Almost every culture in the world has its own version of a hand-held savory pie. From Cornish pasties —popular in Britain, Australia, Mexico and parts of the U.S. where Cornish miners settled — to samosas — popular in Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean — hand pies have always been a convenient way to cook, transport and eat a simple but hearty meal wrapped in a portable pastry package.
One such hand pie is the empanada. Thought to have originated in the northwest region of Spain known as Galacia, empanadas were first mentioned in a cookbook published in Catalan in 1520. Those precursors to today’s Hot Pockets have since spread throughout southern Europe and to much of Latin and South America, the Philippines and Indonesia. The name empanada is derived from the Spanish verb empanar, which translates “enbreaded” or “wrapped in bread.”
The brief for this signature challenge was for 12 savory pastry parcels of any kind, but Paul Hollywood specified that they must be “perfectly formed” and “excellently flavored.” Mary Berry said, “the seasoning must be right, the moisture must be right, the bake must be right.”
I chose to make empanadas filled with caramelized onions, figs and goat cheese. At the last minute, I decided to offset the sweet figs with salty bits of bacon, as well. I found a wonderful website called Laylita.com, written by an Ecuadorian expat living in Seattle, who covers everything you need to know in her Empanada 101 guide. She even offers different recipes for empanada dough, based on whether they will be baked or fried.
Not wanting to heat up the kitchen with a deep-fat frier, I planned to bake my empanadas, so I followed her recipe here. It’s a pretty straightforward shortcrust pastry dough, with the addition of an egg, which makes the dough more pliable (allowing for more manipulation when forming and crimping the dough) and gives it a better structure when baked, minimizing “crumbliness” while maintaining flakiness.
I started with the fillings, however. Because I live in an area where I can’t find fresh figs, I bought dried figs and reconstituted them in sherry and water. I brought them to a boil and then removed the pan from the heat, allowing the figs to plump in the liquid while I prepared the rest of the fillings.
Several empanada recipes I researched called for pancetta, which is very similar to bacon, usually thick-cut and cubed. I cut my bacon into small squares and fried them till crispy. Then I drained off the grease, reserving 2 tablespoons to fry the onions in.
To caramelize the onions, I cooked them in the same frying pan as the bacon on medium-low heat, adding a little sugar to help the caramelization process. I kept them covered for about 20 minutes, then increased the heat and removed the lid for the last 10-15 minutes, stirring frequently so they were evenly browned. At the end, I stirred in the drained figs and a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar and set them aside to cool.
I prepared the dough using the same method I used for Mary Berry’s Treacle Tart, rubbing the butter into the flour with my fingers until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Then I mixed in the egg and added a little milk at a time until the dough came together without being sticky.
I divided the dough into 12 equal portions and rolled out each one into a circle about 5 inches in diameter. To assemble the empanadas, I placed a couple tablespoonfuls of the onion-fig mixture onto half of one of the circles, leaving a good half inch margin around the edge. I then sprinkled some of the bacon and some crumbled goat cheese on top. To make sure all the empanadas are filled equally, you could weigh each of the fillings and divide by 12, then lay one of the circles on a food scale, hit “tare” and add the right amount of each filling. Another alternative would be to combine the onion-fig mixture, bacon and goat cheese all together before filling the empanadas. This would make measuring easier. I will probably do it that way next time.
After filling each empanada, I brushed the inside edges with egg white, folded the dough circle over the filled half to create a half-moon shape, and folded the edges in on themselves to make sure the fillings wouldn’t seep out. There are several methods of crimping the edges. If you are particularly talented, you can do the traditional repulgue method of twisting the edges — which I didn’t quite master but is nicely demonstrated here — or you can crimp them like a pie crust, as illustrated here (skip to about 3:20 in the video to see the crimping process), or simply press the edges together firmly with a fork, like I did.
I popped the filled empanadas into the fridge for half an hour. This ensures that the filling and the dough are the same temperature so they bake at the same rate. It also helps seal the fillings inside the dough to prevent leakage. Right before baking, I brushed them with egg wash and poked a tiny hole in the top of each to allow excess steam to be released, which also helps to help prevent leaks.
While they baked, I made a simple balsamic reduction to serve alongside the empanadas. This is one of the simplest sauces to make yet adds a touch of elegance to many dishes. I merely poured balsamic vinegar into a small saucepan and simmered it over low heat until it was reduced by about half, then set it aside to cool.
It was hard to wait for the empanadas to cool before digging in! The crust was golden and flaky, both tender and crispy at the same time. The first bite revealed a mouthful of flavors, sweet figs surrounded by the mellower sweetness of caramelized onions. This was balanced out by the earthy flavor of goat cheese and the salty bacon. Served hot or cold, these pocket-sized pies would make an excellent main course on a picnic or an easy snack after school or even on a road trip. I could even see making a batch and keeping them in the freezer to reheat as needed.
Caramelized Onion and Fig Empanadas
For the filling:
For the dough:
- 3 c. all-purpose flour
- ½ t. salt
- ¾ c. (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- ¼ to ½ c. milk (adjust as needed to obtain a soft, smooth dough)
- 1 egg, separated
- ½ c. balsamic vinegar
- Put the figs and sherry in a small saucepan and add just enough water to cover the figs. Place over high heat and bring to a boil, then cover and remove from heat, leaving the figs in the liquid to plump up while preparing the bacon and onions.
- In a large skillet, sauté the bacon until it is crispy. Drain the grease but reserve 2 tablespoons to cook the onions in. Remove bacon to a paper towel to cool.
- Cut the onions in half and then slice them into thin half-moon shapes. In the same skillet, heat the reserved bacon grease and add onions, ¼ teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon sugar. Cover and cook for 20 minutes over medium-low heat.
- While the onions are cooking, make the dough: Measure flour and ½ teaspoon salt into a large bowl and rub in the butter with your fingertips or a pastry blender until the mixture resembles fine bread crumbs (alternatively, this can be done in a food processor). Use a fork to mix in the egg, then add the milk a little at a time (you may not need all of it), mixing lightly until the dough clumps together.
- Divide the dough in two, flatten both pieces slightly into disks, wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to form. (The dough can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.)
- When onions are soft and translucent, remove the lid and increase heat to medium-high. Cook for 10 more minutes, stirring frequently, until evenly browned. The onions are done when they’re very soft and golden brown.
- Strain the plumped figs and discard the liquid. Add figs to the cooked onions and stir to combine. Stir in 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar and season to taste.
- Remove dough from fridge and divide into 12 equal portions, rolling each into a round ball. Roll out each ball into a thin circle, about 5 inches in diameter.
- To assemble the empanadas, place a spoonful of the fig-onion filling on one half of each dough circle, leaving a ½-inch margin around the edge. Top with a teaspoon or so of the bacon and a few crumbles of goat cheese. Be careful not to overfill the empanadas.
- To seal the empanadas, brush the edges with egg white and fold the unfilled half of the circle over the filling, pressing the edges together to seal. Fold the edges up and seal with the tines of a fork dipped in a little flour. (This keeps the fork from sticking to the dough.) Place the filled empanadas on parchment-lined baking sheets and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 400°F. Lightly beat egg yolk with a couple teaspoons of water (or the egg white left over from sealing the empanadas) and brush the empanadas with the egg wash. Using a toothpick, poke a small hole in the top of each empanada.
- Bake the empanadas for 18-25 minutes until evenly golden brown. Rotate the baking sheets halfway through to maintain even browning.
- While empanadas are baking, heat balsamic vinegar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a gentle boil, then reduce heat to medium-low heat and let simmer, stirring occasionally, until the vinegar thickens and is reduced to about 1/4 cup. It should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and allow to cool. (It will thicken more while cooling.)
- When empanadas are done, transfer to cooling racks to cool. Serve with a drizzle of balsamic reduction on the plate or in a dish for dipping.