- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Most people can spot me as an Irish girl from a hundred feet away thanks to a generous endowment of curls and freckles, but a few drops of Latin blood course through my system since my great-grandmother, Teresa, was Mexican. It manifests itself in two ways: I have always been able to roll my double Rs effortlessly, and I have a strong affinity for Mexican food.

Empanadas are most often associated with Chile and Argentina, although their country of origin is thought to be Spain, and thus they traveled to most of the regions of the place we now know as Latin America. Variations of the empanada show up in other cultures; for example, Cornish pasties, Italian calzone and turnovers.

The word “empanada” means to coat or cover with bread, and, thus, an empanada is a pastry filled with anything from seafood to meat, cheese, vegetables or fruit.

For those who have not had the pleasure of tasting an empanada, imagine a crisp, flaky half-moon of pastry filled with just about anything you can imagine. It’s usually served plain, although some cultures add hot sauce. In Peru, they squirt empanadas with lime, a nice touch.

The pastry is usually simple. It’s made of flour, egg, oil, lard or shortening and a liquid — water, broth, milk or even tea.

Some have yeast, but I don’t detect much of a difference, and yeast can be tricky to work with. The dough is kneaded like bread, rolled out and cut, filled, then baked or fried. Some recipes call for prepared pie crust or frozen puff pastry for the pastry shell. This is definitely a time-saver, although it’s not authentic.

Because the empanada is completely encased in pastry, it is a portable, nourishing meal thought to have been created for working people to take along. Whether working in the field, behind a desk or just in the mood for a comforting dinner, there is something about an empanada that is satisfying.

The empanada is one of those hand-held complete meals: crispy, flaking dough, vegetables, meat, cheese, even fruit, sometimes, all in a neat little package made for hands.

Empanadas can be made in small bite-size versions, perfect for appetizers, or in larger, plate-size portions, filled with meat and vegetables. Medium-sized empanadas filled with fruit are a popular dessert dish.

Mexican empanadas are most commonly such dessert items, but they can also be served for breakfast with a combination of eggs, and maybe even potatoes and cream, as a filling.

My great-grandmother made sweet pumpkin empanadas from scratch, and my grandfather says he devoured them.

A friend, Jessica Collogan of Dunedin, Fla., shared with me a Chilean empanada recipe from her grandfather, Sergio Coll.

Her husband, Vince, said, “Empanadas come in all sorts of sizes and flavors, but being that Jessica is Chilean, our favorite is this family recipe with the slices of hard-boiled egg, olives and raisins, which are ingredients common in Chilean dishes.” “Senor Sergio,” as he is known, emigrated from Chile to Florida, and is famous among family and friends for his empanadas. Mrs. Collogan learned his technique to keep the tradition alive for future generations.

Hearing their story made me wish I had met my great-grandmother and learned her technique for pumpkin empanadas.

Although my grandfather is still alive and well at age 90, he isn’t one for spending much time in the kitchen. So I’ve taken it upon myself to learn the ropes. I’ve developed a simple recipe for pumpkin empanadas to start, using canned pumpkin instead of fresh pumpkin.

Come fall, though, I’ll definitely be spending an afternoon cooking down a fresh pumpkin to honor my own heritage, and the small drops of Latin blood that remain, strong as ever, flowing through my veins.

Empanadas Chilenas

This recipe was adapted from one provided by Sergio Coll. The empanadas will keep for a few days, refrigerated and tightly sealed. Reheat, wrapped in foil in 300-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes.

Parchment paper

FILLING:

1 pound lean ground beef

1 yellow onion, chopped

1 clove of garlic, peeled and mashed

1 teaspoon cumin

2 tablespoons adobo seasoning (see note)

4 hard-cooked eggs

20 pitted black olives (save some of the juice for dough-making process)

½ cup raisins

DOUGH: 4 cups unbleached flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup (or more) chicken broth

½ cup vegetable shortening

Grease or line several cookie sheets with parchment. Set aside.

Mix ground beef, onion, garlic, cumin and adobo seasoning and cook in a large pot over medium heat until cooked medium-rare to medium. (It will finish cooking inside the empanada.) Cool.

Pour flour into a mound on a counter or other surface sufficient for mixing the dough. Stir in the salt. Hollow out a crater in the top of the mound. Pour about 1/4 of the chicken broth into the crater and mix into the flour with hands.Continue pouring and mixing the broth, little by little, until 1 cup broth is mixed in.

Melt shortening in a small saucepan. Pour into the flour mixture, continuing to mix. When it is cool enough, begin to knead the dough with your hands, adding a little more chicken broth, if necessary, to make a workable dough.

When a uniform texture, divide dough into two equal pieces and knead each an additional 5 minutes. Break off tennis-ball-size pieces; there should be about 20 in all. Roll each piece flat (1/8- to 1/4-inch thick) with a rolling pin.

Place a few tablespoons of the meat mixture, one slice of hard-cooked egg, one olive and several raisins in the center.

Place a few dabs of the olive juice from the canned olives around the contents. Fold in half and press the edges down. Use a pastry utensil to cut any excess dough off and roll the edges up, pressing with fingers, to ensure a good seal.

Bake in preheated 350-degree oven on prepared cookie sheets for about 30 minutes.

Check bottom at 20 minutes to make sure they are not burning. Once they are golden brown on both sides, remove from oven and let them cool slightly before eating. Makes about 20 empanadas.

Note: Adobo seasoning is available in the international or Latin sections of many supermarkets, as well as in Latin markets.

Pumpkin empanadas

Parchment paper

FILLING: 1 15-ounce can pumpkin

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon cloves, optional

DOUGH: 3 cups unbleached flour, sifted

3 tablespoons sugar, divided

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon cinnamon

½ cups lard or shortening

2 eggs, lightly beaten

½ cup milk

1 egg white, lightly beaten

Grease or line several cookie sheets with parchment. Set aside.

Mix together pumpkin, sugar, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, if using, and set aside.

In a mixing bowl, stir together flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, baking powder, salt and cinnamon.

With two table knives, cut in lard or shortening until mixture resembles fine crumbs.

Combine 2 beaten eggs and milk; add to flour mixture, mixing with wooden spoon or hands until well-moistened. Divide into 16 equal-size balls and flatten slightly with palm of your hand. Cover and chill for 1 hour.

Roll out dough on a floured surface until circles are about 4 inches across and less than 1/4-inch thick.

Put about 2 tablespoons of filling in center of each circle, fold over, brush edges with water and press edges closed with a fork on both sides to seal. Brush beaten egg white on top of one side and sprinkle each with a little of the remaining sugar.

Bake in preheated 350-degree oven, egg-white side up, on prepared cookie sheets, 18 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown. (Check often to see that they do not burn.)

Makes 16 empanadas.

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