Spinach and Cheese Empanadas, Fit for a King
by Tram Nguyen
This recipe is dedicated to my little brother, who despite being as thin as a rail and blessed with the metabolism of a very fast hamster, was diagnosed with gout at the tender age of 22. The doctor remarked that he had never seen this particular affliction in one so young, and that it is usually the disease of unusually large, prosperous, middle-aged men, such as Henry VIII. You develop it by eating too much steak, organ meats, and other rich foods and the best way to treat it is a massive overhaul of one’s diet. Upon learning of this diagnosis, my brother went to Macy’s and bought himself a deep fryer for Christmas. He had a gift card, he said.
These days Jimmy has the gout under control so I’m allowed to make fun of him for it. Full disclosure: I still made fun of him, even when he didn’t have it under control, because I’m a jerk. I don’t have the disease (yet), but the love of fried food runs deep in our family, so it’s just a matter of time. Just seeing the word “empanada” on a restaurant menu will evoke a pavlovian response in me, and I just can’t not order it. I’ve found that of the many empanadas that I have eaten and loved, often the pastry seems to be an afterthought, and simply a vehicle for delivering the savory filling. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I prefer to not spend 50% of my energy chewing something that is greasy yet bland and tough. I have better things to do, like investing in bitcoins or seeking out new ailments to get my hypochondriacal fix on WebMD. If I’m going to make room in my busy schedule for these, I’d like all of the components to be worth my time.
I used a high fat, european style butter, and only kneaded the dough the bare minimum required to keep it together. The less you work your dough, the fewer glutens develop. This results in a pastry that is flakier and more tender than the traditional model. These are also baked, not deep fried, but the ample quantity of butter more than makes up for that. The spinach is muted, more a symbolic nod and a healthy-looking disguise for the one pound of hot melted cheese in these empanadas. Feel free to double the spinach, or even add some chopped artichokes or roasted red peppers to the filling. Or omit the green stuff entirely and add more cheese. We don’t judge.
I don’t even know if I can call these empanadas. They are probably more like spinach and cheese… hot pockets? I’m not sure where that line that divides the empanada from a savory pie lies. Or if, as usual, I am over-thinking it and this is just an imaginary conflict I have invented. Who cares about nomenclature? They’re delicious. Bust them out at a party and you will be the most popular girl in the room for exactly 7 minutes until they are gone, and the fickle crowd has moved on to the next hussy bearing baked goods.
SPINACH AND CHEESE EMPANADAS
Makes 12 large pies
2 3/4 cups All Purpose Flour
1 1/2 tsp Kosher Salt
1 tsp Sugar
1 tsp Smoked Paprika
12 tbs very cold Butter (I used Kerrygold Salted Butter), cut into 1/2” cubes
1 cup Ice Water
8 oz. Spinach, washed and dried, cut into 1/4” wide ribbons
1 Large Onion, minced
3 Cloves Garlic
1/4 tsp Red Pepper Flakes
1/4 tsp Smoked Paprika
8 oz. Low-Moisture Mozzarella, shredded on the large holes of a box grater
8 oz. Feta, crumbled
1 tbs Lemon Juice
Salt to taste
1 large egg, beaten
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, sugar, and smoked paprika. Add the cold butter cubes and cut them into your flour using a pastry blender or two butter knives, until your flour has the consistency of coarse corn meal. Drizzle the ice water into your flour, and fold it in using a spatula. On a lightly floured surface knead the dough for less than a minute, until all the ingredients are incorporated and the dough is fairly uniform but still speckled with butter. If you need a visual, it should look like the flanks of a fine dappled gray horse. Wrap your ball of dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.
In a large sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil on medium high heat. Add your onion and cook until golden, stirring frequently for about 3 minutes. Add the red pepper and garlic and cook for an additional minute. Throw in your spinach, along with 1/4 tsp of salt, and sauté for 3 minutes more. Remove from heat and place in a large bowl. To that bowl, add the shredded mozzarella, crumbled feta and lemon juice. Toss and season to taste. I used Bulgarian feta which is sharper than French feta, so I only added about 1/4 tsp of salt.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
Divide your dough into 12 uniform pieces and roll them into balls. If your kitchen is very warm, you may want to refrigerate the dough you aren’t working with. Ideally you want your dough as cold as possible, otherwise the butter melts and the dough becomes very sticky and difficult to handle. On a lightly floured surface, take one dough ball and press it flat with your palm. Roll the dough into a circle that is roughly 5” in diameter and 3/8” thick.
Roll the dough to a 3/8″ thickness and cut uniform circles with a 5″ diameter cookie cutter. You can knead the dough scraps into a ball and roll this out to cut more circles, but the resulting empanadas will be a bit tougher texturally.
Brush the edges of the circle with egg wash. Place 2.5 tbs of filling in the center and fold into a half-moon shape, sealing the edges by pressing with the tines of a fork.
Brush with egg wash and bake for about 25-40 minutes, until your empanadas are golden brown. Good luck trying to not to burn your mouth eating these hot out of the oven. Store in a tightly sealed container in the fridge. To reheat, just bake at 350 degrees in the oven for a few minutes. If you want to make a batch in advance and freeze them for later, place the unbaked pies on a cookie sheet with a little space between each pie and stick the whole cookie sheet in the freezer. When they are frozen through, place the pies in a large freezer bag. When you are ready to bake, just brush with egg wash and bake at 350 degrees for a few minutes longer than the recommended cooking time.