Earlier this week I taught a class featuring recipes that use produce available during late spring and early summer at the farmers' market—lettuces, spinach, spring onions, new potatoes, summer squash, young root vegetables and blueberries. There were of course other things I could have included ...the market is truly exploding with variety right now.
One of the recipes was for an entrée-sized spinach empanada. Empanadas are savory turnovers. Many different cuisines have traditional empanadas—Spain, Portugal, Argentina, to name a very few. The shape, fillings and type of dough used will vary from country to country. I am most familiar with empanadas of Spanish origin that utilize either a short crust pastry (like pie dough) or a yeast dough (like pizza dough).
As I prepared the small tasting-sized empanadas for my class, I was reminded of what was probably my first "on the job" lesson in the pastry kitchen at The American Restaurant. One of the first tasks I was given was to roll out and blind bake individual tart shells. While I rolled out the empanada dough the other day, it occurred to me that my first lesson contained valuable information that I could pass along on my blog.
If you work with pastry—pie dough, pâte brisée, etc.—very much, you are aware that one of the secrets to light, flaky pastry is minimal handling of the dough. If the dough is handled excessively, too much gluten will be developed. Gluten is a protein that is formed when two proteins that are present in wheat flour come into contact with a liquid via a mechanical action (mixing, kneading, rolling out, etc.). The more gluten that is developed, the stronger the dough. Gluten development is necessary for yeast doughs. Some gluten is needed for pastry—there should be just enough gluten to keep a pastry shell from falling apart when filled, for example. But typically, this is not discussed since it's almost impossible to mix up the dough without developing some gluten. The problem one usually hears about is the tough or hard pastries that are produced when a dough has been over-handled.
Most pie dough/crust recipes direct you to make the dough and roll it once. It is a generally understood that the scraps or trimmings should not be "re-rolled". This is fine if you are making a large pie and are making just the right amount of dough to roll and use (with just a few trimmings left over to bake with cinnamon-sugar for a snack!). It also is not a problem if you are making a few large empanadas or turnovers because you can cut the dough into the number of pieces you need and roll each out. In either case, very little waste, in the form of scraps of dough, results.
But what if you need to roll out small tart shells, or--as I did for my class--small cutouts of dough for empanadas? In these situations you will produce lots of trimmings, or scraps. For a pastry shop or restaurant, if all of these trimmings were discarded, the waste and therefore the cost, would be large. The trick of course is not only to not waste them, but to somehow use them to good effect.
Dough that has never been rolled out before is referred to as Virgin Dough. If well made, it is light, flaky and tender. As I mentioned earlier, it can also be somewhat fragile. Because of gluten development, dough that has already been rolled out once is not so tender and flaky—but, it is no longer fragile. So, if you take a small amount of dough that has been rolled out once and combine it with a larger amount of virgin dough, you get the best of both worlds: tender flakes with a little bit of underlying strength to keep your pastries from falling apart. You have also solved the problem of having a large amount of waste.
In a professional pastry kitchen, each time dough is rolled out the scraps are gathered together and chilled. Then when the next batch of crusts are rolled out, some of this scrap dough is rolled out with some virgin dough. You would never use scrap dough by itself—and frankly, in a working kitchen it would be the rare occasion when virgin dough alone would be used. In practice, each time dough is rolled out, it is probably made up of about a quarter to a third scrap dough.
So at home, if you are making small empanadas (or mini tartlets, or fruit turnovers) for a crowd, begin by rolling out a small, manageable portion of your virgin dough. Cut out the dough,
gather the scraps and set them aside with the remainder of your fresh dough (in the refrigerator if your room is warm).
Form the first batch of empanadas.
Scrape any bits of dough or filling off of your work surface. Take another manageable piece of virgin dough (smaller than the first since you now have scrap dough to add) and press the scraps neatly onto the dough.
Roll out this new piece of dough. Repeat the entire process until all of your filling is used. There will always be some scrap dough that you end up throwing away (or freezing—make sure it is labeled as "scrap") because your collection of scraps will grow as you work and you never want the dough you are rolling to be mostly scrap.
In a home setting, knowing how to make use of your scraps of dough is a nice convenience. In a professional setting, learning how to use up and make money off of "waste" (scrap dough, excess egg whites, etc.) can keep your business in the black. I heard Martha Stewart say one time that a pastry shop that is using all of its egg whites is probably making money. I don't know if this is always true—there are many things that go into running successful businesses—but surely a business that is making efficient use of their raw materials has a big head start.
The spinach empanadas—loaded with leeks, mushrooms and goat cheese—make a satisfying and filling entrée. If you are feeling industrious, make a large batch and freeze some. They take only 5 or 10 minutes longer to bake from frozen and make a luxurious and nourishing dinner at the end of a busy day.
They also make a great appetizer for a party. Like the large ones, the miniature ones freeze beautifully. You can make a big batch, freeze them, and then have hot fresh hors d'oeuvres inside of 20 minutes for your next impromptu gathering of friends.
Spinach & Goat Cheese Empanadas
1 recipe Short Crust Pastry
2 T. unsalted butter
1 large or 2 small leeks, white & pale green parts only, halved and sliced cross-wise 1/4-inch thick (about 2 cups leeks)
3 or 4 spring onions, including a few inches of the green, trimmed and sliced (about 2/3 cup)
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 oz. bacon, cut cross-wise 1/4-inch thick
8 oz. white or brown mushrooms, halved and thinly sliced
10 oz. stemmed spinach, washed (Cook the spinach in the water clinging to the leaves in a covered pan. When the leaves have wilted, remove from the heat and cool. Squeeze out the excess liquid and roughly chop.)
1/4 c. toasted pine nuts
4 oz. goat cheese (soft or aged—as you prefer), crumbled
1 egg beaten with 1 T. water to make egg wash
Roll each round of dough into a thin round and trim to make a 7- or 8-inch round. Place the finished rounds on a parchment lined baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap and chill until ready to use.
Melt the butter in a medium-sized sauté pan with a lid (you may use the same pan in which the spinach was cooked). Add the leeks, spring onions and garlic and a generous pinch of salt. Toss to coat the leeks and spring onions in the butter. Cover and reduce the heat and cook until the leeks are tender—10 to 15 minutes. Let cool.
While the leeks cook, render the bacon over medium or medium-low heat until crisp. Transfer the bacon to paper towels. Drain all but 2 T. of fat from the pan. Increase the heat to medium high. When the pan is hot, add the mushrooms and cook until tender and browned. Season with salt and pepper and set aside to cool.
In a large bowl, combine the cooked leek mixture, bacon, mushrooms, spinach, pine nuts and goat cheese. Season to taste with salt & pepper.
Spread the rounds of dough on the work surface. Place a fourth (or sixth) of the filling on one side of each round of dough in an even thickness, leaving a one inch border. Brush the edges with egg wash, fold the dough over and seal—you may do this with a fork, or fold the edges over and crimp. Spread the empanadas on a parchment lined baking sheet and brush them with the egg wash. With a sharp knife, cut 2 or 3 vents in the top of each empanada.
Transfer to a 400° oven and bake until golden brown and crisp and a few bubbles are visible at the steam vents—about 20 to 25 minutes. Makes 4 large or 6 medium empanadas.
Empanadas freeze very well. Spread on baking sheets and freeze. When they are hard, transfer to freezer containers or freezer bags. Bake them from frozen. If you prefer, they may also be baked and then frozen. Thaw, spread on baking sheets, in a moderate oven.
To make miniature-sized Empanadillas:
Prepare 1 1/2 times the dough recipe and form into one large disc for chilling. When ready to make the empanadas, roll out 1/4 to 1/3 of the dough on lightly floured surface to 1/8-inch thickness. Cut dough into 3-inch rounds. Place 1 rounded tablespoon of filling in the center of each round. Paint edges with egg, fold dough over filling and pinch to seal. Gather the scraps and combine them with the next piece of fresh dough, rolling out and cutting as before. Continue to roll out and cut in this manner, always incorporating some of the scraps into the fresh dough. When done, spread the empanadas on parchment lined baking sheets and brush with more egg wash. Bake at 450° until golden brown—about 12 to 15 minutes. You should have enough filling and dough for 36 small turnovers.
Variations & Substitutions: Variations abound. Use Manchego, Gruyère or Feta Cheese. Omit the bacon and mushrooms and add olives or raisins. Add some fresh herbs. Replace the leeks and spring onions with caramelized onions. Omit the pine nuts.
Short Crust Pastry for Empanadas
1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour (200g)
1/2 t. salt
11 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces (150g)
1/4 to 1/3 c. ice water
Combine the flour and the salt in a medium-sized bowl. Rub the butter into the flour until the butter is in small pea-sized pieces. Drizzle 4 T. ice water over the flour/butter mixture. Using your hands, fluff the mixture until it begins to clump, adding more water if necessary. Turn the dough out onto a counter and form into a mound. Using the heel of your hand, gradually push all of the dough away from you in short forward strokes, flattening out the lumps. Continue until all of the dough is flat. Using a bench scraper, scrape the dough off the counter, forming it into a single clump as you do. Divide the dough into 4 or 6 pieces and press each out into a disk. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes.