A flaky, rich and flavorful crust, visually reminiscent of Herve Leger’s stretch fabric/layered ribbon dresses from the 1980’s, but in empanada form. That was the original objective. No, this actually had a bit more thought to it than that. The more I have explored Filipino food, produce and recipes, the more I am convinced that the Top dishes became top dishes for a reason. And often, that reason is NO LONGER present in the preparation of many of the modern variations of the dish. I am not against evolution or modernity and practicality, but for me, to understand a dish, and what makes or made it work, one has to look back to its “beginnings”… I think the adobos of today for many families are a far cry from a slow cooked pork adobo without soy sauce but rather just salt, spices and vinegar. I also think home or restaurant prepared pinakbet often strays far from the more authentic examples of the dish. Kinilaw, best done as naked and barely bathed in vinegar and spice as possible, is now made to swim in an acidic bath for hours in a fridge, yielding a dish that is altogether different from its recent ancestors. Even sinigang in most homes today is made with an acidic powder in a foil packet rather than relying on fresh souring agents. For years I have tasted mediocre to downright LOUSY empanadas, yet wondered by they were such a crowd favorite. Increasingly they seemed filled with outrageously sweet concoctions, and the crust ranged from good to inedible. So the question is, what was so good about its ancestors that made this such a favorite dish today?
Empanadas were probably introduced during the Spanish times, maybe as long as 300+ years ago, brought from Central/South America, where they were brought probably from the region of Galicia, in Spain, according to Alan Davidson in his book The Oxford Companion to Food. Empanadas were one of the original convenience foods… hermetically wrapped in dough (empanada for enrobed in bread), fried in hot oil, ensuring the contents were sterilized and not likely to encourage bacteria growth for many hours to come. In Central and South America, these became convenient lunch foods/snacks, and they often had protein, starch and even vegetables in a neat little package. In the Philippines, I always thought of empanadas as more of a snack or merienda fare. And even as a kid, most of the ones I tried had ground beef and some raisins, the latter to provide sweetness and some moisture to the filling.
In the last 20 or so years, I have very rarely eaten empanadas, tasting the ones I come across, but often finding them lacking in some regard. Even the baked ones I tried the other day were good, but the crust was a bit bland or boring. I wanted a crust that “sang” like Alicia Keys. So I went back to this previous post on some store bought empanadas, searched out BettyQ’s dough recipe that she seemed to just whip up at a moment’s notice, and realized I had some wonderful flavorful pork lard in the fridge… so armed with recipe, and substituting lard for Marketman aged pork lard, it was time to experiment. :)
My hypothesis was this. The empanadas made during the Spanish times here in the Philippines, had doughs that were probably made with pork or other lard. And they were also likely deep fried in more lard. It was the PORK LARD that made these so incredibly special, so tantalizing to the taste buds, and therefor a favorite food. As the decades passed and vegetable oil was invented (or vegetable shortening) and or butter or margarine was brought to market, the crusts evolved away from the rich, flavorful predecessors to more practical, more healthy but maybe less yummy empanadas…
So here is what I did. I followed BettyQ’s dough recipe except that I used PORK lard. I made the “slurry” of lard and flour and “grafted” it onto the main dough. I carefully folded it and rolled it out to a really long rectangle.
I thought it was thin enough, but in retrospect, I think I should have rolled it even thinner.
From the “closed” end of the dough, I rolled that up into a “log”…
Make sure to remove any air pockets.
Notice that distinct layers of dough and fat are visible from a cross-section of the log.
I let the logs rest in the fridge for some 3 hours, before taking them out, and cuttin them into 1.5 inch mini-logs, which when pressed down on, turned into discs with concentric alternating circles of dough and fat.
Roll this out to the desired thickness, and lift and transfer to a empanada mould, if using.
I went out earlier in the day to buy the plastic empanada mould, thinking uniformity in size was highly desirable.
To be honest, I hated the mould– it was cheaply made, didn’t quite seal the empanadas and cost a relative arm and a leg for what it was.
We did most of the remaining empanadas free form without the benefit of a mould. I am sure there are NICE and efficient moulds out there, I just have to keep my eye out for one.
Things were looking really promising at this point, and we heated up lots of fat in a wok over medium heat. The problems started when we slowly put the first empanada into the hot oil and it basically did a “Challenger-like” bursting at the seams… It was a mess and the contents were burned to a crisp. I figured we may have overstuffed the empanada so we reduced the volume of filling on the second try…
…but the second, third and fourth empanadas still kept falling apart at the areas that were supposed to turn into scales (kaliskis) and I was beginning to worry that something was seriously wrong. It seems that one thing I should have done was make the rolled out pieces of dough REST for a couple of hours in the fridge, probably to firm up the lard and improve the strength of the dough.
Next I tried rolling out the dough intentionally in the “wrong” way, without the concentric circles, and using bits and pieces from earlier attempts, and the dough held together much more nicely, so obviously the dough could be fine. I also wrestled with oil temperature, the volume of filling, the thickness of the dough, etc… yes, just when you thought things were simple, they suddenly got infuriatingly difficult to comprehend. I was sweating so much I may have added a teeny weeny bit more salt to some empanadas than was intended… :) Then I realized maybe the ambient temperature was simply just TOO HOT to be working with pastry dough!
But as we adjusted the thickness of the dough, lowered the heat of the oil, lessened the filling, we started turning out pretty decent looking empanadas, albeit with wickedly fat scales or “kaliskis”… Out of say 20 pieces fried, some 8-10 turned out looking pretty presentable.
But forget the looks for a moment, and sink your teeth into one of these babies, and VOILA!, ABSOLUTELY STUPENDOUS texture and flavor. Brilliant crust. Incredibly flaky with a rich flavor unctuously coating one’s tongue, screaming its porky provenance, and providing a savory hit before you even got to the meat. This was the experience I was looking for, this was personal confirmation that if all empanadas were somehow made this way decades or centuries ago, it is no wonder at all why they became such a crowd pleaser. I must admit, having one or two of these goodies was the MAXIMUM I could take in a given day. And they seemed to sit in one’s stomach like a spongy wet piece of lead, if lead could be spongy and wet…
I am not happy enough with the total package to write a recipe. But I can tell you that if I ever managed to get my act together and wrote a cookbook or compilation of my favorite recipes, this one would have to be included. Even if the book were all about pork, this recipe would sneak in because of the lard. :)
Note: Some photos in this post taken by AT.