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What Is an Empanada?

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  • Written By: T. Alaine
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 26 August 2016
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An empanada is the Latin American version of the handheld, pie-like dishes that are found in multiple cuisines all over the world. Different variations abound, but an empanada always consists of either a savory or sweet filling enclosed in a half-moon shaped, crimped pastry crust. The filling of choice is simply enclosed in crust dough and then baked or fried before serving. Empanadas can be small to be eaten as appetizers, snacks or desserts, or they can be larger and heartier for main courses.

Many worldwide cuisines feature dishes similar to the empanada, including Italian calzones, Indian samosas and European dumplings. Just like these other dishes, empanadas have great potential for different fillings stuffed inside a dough crust. In fact, the name "empanada" is derived from the Spanish verb empanar, which means "to wrap in bread." Different countries, cities and families have their own traditional recipes for empanada, so it is almost guaranteed to find a version for every taste.

The dough for most empanadas, regardless of the fillings they contain, usually is very simple and made from flour, lard, eggs and water. This recipe results in a dough that is somewhat neutral in flavor, making it versatile enough to pair with several possible flavors of filling. After the dough is mixed, it is rolled out into thin circles and is ready to be filled.

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Empanadas for a main course or appetizer often contain some kind of meat, such as beef, chicken or pork. The meat can be mixed with herbs, spices, vegetables and cheese to create a delicious savory filling. Vegetarian versions also are possible and might feature bulkier vegetables such as potatoes to add some heartiness. Generally, all the ingredients are cooked together to blend the flavors and create a cohesive stuffing for the pastry.

Dessert empanadas use the same crust as the savory versions. It is quite common for these sweet pastries to be filled with fruit mixtures. The resulting dessert is somewhat similar to turnovers or miniature pies.

Constructing an empanada is fairly simple and, if done correctly, creates a neat, easy-to-eat, handheld meal or snack. Filling is spooned onto one half of the thin circles of dough. The other half of the dough is folded over the top of the filling, creating a half-moon shaped package.

To keep the filling safely secured inside, the edges of the dough are crimped together, sealing in all the stuffing. Empanadas usually are baked but also can be fried in oil to produce a crispy, brown crust. When the empanadas are finished cooking, they usually are wrapped in paper and eaten by hand.

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