I had my first empanadas when we were traveling through Ecuador a few years ago. Myles and I were enjoying a few days in the charming, mountain town of Cuenca, in the southern Sierra’s after a glorious trip to the Galápagos. If you haven’t been there, Cuenca is on the famed Inca Trail, and was a significant center of civilization long before the Incas showed up to conquer and make it their ‘second Cusco’.
Today, it’s a popular address for expats who have created a thriving community in the jumble of historic buildings thanks to its affordability, intense beauty, fascinating culture and history, and warm welcome. Among the highlights of the visit were the colorful ceramic murals displayed in many of the city buildings; Eduardo Vega’s gallery of stunning ceramics, the Panama Hat factory (no they’re not from Panama!), the mixture of Andean clothing in the marketplaces with women’s hats identifying their ‘tribe’, and the empanadas.
Empanadas are Cuenca’s most popular street food, offered by almost every street vendor. Some were filled with cheese and dusted with sugar, some with meat and potato chunks, always eaten wrapped in paper as a hand-pie. For this recipe, I went with fruits and vegetables from at our local farmer’s markets and started with a bed of caramelized onions, spread with little golden nuggets of roasted butternut squash. I finished each off with a little bundle of apple and raisins sautéed in butter, folded them over, sealed them, and popped them into the oven. I’ve shown some photos for assembly, but they’re easier to make than you might think. After the first couple, I promise you’ll get the hang of it and they’ll come together quickly. They can be refrigerated for a couple of days until you’re ready to bake them off, or frozen for a couple of months, making this a great make-ahead dish for the busy holidays.
A few cooking notes:
- If you don’t want to take the time to make your own pastry dough, no problem! Just use ready-made pie crust or frozen puff pastry and make the filling, which is the best part anyway.
- If you’re making your own dough, make it first and let it sit in the refrigerator while you prepare the other components of the dish. The butternut squash and apples cook while the onions are caramelizing. I allow everything to cool close to room temperature before placing them on the dough – otherwise the butter in the dough will begin to melt, making the dough much more prone to tearing.
- Butter substitutes such as Earth Balance can be substituted for the butter, but the crust won’t be flakey. It creates a drier and slightly tougher crust, but is easier to roll out and still very acceptable in flavor. I’m trying coconut oil on my next batch as a butter substitute to see how that works.
- No sugar is added to the recipe, and it still hits the right level of sweetness thanks to the natural sweetness of the red onions, butternut, apples and raisins. If you opt for additional sweetness, I recommend adding a little honey to the caramelized onions.
Butternut Squash and Caramelized Onion Empanadas
Makes 9 empanadas
- 9 ounces (2 cups) all-purpose flour
- 5 ounces unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 5 tablespoons ice water
- 1 tablespoon vinegar
- 4 medium-sized red onions
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 3/4 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons red wine
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 1 1/2 cups small diced butternut squash
- 1 – 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne
- 1/4 teaspoon Hungarian paprika
- 2 apples
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/4 cup dark raisins
Pastry Dough and Empanada Assembly
This is essentially a somewhat buttery pie crust. I always use a food processor, but if you choose to do it by hand, just use a pastry blender or two knives to cut the butter into the flour. If using a food processor, combine the flour and salt in the bowl of the processor fitted with a blade, and whirl it around a couple of times to distribute the salt.
Slice the butter into tablespoon pats, and add to the processor bowl all at once. Using PULSE, pulse it a few times to break up the butter. Check the mixture with a fork to see how small the butter pieces are – you want them the size of peas. If the flour starts to turn yellow, you’ve gone too far. It will taste fine, but you won’t get the flakey layers buttery crusts are so loved for.
Add the water and vinegar and pulse 10 – 12 times. Pinch the flour mixture together with your fingers. If it holds together in a dough, you’re ready for the next step. Otherwise add a little more water.
Dump the flour and butter mixture onto your workspace. It will look very dry and crumbly, not at all like a dough yet. With the heel of your hand, smear the mixture across your workspace a few times. This technique, known as fraisage, helps to create those wonderful flakey layers.
With your fingers, lightly mold the rest of the mixture into a ball of dough. If it’s too crumbly, add a little water and continue.
Divide the dough into 9 balls; mine were each 1 3/4 ounces, although it’s not critical that you weigh them for exactness.
Flatten the balls slightly to form disks. Slip them into a couple of ziplocks, or wrap in wax paper, and place in the refrigerator while you make the empanada filling.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F, or use the same oven that you use to roast the butternut squash for the Empanada Filling (below). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Roll out each disk on a lightly floured surface,
and spread with 2 tablespoons caramelized onion using a fork. Make sure to leave at least 1/2 inch border all the way around to allow for a good seal.
Heap a couple of tablespoons roasted butternut over half of the caramelized onions, creating a half-moon shape with the squash.
Place a little bundle of 1 tablespoon of the apples and raisins on top.
Using your hand or a bench scraper, lift the half of the dough circle NOT covered with butternut squash, and fold it gentle over the squash and apples forming a half circle.
Press all around the edges with your fingers, and trim with a knife or pizza wheel.
Press the tines of a fork all around the empanada on the pressed area to ensure a good seal.
Bake on the prepared baking sheet at 400 degrees F, on the center rack, for 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Slice the onions as thinly as possible along their lengths (from the root end to the spindly top).
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat, and pile the onions in, tossing them with a metal spoon to coat. They’ll sizzle, but don’t be tempted to move them around a lot, otherwise they don’t have an opportunity to caramelize. Every few minutes, use a large metal spoon to scoop up the onions and turn them over. Once you notice onions that are darkening, and caramelizing, around their edges, lower the heat to medium low. When the onions become quite dark, reduce the heat again to low. It will take 30 – 40 minutes for them to fully caramelize. Here’s a photo of them half way done on the left, and a bowl of them fully caramelized on the right for comparison.
Add the wine, balsamic vinegar, cinnamon, cardamom, and salt. Cook for another 5 minutes and set aside to cool.
While the onions are caramelizing, line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place the butternut squash cubes on it. Toss in enough olive oil to coat the pieces and sprinkle with the cayenne and paprika. Roast for 8 – 10 minutes or until soft. Set aside and allow to cool.
Peel and core the apple and dice. In a small pot, melt the butter and add the apple pieces and raisins. Sauté until the apple is tender, about 10 minutes. Set aside and allow to cool.