OK, so on the surface, this is a post about empanadas.
You’re probably already saying “Ooh, I know empanadas. They are those individual two or three bite turnover-looking things that are popular all over Latin America (and pretty much everywhere else that Spain conquered once upon a time).” In some sense you’d be right, but that isn’t the kind of empanadas we are talking about. In Spain (where they are also quite popular), the smaller individual-sized things are known as empanadillas, while empanadas are baked in a large rectangular sheet pans, from which individual servings are cut out and served. Spaniards serve empanadas both as tapas and as the center of a larger meal. In Galicia, they’re one of the most popular picnic foods.
To dig a little deeper into the subject, Empanadas come from Galicia, and in the rest of Spain, they are known as Empanadas Gallegas. Galicia has the best seafood I’ve ever encountered anywhere in the world. Not so coincidentally, the empanadas I’ve been served in coastal Galicia have almost always included seafood in the stuffing. Sometimes it’s scallops. Sometimes squid and/or cuddlefish. Cockles are another popular filling, as are various fresh fish. Canned tuna is a popular inexpensive filling for home cooks. If you go further inland in Galicia, where they are known for raising very good pork and beef, instead of seafood, the filling is almost always meat-based. Of course, there are also vegetarian versions, sweet fruit empanadas, and just about anything saucy and not too wet can be made into an empanada filling.
The traditional crust (same for baked sheets or bite-sized empanadillas) is a fairly fatty yeast dough that is a pleasure to work with and gives a soft, chewy, flakey texture. If you have my mushroom book, you’ve seen the dough recipe that has been used for several generations in Rosa’s family. I will eventually do a post about that dough and those empanadas here.
BUT, not so fast! This post really isn’t about those empanadas...
I had heard rumors for a while of a special Galician empanada made with a cornmeal crust instead of the standard wheat dough. I had never seen one. Though Rosa had spoken quite a bit about them, she had no idea how to make them. She promised, though, that we’d find one to eat somewhere in Galicia, and that we’d convince her Tia Rosa to give us a recipe, if not a lesson.
As an aside, corn in Galicia, is, an interesting topic. All over the Galician countryside, you see a small plot of corn growing in almost every field. I haven’t seen anyone in the region eating fresh corn, though. They dry the corn and grind it as a base for some traditional corn breads or “pans de millo” (millo is the Galego word for corn – it’s maiz in Spanish), or they use it as animal feed. But, that’s about it.
Jumping now to my first time in Galicia, our trip winding down, Rosa and I were with 15 or 20 of our close friends and family at a furancho* for a night of eating and drinking. On the menu, low and behold, is an “empanada de millo,” filled with sardines. Of course, we were excited to try it, and it didn’t disappoint. That empanada turned out to be one of the most memorable things I ate in that entire month-long trip to Spain. The crust was soft, crisp, crumbly, with a subtle sweetness from the cornmeal. Of course, the hard-to-describe-how-good-seafood-is-in-Galicia, fresh sardine filling was amazing, too. It was the one of the most perfect "peasant foods" I had ever eaten. But the experience was no more than a tease. That trip ended, and, though I still had the empanada de millo on my mind, I had no idea how to make that crust. It went on the back burner, but I didn’t forget.
*Explaining a furancho is a deep topic, deserving of its own separate, long, colorful post which I intend to take up at some point, but not here and now. Short version: a furancho is a very uniquely Galician, semi-legal, home-winery/restaurant.
The next summer came, and that meant another long trip to Spain, including another couple of weeks in Galicia. When we begged Tia Rosa for a recipe, she instead told us we’d be making one together (the pic to the right is from this lesson). Of course, there was no recipe, no weighing or measuring anything. I just did my best to make mental notes while we got our hands good and dirty. And this is definitely a recipe where you are going to get your hands VERY dirty as you mold and press the little bits of dough into the pan, piece by piece.
We made two empanadas with a sardine filling that day, because I insisted that they were my favorite. Since Tio Sesito's favorite is lura (squid), we made one empanada with a lura filling as well. It's been a great time locally for squid as I work on this post, while fresh sardines are nowhere to be found. As such, the empanada I'm showing you here uses a the squid filling. Use whatever seafood is really good when you want to play with this.
We cooked the empanadas in a wood-burning, stone oven (the pic below shows this oven just loaded up and heating up for the empanadas). I wish I had one at home in the states, but like most of you, I don't so I just do this in my regular oven. If you have a pizza stone, I would bake the empanada on that to get that crispy bottom layer, but it works fine without one.
The general framework of a “recipe,” as best as I could manage, was written from memory the following day. The detailed recipe being shared in this post was pieced together, tested out and refined many months later, back at home in California, from those notes. The crust is quite uniquely Galician - I’ve never heard of anything quite like this from anywhere else in Spain (or the world, for that matter). It’s a really interesting, different dough. Really, even to call it a dough is a little bit of a stretch. As there is only a token amount of rye flour with the corn meal, there isn’t any gluten to hold the dough together. It’s more of a light, wet paste that’s pressed into shape. There isn’t any of the usual structure that you would normally expect in a raw dough, though it is quite light and fluffy from the yeast. The crust will hold together when baked, but will still be pleasantly crumbly like a shortbread.
The attached filling recipe and technique is very standard in Galicia. Like I said above, let your taste and what looks good at the market decide on the appropriate filling. Sardine filets, squid or cuttlefish, small scallops, and cockles are all quite traditional.
There is a special Galician word, zaragallada, for the sofrito used in empanadas. The zaragallada is layered lightly on the bottom, then the seafood on top, then another layer of the zaragallada on top of the seafood. The recipe calls for A LOT of oil, as is typical. Don’t be scared. You need the extra to help make the crust. The extremely flavorful leftover oil can be reserved, and later, used to cook other things.
If you have leftover dough, you can spoon it into a hot, oiled pan to make pancakes. They come out almost like johnny cakes. They're pretty good on their own, but with a fried egg, make a great breakfast.
The cornmeal empanadas are great fresh out of the oven - they will hold together much better if you let them rest for 10 minutes before portioning. After cooling down, they can be stored covered well in the fridge for a couple days. They are quite good as cold or room temperature leftovers, though they can obviously be reheated if you prefer.
Ingredients (For an 11"x17" sheet pan or baking dish)
For the cornmeal crust
750g corn meal
190g rye flour (or substitute whole wheat flour)
1 tsp salt
1¼ quart + 1¼ cup Water
1 Tbsp active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
For the filling
1 ½ lbs of squid, cleaned, tentacles left whole, and body cut into rings (or substitute other seafood as desired)
2 white or yellow onions, peeled, halved, and cut in thin julienne slices
2 large bell peppers (mix of colors), seeded and cut into thin julienne slices.
¾ cup oil for cooking
1. Make the zaragallada (sofrito): Heat a heavy-bottomed sauté pan on a medium-low flame. Add the oil, then the onions and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring regularly, until the onions are meltingly soft, and then add the peppers, and another pinch of salt. Continue cooking, stirring regularly, until the peppers are also meltingly soft. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Remove from heat and set aside.
Make the cornmeal dough
2. Bring 1¼ quart of water to a boil with the salt. Meanwhile, sift the flour. In a large bowl, slowly pour boiling water into the cornmeal, stirring as you go, until the corn meal is all evenly moistened.
3. While water is coming to a boil, mix yeast with 1 tsp sugar and 1 cup warm water. Wait 10 minutes for the yeast to proof.
4. While the cornmeal mix is still very warm, but not hot enough to kill the yeast, stir in the sifted flour and the water containing the proofed yeast until evenly distributed. Knead well for a few minutes. It will be more of a wet paste than a dough.
Form into a ball in the bowl and cover the bowl with a damp towel (not touching the dough). Let rise for 60-75 minutes. It will grow and the surface will get a bit of a cracked appearance.
Assemble the empanada:
This quick video helps illustrate the next few steps in the procedure.
5. Drain the extra oil from the sofrito into a bowl. Coat the bottom of the baking dish with the oil, and then coat your hands with some of it as well.Pick up pieces of the dough, press them into thin flat pieces in your hand, then let them “fall off” into the pan. Pat them flat in the pan, joining the pieces together by gently patting with your fingers, always keeping a good amount of oil on your hands. You can do the process with a fork, but I like Tia Rosa’s way with the hands.
When the bottom layer of the empanada is done, it should have a visible layer of the sofrito oil on top. If not, brush a little bit on.
6. Spread a very thin layer of sofrito on top of the bottom layer. Then arrange a layer of the cleaned squid on top of the sofrito, then season with salt, then another thin layer of sofrito.
7. Finally do another layer of crust on top of the filling, repeating the technique from the bottom layer. Again, there should be a visible coating of the sofrito oil on top when you are finished. If not, brush some on before baking.
DO NOT DO AN EGG WASH
8. Bake at 400F until the crust is golden brown. Let it rest for 10 minutes and serve hot.