You may be looking at these little treats and think, OH! Empanadas! But they are not empanadas they are pastelillos (pas-te-lee-joes). Take that confused look off your face and allow me to explain. In Puerto Rico what you may call empanadas we call empanadillas because empanadas commonly reference something that is breaded and fried, think chicken fried steak. So, what is the difference between empanadillas and pastelillos? If you ever visit Puerto Rico and ask for a pastelillos, you will get a small turnover made with a thin dough, crimped edge and fried. Empanadillas are a large turnover with a thicker dough, rolled edge and fried. A pastelillo is a snack, and an empanadilla is lunch.
When I was in college I road several pisicorre (passenger van buses) to get from my home in the country to my school in the city. It was a long voyage to get to and from school. Right next to the bus terminal was a little joint that sold pastelillos and cold malta. Every day, on my way back home I would buy myself one of each to eat on the walk home. Pastelillos and malta sustained me during most of the years in high school and college.
Now that we have the difference between an empanadilla and pastelillos covered let’s have a chat about how to make these amazing little meat-filled turnovers. The dough is very similar to a pasta dough. In fact, I use a KitchenAid pasta dough attachment to roll the dough for empanadillas. It works perfectly! And, if you can get your hands on an empanada press it’s even easier. If the idea of making dough is a little too daunting, you can use Goya discos found in the specialty or Latin food freezer section. Today the pastelillos you find at roadside kiosks are filled with a simple meat filling, but the benefit of making them at home is you can fill them with all kinds of goodies. The filling is made of ground beef, potatoes, olives, raisins and a savory sauce. It’s a very filling and satisfying filling.
Let’s talk frying for a minute. I’ll be honest; Puerto Ricans want to fry all the foods, but frying can be a pain. Then I got my hands on a Waring Deep Fryer and now frying is a snap, which is dangerous… very dangerous! Fry all the foods!! Having a countertop deep fryer makes all the difference! I love this fryer because it self-regulates the heat, has a built in timer and is big enough to fry generous batches without having to overcrowd the basket. If you don’t have a deep fryer, you can also use a dutch oven or large skillet. If you choose to use a skillet pick a skillet with a heavy bottom that evenly distributes heat. Nonstick skillets are great because they are easy to clean out and don’t form that sticky oil buildup. My favorite kind of skillet to use for frying is a cast iron skillet.
Pastelillos can be filled with all kinds of wonderful and delicious foods. The most popular ones found around schools are pizza that is just cheese and tomato sauce. If you are traveling along the coast of Puerto Rico, you’ll find crab filled pastelillos, and they can even make a wonderful dessert when filled with guava and cream cheese.
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large onion, small diced
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- ¼ cup chopped recao/culantro or cilantro
- 1 pound ground 80/20 beef
- 1 tablespoon dry adobo
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 potatoes, diced
- 10 pimiento stuffed olives, cut in half
- 2 bay leaves
- ½ cup raisins (optional)
- ½ cup water
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 3½ cups of flour
- 2 teaspoons of baking powder
- 2½ tsp of salt
- ¼ cup vegetable shortening
- 1 egg, slightly beaten
- ¾ cup of water
- vegetable oil for frying
- Heat skillet at med-high, drizzle with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Sauté onions, garlic, and recao/culantro (or cilantro) until onions are translucent.
- Drizzle beef with a tablespoon of olive oil and season with dry adobo and salt. Add beef, potatoes, olives, bay leaves, raisins (if using), water, and tomato paste to the skillet, stir until well combined. Raise heat to bring to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer cover and let cook for 15 minutes. Uncover and let simmer for another 15 minutes or until sauce thickens. Set aside.
- Sift flour, baking powder and salt into a large bowl.
- Add flour and shortening in a large bowl. Using a pastry cutter or fork cut the shortening into the flour. Add the egg and mix using a fork.
- Add the water a little at a time, mixing with a fork. When done mixing the dough will be brittle, or in pieces.
- Dust a work surface with flour, turn the dough out on the work surface. Press the dough together into a rough ball. Knead the dough using your palm, as if you were washing clothes on an old washboard. Knead until the dough is soft and smooth. Form into a ball, cover with a plastic wrap and let it rest for 30 minutes.
- Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Roll dough out into a rope about 15 inches long. (I roll, pull and squeeze) Once rolled out cut off disks about ¾ of an inch think. Dust your rolling pin and workspace and roll out into a ⅛ thin circle. If you have a pasta roller, you can use it to roll out the dough rounds. Lay dough rounds on prepared sheet pan and cover with a clean kitchen towel. If you need to layer, the rounds place a piece of parchment between the layers.
- Take a round of dough and place 1 spoonful of filling in the center. Be careful not to get any food along the edges or it will not seal properly. Using the tip of your fingers wet the edges of the dough with water. Fold over to make a half-moon. Pinch the dough together using your fingers, then go over it, pressing it with the teeth of a fork. Return to sheet pan and cover. Repeat with remaining rounds and filling.
- Line a large plate with paper towels. Heat 1½ inches of oil to 350 degrees in a large deep skillet. Working in batches, carefully place turnovers into the oil. They should almost immediately begin to puff and float, cook on each side about 2 minutes, or until golden brown and crispy.
- Transfer to a plate to drain and let cool.