Chilean Empanadas

Chilean Empanadas

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It wasn’t until the night before our wedding that my husband and I realized our paternal grandmothers had the same name. We knew they had the same love; the same strong arms for picking up their children, then their children’s children; the same make-it-work attitude of a bygone era; the same honored place as matriarch. But somehow we’d missed this introduction. It made me wonder how long it had been since I’d said her name.

As memory has a way of shortening behind us, I’ve kept only parts of her. Andes mints in her candy dish. Her smile that started in pink lipstick and went all the way up to her eyes. Her cat, Kitty Kitty Kitty, who went missing—gone somewhere to die alone, as it was explained to me early on. The way she’d let me hug her as long as I wanted. The way, as she got older, she’d say “right” to everything, with a laugh at the end. Grandma, are you hungry? “Right.” Where’s Kitty Kitty Kitty? “Right.” Is dad home? “Right.”

She looked more Hawaiian than anything—flat wide nose, brown eyes, wave in her hair—so I thought of her that way. But that was only half of her. Her Chilean part, I’ve found, is a mystery to me, reduced to names on a census and the tidbit that her Chilean father was a “cheft” in the navy, as my dad would say. In my mind’s eye, this branch of the family tree is lopped off, chopped into kindling. Smaller every generation, and quieter, but never gone.

Before it dissolves entirely, I learn to make empanadas.

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Like all the best dishes, it takes an afternoon. I boil the eggs, I cook the meat down, I make the dough, and finally, when I’m so hungry I might defect to a turkey burger, I form them into pockets and bake. The assembly reminds me of the Soparnik, the same rhythmic freedom to use hands instead of mind. I brush the tops with yolk, I watch them bake through the oven door. They come out full and golden, the crust buttery, the filling sweet and a little salty when you get to the olive. The egg is creamy, a foil for the savoriness of the meat. The raisins have plumped with juice.

I’m pleased with my work. I imagine the hands of yore making these—grandma’s grandma, or maybe before her. They stay piled on a plate in my fridge like an offering, a few less each day. I would’ve liked to make these for her, or with her, an afternoon snack while we watch Golden Girls together. Gram, are you a Rose or a Sophia? “Right.”

The following is the recipe I used, as found here.


Pino (Beef filling)
500 g (½ kg) lean beef (posta negra) connective tissue removed
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoon cumin seed
5–6 tablespoons oil
4 medium onions, finely chopped
2 teaspoons paprika dissolved in
¼ cup beef broth (60 cc)
3 tablespoons seedless white raisins soaked in
¼ cup beef broth (60 cc)
1 ¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon coarsely ground fresh pepper to taste
1 tablespoon flour
3 green or red chili peppers (optional)

12 black olives
3 hard boiled eggs, sliced in quarters

Pastry Dough
(This flaky, crisp dough is also excellent for double crust pies)

1 cup milk
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg
½ cup butter (115 gr)
½ cup shortening (115 gr)
5 ½ cups flour (370 gr)


Process meat into small cubes the size of peas. Add ground cumin and let stand half an hour. In a non-stick pan heat cumin seeds until they pop. Add oil and sauté the onions. Do not brown, but cook thoroughly (25 min). Add the meat to onion mixture. Add paprika mixture to meat, add salt and pepper and cook at low heat until meat loses its color.  Add soaked raisins with the broth. Add flour. Consistency should be saucy, but not soupy. Cool. If using chilies: divide filling in two and add chopped chilies to one of the halves.

In a small pan heat salt and milk to lukewarm. Remove from heat. Add egg, butter and shortening and stir till dissolved with a hand-held electric blender.

Mix into flour using your hands and work the dough until it is soft and easy to handle (not more than two or three minutes are necessary).  Make a long roll and divide into 12 egg-size pastry balls. (The last ball is smaller but you make up for it with the trimmings left over as you roll and cut the other ones).

Make one empanada at a time and place them directly on a non-greased oven tray. Roll each ball into a circle about 1/8 inch thick. With an inverted 8-inch cake pan trace the circle and cut a perfect round.

Place about ½ cup filling on the upper half of each pastry round. Stuff one olive into the filling and add one-quarter of egg. Moisten the rim of the pastry Fold the dough over the filling to make an empanada and press hard on the wet rim with your knuckles to make it stick. Tuck the rims straight to make a rectangle. If making some empanadas with chili, mold the curved edge of the pastry and flute to shape them into a triangle. Press hard at the corners with your thumbs and prick the top a single time with a toothpick for the steam to come out in the oven. Brush top with egg yolk mixture. Bake in preheated hot oven (400ºF/200ºC) for about 30 to 35 minutes or until nicely brown. Make sure dough is well cooked in between creases. Serve hot.

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