Aunt Josie’s Empanadas

Aunt Josie – my beloved, feisty great-aunt Josefina – hails from a family of Italian descent in Mendoza, Argentina. This is a promising combination if you’re interested in food. She’s not a fancy cook, but I can tell you she makes a pot roast with clove-studded onion that will knock your socks off. I have seen otherwise sane, well-mannered adults with desperate eyes contemplate licking that gravy off the plate. But the pot roast must wait in the wings: today the stage is set for empanadas.

These savory pastries have been part of our family celebrations since I was a tiny girl. Birthdays, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day…whatever the occasion, when Aunt Josie arrived with a couple of zip-top bags bursting with empanadas, no other dish on the table could compete. Pulled from the oven piping hot & smelling heavenly of comforting spices and shattering pastry, they were devoured in moments. Josie would smile knowingly, a twinkle in her keen blue eyes as she watched our happiness, sharing with us a piece of her past.

Fast-forward to modern-day San Francisco. Here’s how it often goes when I introduce a recipe to a class full of kids (or young adults “Y.A.s”, in this case):

Me: Today we’ll make one of my favorite recipes – empanadas! They’re filled with ground beef mixed with warm spices, olives…
Y.A.#1: Ew! I hate olives!
Me: …sweet raisins…
Y.A.#2: I don’t like raisins.
Me: (undaunted) …and hard-boiled eggs…
Y.A.s (all): [uncomfortable silence]

Why do I remain undaunted? Because I’ve learned this: even if kids don’t think they want to eat something, they still like to make it. It’s true! They like the process; they like to work. I’m content, knowing they’re learning basic kitchen techniques – rolling out dough, chopping olives, sautéing ground meat. And when those heavenly smells fill the kitchen and mouths start to water, I know minds will expand and new tastes will be experienced.

I called Aunt Josie the night after that class. I described my students gobbling up their empanadas, how they juggled the steaming-hot treats from hand to hand, risking scalded fingers in their rush for first bites. As I reflected on how her life had been shared with a new generation of cooks, I could feel her smile and twinkle through the phone. I hope you’ll feel it, too.

Aunt Josie’s Empanadas

3 large eggs, hard-boiled, cooled, and peeled
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons sweet or mild paprika
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 pound ground beef chuck
1 tablespoon tomato paste
⅓ cup raisins, softened in hot water, then drained
¼ cup chopped pimiento-stuffed or green olives
1 tablespoon lard (optional)
1 recipe Empanada Dough (or one package frozen empanada pastry disks, thawed)

Cut each egg in half lengthwise, then slice each half crosswise into 5 slices. Set aside.

In a large skillet over medium heat, cook onion in olive oil with ½ teaspoon salt and a few grinds of black pepper, stirring frequently, until softened. Add garlic, spices and oregano and cook 1 minute more. Add beef and cook, breaking up lumps, until no longer pink, about 4 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, raisins and olives and cook 2-3 minutes to bring the flavors together. Stir in the lard, if using. Taste for seasonings, and adjust if necessary. Spread on a plate or sheet pan to cool.

On a well-floured surface, roll out the dough to a thickness of 1/8-inch or less. It should be thin but not to the point of ripping. With a round cutter (or overturned bowl) – 4-6 inches is ideal – cut out circles of dough. Gather and re-roll the scraps until you can no longer cut out additional circles.

Preheat oven to 375F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, or grease it lightly.

To form an empanada, place 1-2 tablespoons filling on one side of a dough circle, leaving bare 1/2-inch around the edge – don’t overfill. Top with a slice of egg. Wet edges of dough lightly with water, then fold the dough over to form a half circle. Pinch the edges together, then crimp with a fork. Repeat process until all filling is used. Empanadas may now be frozen or baked right away.

Place the empanadas on the prepared baking sheet and chill for a few minutes. When ready to bake, beat the egg with 1 teaspoon water. Brush the egg wash over each empanada. Prick each empanada on top twice with a fork. Bake 22-25 minutes, until golden brown. Let rest 5 minutes before serving.

Yield: 25-30 snack-sized (4-inch) or 15-18 meal-sized (6-inch) empanadas

Tips & Tricks: To freeze, place unbaked empanadas on a tray in the freezer until very firm. Remove from tray and seal in a plastic zip-top bag. No need to thaw them before baking  – just add 4-6 minutes to the baking time.