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.


E said...

I saw this episode a while back and had the same thought: I MUST make these soon!

Yours look lovely, and I'm stealing your shrimp/chorizo idea, sounds totally bangin'.


P.S. Here's Alton's Pocket Pie crust recipe if you want to give it another go:

9 1/2 ounces all-purpose flour, approximately 2 cups
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 1/2 ounces shortening, approximately 6 tablespoons
3/4 cup milk
1 egg mixed with 1 to 2 teaspoons water
Vegetable, canola oil or butter, for frying
Curried Mango Filling, recipe follows
Chocolate Filling, recipe follows

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Pulse for a few seconds and then pour into a large mixing bowl.
Add the shortening and knead it into the flour with your hands until it is crumbly. Add the milk all at once and mix in with a spatula until it begins to come together. Lightly flour your hands and the countertop and turn the dough out onto the countertop. Knead the dough ball, folding over 10 to 20 times. Using a rolling pin roll the dough to 1/3 to 1/2-inch thickness, then cut into rounds using a 2 1/4-inch ring. Roll each round as thinly as possible or to 5 to 6 inches in diameter. Spoon 1 to 2 tablespoons of filling onto the dough, brush the edges of half of the dough lightly with the egg wash, fold over and seal the edges together with the tines of a fork, dipping it into flour as needed. Gently press down to flatten and evenly distribute the filling and snip or cut 3 slits in the top of the pie. Dock pies that are going to be deep-fried, instead of snipping or cutting slits.

the cook said...

Nice, e! Thanks a bunch. I wonder if the shortening is the secret to AB's easy kneadin'. We shall see...

Good luck with your efforts. You'll dig the chorizo and shrimp combo.