It begins with a triangle. You fold in the dough at the corner toward the pocket of savory goodness. And repeat, and repeat again. All the way around the curvature of the pocket until a pastry braid comes into being.
This is the spine of the empanada, the keystone that holds in the flavor of the ubiquitous hand-sized snack as it’s baked or fried. By my third empanada I had the hang of it, and Ani (my mentor) congratulated me on my execution. I look at the the succulent pile of goodies manufactured by the other empanaderos at the party and realize making empanadas, like chess or foreign policy, is one of those seemingly easy-to-pick-up-but-hard-to-master skills.
Making empanadas began with a triangle fold for me, but for Alejandro, whose house we were at, and others involved in preparing the filling and making the dough, it began much earlier in the day while I was getting situated in my new apartment in Salta. Prior to landing in Buenos Aires, I was only familiar with the paltry mass-market American version of empanadas: the woeful hotpocket. I’d heard glorious tales of Salta province’s empanadic riches, of how their particular creations outshone the empanadas of other provinces. In the preceding ten days I’ve had plenty of opportunities to stuff my face with the original, Argentine article at local institutions like Doña Salta and El Patio de la Empanada (both highly recommended).
Empanadas are everywhere in Salta. They usually come in a variety of fillings, such as beef, chicken, cheese, ham and cheese, and (my personal favorite) charqui, a kind of gaucho jerky. In Buenos Aires, I had a humitas empanada, but I was assured by my guide to Cafayate that that is a porteño abomination and no true empanada. In addition to the main ingredient, empanadas are often also filled with potato, onion, olive, and egg. Generally, an empanada costs between 2-4 pesos at a café or restaurant – usually less than $1 each! It’s not uncommon for people to order a dozen empanadas at once and share them.
So I’d eaten plenty of this perfect snack. But I hadn’t yet had the chance to actually make empanadas until I heard about a CouchSurfing gathering for a woman who was returning to France after many months in Salta. Leo, one of the pillars of the Salta CouchSurfing community, picked me up and a short while later I was at Alejandro’s house being introduced to a host of other friendly CouchSurfers.
As Alejandro worked out the dough, the rest of helped by drinking large quantities of Salta beer and chatting in Spanish (generally called Castilian here), English, and French. Once the empanada circles had been pressed out with an empty can, the crew started filling them with the tasty concoction pictured in the pans below.
We must have made close to 200 empanadas that night. Even with the 20+ people at the house, Alejandro had leftover empanadas for days (in fact I heard he was begging friends to come over and eat them). Making empanadas is thirsty work, and Salta Negra was the preferred beer of choice. It was delicious paired with the savory empanadas.
Not only was it my first time making empanadas, it was my first CouchSurfing meet-up. The folks of Salta were warm and welcoming, and treated me like a long-lost friend. It was just what I needed. Cheers!
Alejandro’s Empanada Recipe
Want to try your hand at empanadas? Alejandro kindly shared his grandmother’s recipe! Good luck!
Empanada masa dough
1 kg flour
220 g beef or pork fat
300 ml warm water.
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp white pepper
1 Tbsp paprika
1 kg of beef, “ball back,” finely chopped
800 g onion
500 g potato
50 g unflavored gelatin
2 hardboiled eggs, diced
Green olives (to taste), diced
White pepper (to taste)
Ground black pepper (to taste)
Salt (to taste)
1 cup chicken or beef broth
These instructions are my interpretation based on what I saw that night. Prepare the filling and fry the onions until translucent. Add the finely chopped meat and give it a quick browning. Roll out the dough and press out circles about 3-4″ in diameter using an empty can. Dip your finger in a cup of warm water and moisten half of the empanada circumference. Add a spoonful of the filling to the center of the dough. Fold up the dry edge onto the moist edge and press them together (careful of shooting juice!) to seal the empanada shut. Fold in the sealed edge over and over (as described above). Bake a tray of empanadas until brown, about ten minutes at “medium” heat. Alternatively, you could deep fry them.