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Empanada Gallega

A typical Empanada Gallega (in the tray) alongside empanadillas (on the plate, front right)

I have already written a little bit about empanadas in the past, when talking about a very special type made with a cornmeal crust (empanada de millo). At the risk of repeating myself and belaboring the obvious, I think it’s worth rehashing certain things.

Everyone thinks they know what empanadas are. All over the former Spanish colonial empire, including all of Latin America, and even countries like the Philippines, you find empanadas. I’m sure you’re familiar with some version of those little stuffed pastries that look like little semi-circular turnovers. They can be stuffed with just about anything depending on the region, the season, and the mood of the cook preparing them. Sometimes they’re fried, sometimes they are baked. They’re always popular. The thing is that in Spain, those little, individual-sized ones are not empanadas. They’re called empanadillas. Empanadas, in Spain, are made in large rectangular sheets. One layer of dough covers the bottom of the sheet. The filling is laid on top of that, before another layer of dough is placed on top to seal the dough inside. After baking, the large rectangular empanada is cut into squares and served.

The large rectangular empanada in Spain is called “empanada Gallega,” as it originates from Galicia. The Galicians just call it an “empanada.” The empanada goes back at least to the middle ages in Galicia. There is a statue from the 12th century in the Catedral de Santiago (the famous cathedral at the end of the Camino de Santiago) depicting people making an empanada.

Empanadas don’t look as fancy as individual empanadillas, but in much of Spain, the large rectangular sized ones are the standard - and for good reason. First off, they are actually much better to eat, because you get a lot more filling vs. crust when cutting out a square from a large empanada. Second, they are much easier to make, as you only need to roll out 2 sheets of dough and then pinch them together, vs. making a couple dozen individual empanadillas. Finally, they store better – they stay very moist and hold well for a couple days after baking.

In Galicia, empanadas are one of the most popular picnic foods. I attended one event on the Galician coast a couple summers back where dozens of families brought food to eat outside. Close to 90% of the families had a homemade empanada as part of their spread. Of course, you can use empanadillas for that sort of thing, as well, if you like, but they really don’t hold up quite as well. Empanadas aren’t just for picnics, of course. Families might serve them for lunch, dinner, or a snack, just about any time of year, and both empanadas and empanadillas often appear on tapas menus.

On the Galician coast, where seafood is a way of life, empanadas are almost always filled with some sort of seafood or fish. Squid, cockles, and sardines are all popular fillings. One popular filling, when fresh seafood isn’t available, is canned tuna. It’s this interesting filling that we’ll explore in this recipe. Further inland in Galicia, where people rely more on livestock, you will see more meat-based fillings, including chorizo and various preparations of pork or beef. Depending on where you go in Spain, and further around the world, you can see just about anything, including sweet, fruity fillings, in empanadas and empanadillas. The only real rule is to make a flavorful filling that is saucy, but not too liquidy. I’ve used everything from braised short ribs, to chicken tagine, to vegetarian mushroom fillings. One of the best things about learning to make empanadas, is that once you learn the basic technique, it becomes a really fun and simple way to share all kinds of flavor ideas with friends and family.

In Galicia, a savory empanada filling always starts with a “zaragallada,” which is a Galician word meaning “sofrito that goes in the empanada.” The zaragallada is generally very onion heavy, and always has a bit more oil than you think you need. People often use a lot of extra oil in the zaragallada and then strain that oil to use in making the dough, adding more flavor to the crust. Many empanadas are filled by placing a layer of zaragallada, followed by a layer of the chosen protein, followed by another layer of zaragallada (See the empanada de millo recipe for a typical example). That classic method works very well, so it’s worth learning, but as long as you have a flavorful, somewhat saucy filling, your empanadas are going to be great.

This is a dough recipe that Rosa’s family has been using for at least a couple generations. It works equally well for empanadas or empanadillas. It is the simplest to make, easiest to work with, yeast dough that you are ever likely to come across. It produces a dough that bakes up crispy. I have used this recipe to make fried empanadillas, as some people are accustomed to, though I’ve always preferred them baked. Also, note that this recipe scales up really well. I have used it to make batches of 200+ empanadillas for events.

For the Tuna Filling

2 large onions, peeled and sliced

2 bell peppers (1 green, 1 red), seeded and sliced thin

3 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced

2 cans of tuna, packed in oil, drained

1½ cups good green olives, pitted

Salt TT

1 Tbsp (or TT) Pimentón de la Vera

3/8 cup oil

1. Make the zaragallada: Heat up a large heavy-bottomed pan on medium-low heat. When hot, add the oil, then the onions, along with a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring regularly, until the onions are meltingly soft, but not browned. Add the bell peppers and another pinch of salt. Cook, stirring regularly, until the bell peppers are very soft, but not browned. About 10 minutes before the bell peppers are done cooking, stir in the Pimentón.

2. Stir in the garlic, and let cook for another few minutes to make sure the garlic isn’t raw. Stir in the tuna, breaking it up as you stir it in, and then stir in the olives. Taste, and adjust seasoning as needed. Remove from heat and set aside while making the dough.

For the Empanada Dough

300g all-purpose flour

1 tsp salt

100g warm water

1 tsp granulated sugar

1 packet active dry yeast (slightly less than 1 Tbsp)

1 egg

100g extra virgin olive oil

1. Mix the salt into the flour in a large mixing bowl. Meanwhile, stir the sugar and yeast into the warm water. When the yeast wakes up, and the mix looks like it has a large raft of bubbles floating on top, proceed to step 2.

2. Make a well in the middle of the flour. To the well, add the egg, the oil, and the yeasty water. Use a fork to mix the wet ingredients together, slowly incorporating the surrounding flour into it. When the mix starts to get too thick to mix with the fork, use your hands to incorporate all of the flour into the wet paste in the middle, being sure to scrape all the good bits off of the fork. Knead the dough until it stops sticking to your hands and the bowl. This should only take a minute or two. Form the dough into a ball, cover with a damp (not wet) towel in the bowl, and let rest in a warm place until it doubles in size.

How to stuff and bake empanadillas

1. Tear or cut off a large piece of dough. Lightly flour your work surface, and roll the dough out into a flat sheet about 1/16" thick. Use a coffee cup, cookie cutter or ring mold to cut out pieces of the desired size. 3" to 4" in diameter is both an easy size to work with and for diners to eat. Remove the scrap dough and form back into a ball. Set aside. Scraps can be combined and rerolled 2x before getting too tough to work with.

2. Place a generous spoonful of filling in the center of the cut circle. Using a finger or small brush, spread a little egg wash around the outer rim of the circle. Fold one half over the filling and press down to form a semicircle. Seal the edge by pinching well with fingers or pressing down with a fork in a neat pattern. Place each empanada on a parchment covered sheet pan. If the cut dough circles shrink a bit, give each a quick roll under the rolling pin before filling. Repeat until all of the dough and filling are used up. Leave an inch of space between the empanadas on the sheet pan.

3. Using a sharp knife or fork, poke a couple of small holes on the top of each empanadaBrush the top of each of the empanadas with a little egg wash, and then bake in a preheated 350˚F oven until golden brown — about 15 to 25 minutes.

4. Serve hot from the oven or at room temperature after cooling down.

How to stuff and bake a classic empanada gallega

1. Prepare the bottom layer of dough: Cut the ball of dough in half. Cover one half back with plastic or a damp towel. Roll the first half of the dough into a rectangle the shape of your pan, but slightly larger, and as thin as possible. Gently roll it around the rolling pin to move it, and arrange it carefully in the pan. Make sure to gently press it down against the edges of the pan and leave a little bit of extra dough around the edges.

Note: The dough puffs up a lot when it bakes. You want to roll the sheet as thin as possible, while it still holds together without tearing easily. If you get any holes or tears, though, you can simply press in a little patch of dough to fix it.

2. Arrange the filling in an even layer across the entire sheet of dough.

3. Attach the top and seal the empanada: Roll out the second half of the dough very thin, like the first layer, again, in the shape of the pan, but slightly larger. Roll it up in the rolling pin to move it, and place it on top of the first layer and filling. Use your fingers to pinch the overhanging edges of the top and bottom together. Start in one place, and as you pinch together, roll inwards a little bit. Shift a little bit to the side and repeat the pinching and rolling motion all the way around the whole sheet to completely seal the two layers together.

Note: If there is too much extra dough hanging over the edge, use a sharp knife to cut it off before you pinch the layers together.

4. Brush the top of each of the empanadas with a little egg wash. Using a sharp knife or fork, poke a few small holes across the top of the empanada. Bake in a preheated 350˚F oven until golden brown (30-40 minutes) and the sides start to separate a little from the pan.

5. It is best to let it rest for at least 10 minutes before serving. It can be served hot, fresh, or at room temperature. Empanadas actually keep quite well for a couple days if you let them cool to room temperature, then wrapped in plastic and stored in the fridge before serving. They can be served cold straight from the fridge, or allowed to warm up a little to room temperature, or reheated in the oven.

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