10 tablespoons ice water
For the filling:
1/2 cup brown lentils
1 small bay leaf
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, finely diced
1/2 cup finely diced celery
1/2 cup finely diced carrot
1 cup diced cremini mushrooms
1/4 cup tomato sauce
1 large handful fresh parsley
Salt, pepper, and splashes of soy sauce to taste
2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped (optional)
1 large egg, beaten with a tablespoon of water
Combine the flour, sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse until well combined. Add the butter cubes and pulse again until the mixture resembles cornmeal. Dump out into a large bowl and add 1/4 cup of water at a time, working it into the flour mixture with a spatula just until no dry flour remains. Divide the dough into two equal pieces, flatten each into a disk, and wrap each tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 2 hours to relax and hydrate the dough.
In a small pot, boil the lentils with the bay leaf in just enough liquid to keep them covered until just tender, adding more boiling water if necessary. Do not drain the lentils.
Saute the onion, celery, carrots and mushrooms in the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat until the vegetables just begin to brown . Add the tomato sauce, the lentils with their liquid, and the parsley, torn roughly by hand. Simmer until the liquid has mostly evaporated, then season with salt, pepper, and soy. Cover and refrigerate until cold.
When everything is well chilled, take one pastry disk out of the fridge and divide into 16 equal pieces. Shape each piece into a ball, then cover again. Line a tortilla press with a strip of parchment, folded in half, or a quart-sized zip-top bag slit open along both sides. Set a ball of dough between the halves of the parchment or plastic, and press gently to a thin, uniform circle.
Hold the circle of dough in your palm and fill with around two tablespoons of lentils, leaving an inch clear around the edge. If desired, top with a teaspoon of hard boiled egg. Fold the dough over the filling to form a half-moon, pinch the edges firmly together to completely seal in the filling, and crimp as indicated above. Repeat for remaining balls of dough.
Set the empanadas on a parchment-lined baking sheet and return to the refrigerator to firm up again, at least 15 minutes. Repeat the process with the second disk of pastry on a second baking sheet.
Preheat the oven to 425.
Brush the cold filled pockets with the egg wash and bake, one sheet at a time, until nicely browned, 20-22 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. Refrigerated leftovers will keep well for two or three days.
If you prefer, the filled empanadas can also be frozen for baking later.
There are peas in the filling in the pictures above by virtue of it being half a batch I made for a shepherd’s pie, but as they’re not usually found in beef empanadas, I left them out of the recipe. If you like them, you can put them back in. If you’d like something green that actually is traditional in empanadas, try mixing some chopped green olives into the filling once it has cooled down.