Welcome the Holiday Season with Christmas Empanadas

This is the time of year that finds most people elbow-deep in sugar, butter, vanilla and sprinkles, baking sheet after sheet of Christmas cookies. Me? Not so much. Not that anything would surprise you at this point, but I find myself elbow-deep in something of a more savory nature. Olives, cumin, egg, and ... you guessed it: beef. This is the time of year I make empanadas. Christmas empanadas. OK, maybe it doesn’t have quite the alliterative ring to it that Christmas cookies does, but I don’t think anyone is in a position to quibble with a Christmas empanada.

A couple years ago I started the tradition of making empanadas for the night that we put up our Christmas tree. People get hung up on the fact that traditions should be, you know, traditional, but one of my secret and delightful discoveries of adulthood is that no one is going to stop you from starting a tradition anytime, anywhere. Sometimes traditions are simply born of a really good idea – like Saturday morning cartoons or a glass of wine while you cook. Empanadas on tree trimming night is, without a doubt, one of my best ideas ever. They are portable, yummy, filling and festive, requiring nothing more than a cocktail napkin to eat. And did I mention empanadas go great with a nice Malbec? And did I mention that a nice Malbec goes great with Christmas lights and a roaring fire?

Say it with me, people. CHRISTMAS EMPANADAS!

Now, the recipe I am going to share with you is my mother’s recipe. Not only that, it is a recipe for empanadas that taste like they are from Catamarca, a province in northwestern Argentina. In other parts of the country, the empanada is sweeter, has different dough, and different variations in the filling. If you can imagine the hot-blooded regional feuds over chili and barbeque in the U.S., you can quadruple that when it comes to the empanada because with the empanada you’ve got the “Mama” involved. Everyone’s Mama makes the best empanada and Argentine men all over the land have learned to shut-up about it because empanadas are a lot of work. In other words, you best be praising the one you are eating, and not some mythical empanada from your youth. I feel a little guilty influencing Simple, Good, and Tasty readers toward la empanada Catamarceña, but since they’re the best -- and my Mama’s are the best -- I guess I can live with it.

Christmas Empanadas a.k.a. Chuchi’s Empanadas: Makes enough for 36 empanadas (which, since you are going to the trouble, you want to do because they freeze beautifully).

For the dough:

You can make homemade dough with this recipe or do what most Argentines do today, and buy ready made discs. Truly, they are just as good and a lot less work. I find mine at Cosecha Imports at the Midtown Global Market, but most Mexican or Middle Eastern markets will sell the frozen “tapas para empanadas.” La Salteña is a great brand and the “Criollas” type are more akin to a calzone dough whereas the “Hojaldradas” are flakier. My mom prefers the former and I prefer the latter, which I keep to myself when I’m eating her empanadas, of course. Empanadas can be fried or baked, but I have only baked them since I have a deep-seated phobia of vats of oil and have recurring visions of slipping on a banana peel in my kitchen and falling in head first. 

For the filling:

4 pounds ground grass-fed beef (be careful not to buy something too lean. These need some fat for moisture. My mother buys a piece of sirloin and asks the butcher to grind it, leaving the fat on)

3 large onions chopped finely

3 bunches of scallions chopped finely (the pile of raw onions and scallions should be about the same size as the pile of the meat. It looks like a lot, but it cooks down)

3 Tbsp lard, Crisco, or vegetable oil

1 cup beef broth

5 Tbsp Paprika

3 Tbsp Cumin

2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

2 Tbsp tomato paste

salt to taste

1 cup of coarsely chopped green olives (with the pimentos)

3-4 coarsely chopped hardboiled eggs

1 large boiled potato chopped into small cubes

Scant handful of raisins (I say scant because I HATE raisins. Everyone else thinks they are delightful in the empanada, adding a surprising hint of sweetness. While I agree with this in theory, I still HATE raisins. My mom soaks them in warm water so they plump up before mixing them in, so they don’t dry out the empanada.)

Sautee the onions and scallions until translucent in the lard, Crisco, or oil. Add the beef and cook through, adding the spices, broth, and tomato paste as you go.

When the filling has cooled, add the olives, hardboiled eggs, potato, and raisins and mix gently.

Wet the outer rim of the dough disc with a finger dipped in water. Place a large spoonful of filling in the middle and crimp the edges shut.

Butter and flour a cookie sheet or use a sheet of non-stick foil. Cook at 400 degrees until golden, flipping once.

If you want to freeze them, let them harden for a bit on a plate in the freezer before putting them into a Ziploc bag or Tupperware, so they don’t stick together.

These should be eaten piping hot with a cocktail napkin, standing up and surrounded by people you love.

Felices Fiestas, my friends. May your holidays be merry and bright.


Gabriela Lambert is a frequent contributor to Simple, Good and Tasty. You can also read more of her writing on her blog