Where Christmas Eve was appropriated with chicken soup (and surely Mary would have supped some of the good stuff before birthing her infant, Jesus), my mother marks Christmas Day with a gargantuan kosher turkey and all the trimmings, as any self-respecting, assimilated Jewish Nana would. This year, I’m ashamed to say, my favourite part of the meal were the pigs (or rather cows) without blankets: a platter of heavily salted, kosher beef cocktail sausages that, when dipped in Nana’s deeply-spiced bread sauce, I seemed to snort up like a rabid stock broker on a trip to Bogotá.
The meal – as with all meals that followed that week at my mother’s house – was brought to a coma-inducing close by an enormous bowl of Christmas pudding, courtesy of the commercial copulation of Waitrose and Heston Blumenthal. Thankfully, I had been prepared – my mother had announced this to me in the late summer when she purchased ten of these puddings from said supermarket as, she explained, they had sold out the previous year before she could buy one. (Or one hundred.) And so I broke my vow to never eat sugar or dairy for the one week of the year where, frankly, I’d have had to go into protective custody to escape the stalking sugar-coatedness of the final throes of the festive season.
So, all-in-all, I spent most of the last week of 2012 at my mother’s house doing a great deal of face-stuffing, and very little moving. This meant that on our return home, and during the first week of the new year, I could be seen hauling myself away from The Mother-in-Law’s kitchen, panting and salivating and eye-balling the biscuit tin, with a deranged toddler clinging to my leg doing much the same as her mother and mouthing, “eyescreeeeem, beeeesciiit, lollllipopppp”. It was time for the family to do away with the microwaveable desserts.
Therefore, in the vain hope that I would enliven our palettes with something fresh and relatively healthful, I decided to cook up a dish of empanadillas.
Empanadillas are simply delicious, crescent-shaped little pies that are traditionally filled with fish or meat and a base of tomato, garlic and onion sauce. Hailing from medieval Spain (and before that probably coming from the east via the Indian samosa), the empanada is the people’s snack of much of Southern Europe and Latin America. Its name derives from the Spanish verb empanar ~ to coat in bread (I love the Spanish. But then I’d love anyone who had a verb for coating in bread), and it disguises itself across the world going by pseudonyms like cornish pasty, borek, kibbeh, roti, knish, stromboli and calzone. But the basis is much the same: something scrummy wrapped in bread.
This recipe for empanadillas is borrowed and bent from Claudia Roden’s magnificent new tome, ‘The Food of Spain‘. I am eternally in awe of Claudia Roden and her service to food. My recipe differs in that I use tinned mackerel (instead of tinned tuna) with the addition of smoked paprika to make use of an incredibly underrated fish and a superb, traditional Spanish spice to enhance the flavours of the sauce and vegetables. I also use spelt flour (or farro, as it is known in Italy where it is traditionally used to make pizza bases) instead of plain flour, as it’s more nutritious than plain wheat flour (higher in protein, fibre and vitamins and minerals) and has a slightly nutty taste that adds depth to the rich olive oil pastry.
Mackerel is a star both in terms of taste and for its sustainability status. Its rich, earthy flavour holds its own against acid-tomato sauces (especially this one flavoured with smoked paprika and olives) and, compared to tuna and salmon (which are hugely over-fished species mostly caught in dubious, polluting and damaging ways), it is low in the food chain, fast growing, sustainably-caught and incredibly good for you (you know, full of those essential omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA). I use tinned mackerel (in olive oil, if you’re asking) for this recipe because, well, it’s so darn good and very affordable.
Like ordinary paprika, smoked paprika is made from the ground, dried fruits of sweet (or chilli) red peppers. However, it is then smoked over oak fires to create its supremely deep flavour and scent, typical of the Western region of Extremadura in Spain where it has been produced since the 1500s.
These empanadillas are relatively easy to make and are perfect warm from the oven or cold as a snack.
125ml olive oil, plus extra for greasing
125ml warm water
1/2 teaspoon salt
375g spelt flour
2 egg yolks, beaten
1 red pepper
2 tablespoons of sweetcorn (either tinned or cooked from frozen)
1/2 red onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
2 tablespoons of olive oil
250g tomatoes, peeled and chopped
125g tinned mackerel, drained and flaked between your fingers
A handful of black and/or green olives, stones removed and chopped into pieces
2 tablespoons of chopped coriander and/or parsley
Sea salt and cracked black pepper
Makes around 20 empanadillas
Preheat your oven to 350°F / 180°C / gas mark 4.
Make the pastry by mixing the oil, water and salt in a bowl with a fork. Slowly add the flour, initially mixing with the fork to make a soft, pliable dough. Then continue to work the pastry using your hands, before kneading briefly. The dough should be nice and smooth.
You can use the dough straight away or keep it, according to Claudia Roden, wrapped in cling film and at room temperature (not in a fridge) for as long as a day.
Now make the filling. Grill (or char over a naked gas flame) the red pepper, turning every five minutes or so, until it is blackened and soft, and so that the skin may be peeled off. Remove and discard the seeds, and chop the soft pepper into small cubes.
Next heat a large frying pan and cook the onion in the olive oil over a low heat, stirring regularly, until it is soft and translucent. Add the garlic, smoked paprika and chopped tomatoes, and turn the heat up a bit, cooking this mixture until the liquid has evaporated and you are left with a thick sauce. (This will take around 10 minutes.) Now add the mackerel, olives, sweetcorn, chopped parsley/coriander, and season with salt and pepper. Stir together well and remove from the heat to cool.
Now make the empanadillas. Divide your pastry dough into 4 pieces and do the following steps one batch at a time:
Roll each piece out thinly. You will not need to flour the surface as the dough is very oily and will not stick. Using a 10cm round pastry cutter, cut out circles of dough, making sure to reuse offcuts by rolling them back into balls, rolling them out thinly with the pin and cutting more rounds. The dough is quite elastic so gently roll the pastry circles a little if you feel they have snapped back a bit and become too small, not worrying if the circle becomes a little malformed!
Brush the edge of each circle with the beaten egg yolk (you can just use your finger for this) and – I find picking up the round of pastry and doing the next step in the palm of my hand is easiest – put a generous dollop of filling into the middle before folding the circle in half to make a half-moon shaped pie. Nip the edges together using your fingers, and then press down along the edge with a fork so that the pie has little pronged marks undulating their way around. Do this until you have used up the pastry and filling.
Finally place the empanadillas on a baking sheet lined with lightly oiled tin foil, and brush the tops of each pie with the remaining egg yolk mixed with a little water. Bake in the oven for around 30 minutes or until golden.