What to do with leftover masa harina: make empanadas

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baked empanada

My empanadas may not be pretty, but they are damn tasty. You can make yours in perfect circles with little crimped edges, if that sort of thing is important to you.

While most Cinco de Mayo recipe buzz seems to revolve around tequila and avocados, the better representative of Mexican cuisine is corn, and its best form is masa harina.

Masa harina is one of my favorite ingredients. It looks like extra-fine cornmeal, but behaves very differently in cooking: where corn meal forms a porridgy mixture, masa harina forms a smooth dough. The secret is nixtamalization — the same process used to make hominy or grits. For masa harina, corn is cooked in an alkaline solution (usually slaked lime or wood ash), then ground, dried, and powdered. The process removes the hulls, softens the grain, makes nutrients like niacin more easily digestible, and enables the starches and proteins to bind together into a workable dough.

Empanada dough with pastry blender

Empanada dough comes together just like a standard pastry crust, but more forgiving.

Ball of empanada pastry dough

Rolled empanada dough

These empanadas have a crispy, hearty pastry crust made with a combination of masa harina and flour. They’re baked, not fried, which makes them a) a bit more healthy (there’s still fat in the pastry crust, and that is totally fine by me), and b) a lot simpler and less messy to make. Assembly is easy: grab a hunk of dough, roll it into a circle, add a dollop of filling, then fold and pinch the edges. Best of all, you can make a big batch, freeze them, and then bake off a small batch whenever you feel like it.

Fillings are limited to your imagination (or, lacking that, the reach of your favorite search engine). Savory or sweet, meaty or vegan, spicy or somewhat less spicy — it’s up to you. As long as the fillings aren’t too wet, you can use just about anything you like.

Roasted pumpkin

I say “roasted pumpkin” but I mean “or kabocha squash, or kuri squash, or whatever kind of winter squash you like.”

Empanada dough topped with pumpkin and black bean filling

Empanada uncooked

Ready for the oven. You can brush them with egg if you want a darker crust; I’m far too lazy.

This weekend, I made three kinds of vegetarian empanadas: roasted corn and tomato, potato and cheese, and black bean and pumpkin. A lot of the ingredients overlap, so I just set out three big bowls and assembled all three fillings at once. (You could also set the ingredients out separately and let people make each empanada unique.)

You need to chill the dough and fillings before assembly or the hot fillings will melt the butter or lard in the crust and your empanadas will be soggy and sad. Other than that, putting the empanadas together goes quickly, especially if you skip the effort of roasting your own pumpkin and just toss a bunch of leftovers together with some spicy sauce and cheese.

See the picture above? I actually tossed those together for dinner with zero previous planning — blended the dough, then while it was chilling went through the fridge and pulled out leftover roasted squash, frozen beans, unlabeled cheese, plus some spices. Mix ‘em together, roll out the dough, slap ‘em together, and into the oven. Dinner.

Frozen homemade empanadas

If you have time, make a big batch, freeze the uncooked empanadas, then bake off a few whenever you want.

Pumpkin and black bean empanadas

Serves 6
Prep time 1 hour, 30 minutes
Cook time 20 minutes
Total time 1 hour, 50 minutes
Allergy Egg, Wheat
Dietary Vegetarian
Meal type Appetizer, Lunch, Side Dish, Snack
Misc Child Friendly, Freezable, Pre-preparable
Website Out of the Ordinary
These empanadas have a crispy, hearty pastry crust made with masa harina. They're baked, not fried, which makes them a) a bit more healthy (there's still fat in the pastry crust, which is totally fine by me), and b) a lot simpler and less messy to make. Best of all, you can make a big batch, freeze them, and then bake off a small batch whenever you feel like it.

Ingredients

Crust

  • 1 cup masa harina
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 pinch ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup butter or lard
  • 3/4 cups ice water

Filling

  • 1 1/2 cup pumpkin puree (or 1 small pumpkin or winter squash)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 1/2 cup black beans (cooked (or 1 can black beans, drained))
  • 1 shallot (minced)
  • 1 clove garlic (minced)
  • 8 fresh sage leaves (chopped (or 1 tsp dried))
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 cup grated cheese (jack, manchego, or cheddar)

Note

To freeze and bake later, put the assembled and unbaked empanadas on a baking sheet in the freezer. Once they're frozen, move them to zip-lock plastic bags. Do not defrost before baking.

Directions

Make the crust:
Step 1
Mix the masa harina, flour, salt, cayenne, and pepper.
Using a pastry blender, food processor, or two knives, cut the butter or lard into the dry ingredients until the pieces are pea-sized or smaller and the mixture is crumbly. To make this easier, freeze the butter or lard, and grate it into the dry mixture, then mix it with a fork or your fingers.
Step 2
Sprinkle 1/2 cup of ice water over the dough and gently work it in, being careful not to overmix. Add more ice water if needed — it may take up to 1 cup. Knead the dough for about a minute, then gather into a ball, wrap in plastic, and put in the refrigerator to chill for 1/2 hour.
Make the filling:
Step 3
If you are starting with a whole pumpkin (or other winter squash), you need to roast it first. Cut it in half, scoop out the seeds, and put it on a baking sheet, cut side down. Roast it at 425 until it is soft when you poke it. Depending on the size of your squash, this could take 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours. Let it cool, then scoop out the flesh and smash it up. It doesn't need to be completely smooth: I like to leave a little texture.
Step 4
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the chopped shallot, and stir until golden. Add the garlic and cook for about another minute, being careful not to let it brown too much. (Burnt garlic will ruin everything. If it burns, wipe out the pan and start over.)
Add the black beans, pumpkin puree, and ground or chopped sage. Cook for 5-10 minutes until the mixture is fairly dry. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes, then stir in the grated cheese.
Assemble the empanadas:
Step 5
Pre-heat the oven to 425.
Step 6
Some people roll out the dough punch out circles, cookie-cutter style. My trouble with this method is that when you smush the scraps back together and re-roll them, your dough gets tougher and your empanadas are a little less tender and flakey.
I just grab a small hunk of dough, roll it into a ball about 2" across, and then use a rolling pin to roll it out to around 1/4" thick. Flour your surface just enough to keep the dough from sticking.
Step 7
Drop a tablespoon or two of filling onto each dough circle, making sure it doesn't touch the edges. Dip your finger in water (or use a pastry brush, if that's how you roll) and wet the edges of the dough. Fold the dough over to make a half-circle, and pinch the edges together to seal it. You can crimp the edges with a fork, or fold them over into a little decorative ripple, or just pinch and smoosh with your fingers. Stab a few air holes into the top with a fork. (I stab different patterns so I know what kind of filling each has: a T shape for poTato, a < (that's a pointy C made from two fork-marks) for corn, and a triangle for pumpkin.)
Bake:
Step 8
To bake the empanadas, place them on a baking sheet (some people say to grease it, I don't bother) and bake at 425 for 20-30 minutes, until they're toasty and golden.
They're best eaten straight out of the oven. If you reheat them in the microwave, the crust can get kind of soggy. A toaster oven is a better bet. (And I didn't tell you this, but if they're fairly flat, well-sealed, and the crimped edges aren't too delicate, you can actually put them in a regular toaster.)