Monday, January 29, 2007
Let Them Eat Pies
It all started a few weeks ago when Margy and I were watching an episode of Good Eats where Alton Brown made a big bunch of sweet and savory pies. His dough was flexible and cooperative, and he noted that the sky's the limit in terms of fillings. Margy and I looked at each other and nodded slowly. Our next project.
I don't think Alton actually used the term empanada (though he did use the term Pop-Tarts, in the final, let's-make-all-natural-junk-food segment). But Margy and I were thinking empanadas all the way. I've always loved the idea of a self-contained meal that includes edible packaging. I was thrown from my course only briefly, when those vile Hot Pockets came along and crept quickly and insidiously into the school, the home, the workplace, and I couldn't look at anything that resembled one. But that didn't last long. My love for empanadas was never in jeopardy.
So it was settled. Saturday, I shopped; Sunday, we cooked.
Margy made the dough. She came up with a recipe online, after we couldn't find Alton's. The ingredients included vinegar, which surprised us. We vetted this with my sister the baker, though, and she said adding a bit of vinegar was a common practice, even if she'd never tried it herself. I think she wanted us to check it out so she could see if it was any good. We agreed.
This dough clearly wasn't as pliable as Alton's, but his seemed unnaturally soft. On TV, it behaved almost like warm, well-worked Play-Doh. Too bad we missed the beginning of the episode, which presumably included a scientifically illuminating explanation of why his dough was so easy to work with. But Margy's no novice, so she kneaded our golden butterball into shape in due time.
Meanwhile, I made the fillings. We were churning out a hefty batch of empanadas, with a good number destined for the freezer, so it seemed three varieties would be about right. Here's what I came up with:
* Shredded chipotle pork (a riff on the braised, vaguely Mexican pork butt I made last month)
* Chorizo, potato, shrimp, and vegetable (a combination that tumbled forth from my brain and somehow just seemed right)
* Spinach and mushroom (because we need our greens!)
It was all lots of fun. And a lot of work. The chorizo and potato empanadas felt particularly inspired, though Margy couldn't resist the pork ones. I bought the chorizo at the little gourmet cheese shop in town, and it made all the difference to have a real serious Spanish sausage rather than a timidly flavored, preservative-packed supermarket brand, which I admit I've tried a few times for convenience's sake. And I'm happy to report that, much like shrimp and bacon, shrimp and chorizo make a pretty cute couple.
This was also the most colorful filling (apologies for not cutting into one for the photo), with red half-moons of chorizo, white cubes of potato, orange circles of carrot, and flashes of pink from the chopped shrimp. Actually, the three varieties were a colorful set -- even the spinach and mushroom ones refused to be upstaged by their porkier counterparts and offered deep mushroom flavor (I used fresh baby bellas as well as dried porcini and morels) along with their deep green color.
Margy felt the dough rolled out a bit thick, but if that was the case it was just slightly thicker than would have been ideal. She handled the stuffing and folding, and she quickly learned to maximize the amount of filling without overstuffing. She pressed the edges of each empanada with the tines of a fork and brushed them all with egg wash (well, only the ones we were going to eat; the others we'd freeze uncooked). I created a system of coded air holes so we could tell which kind was which: three vertical holes for spinach-mushroom, three horizontal holes for chorizo-potato, and five holes for chipotle pork.
The empanadas baked for about 25 minutes in a 375-degree oven, and many hours after we'd begun, we were finally ready to dig in. I'd still like to try Alton's dough for the sake of comparison, but Margy picked a winner. The crust was crisp and flaky -- and tasty. I'm not sure how much impact the vinegar had, but I now consider it a worthy addition to crust for savory pies. Just not for Pop-Tarts.