Empanadas: A Terrific Meal or Appetizer

National Empanada Day is April 8.

Have you ever heard of empanadas? Even if you're not familiar with the term, if you live somewhere in the American Southwest, you've probably eaten one and not even known it!

In Spanish, the word empanar means "to bread" or coat with breadcrumbs. These half-moon shaped pastries can be made in different sizes, from the larger version referred to as an empanada, to an appetizer-size called an empanadita. They're a lot like the fried pies that you may have found in your lunch box during your schooldays. However, empanadas are more versatile. You can make both savory and sweet ones, depending on the filling you use. They can be cooked in two ways: by baking or frying.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. This is the story of how necessity introduced me to the empanada.

When I was in high school in San Antonio, my friends and I used to eat out a lot. Our favorite Tex-Mex eatery was a place on San Pedro Avenue called Teka Molino. It wasn't fancy, but the food was wonderful. Everything was made from scratch – even their masa. When you placed your order at the front counter, you could watch several women prepare your food. Whatever you ordered, you couldn't go wrong. I loved the bean rolls, which were corn tortillas rolled around a refried bean filling. Those beans were so addictive that after I moved to Dallas and went back on visits, I would always stop by Teka Molino and get some bean rolls.

With gasoline prices so high, added to the fact that it's a long drive from Dallas to San Antonio (and I'm not getting any younger), my visits became less frequent. I still craved those refried beans, though, and that craving increased to the point where I was determined to make some myself.

For my first effort, I used canned pinto beans instead of cooking them from scratch. I wanted instant gratification -- no waiting for beans to soak. With my large skillet at hand, I debated whether to use corn oil or canola, which is normally my cooking oil of choice. I chose the corn oil, warming about 1/3 cup in the skillet over medium heat.

Next, I added 1 minced garlic clove and about 1/3 cup of finely chopped white onion (if you like onion, you might want to use more, so experiment) and cooked them until they were soft, stirring frequently. Then, I added the beans with their liquid. Adding 1 cup at a time makes it easier to mash them. The back of a big wooden spoon works well. Gradually, I mashed the rest of the pinto beans (not totally mashed; I like mine a bit chunky). In all, I used 3 cups of canned beans. Cook about 10 minutes if you like your refried beans smooth, but still moist. I prefer mine a bit drier and crusty, so I cook them a little longer.

Well, the result was good, but if I entered it in a contest against Teka Molino's refried beans, I would lose. Something was missing. Thinking back, I remembered that their beans had a delicious, slightly smoky taste. I consulted several cookbooks and found the missing ingredient: bacon drippings. So, after frying enough bacon to render 1/3 cup of drippings, I tried again. Success! I may not have duplicated Teka Molina's recipe exactly, but it was close enough for me.

Back to empanadas. On one of my visits to Teka Molino's, I decided to buy a larger amount of the refried beans to take back to Dallas. While paging through a Tex-Mex cookbook, I discovered empanadas and decided to use the refried beans for the filling. It was a marriage made in heaven.

As I mentioned before, empanadas can be baked or fried. I prefer to bake mine. You don't have to mess with frying them, plus it's healthier. Here are two versions for you to try. One is a sweet treat, the other a delicious main dish. Both are great for weekend football-watching parties in front of the TV.

Savory or Sweet Empanada Dough

You can use this versatile dough for either variety of empanada, whether you bake or fry them.

  • 6 ounces low-fat cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter or margarine, at room temperature
  • 2 cups unbleached flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
    Mix the cream cheese and butter together until well blended. Add the flour and salt, and mix well. Gently knead the dough, then form it into a ball. Wrap with plastic wrap and let the dough sit for 15 minutes in a cool place.

Pumpkin Empanadas

  • 1 recipe Empanada Dough (see above)

Pumpkin Filling

  • 2 cups puréed canned or cooked fresh pumpkin
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoons brandy (optional)


  • 1 egg, lightly beaten with 1 teaspoon water


  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Prepare the dough according to the directions in the recipe above.
  2. Place the pumpkin, sugar, and spices in a medium-size saucepan and mix well. Cook over medium heat until heated through, then set aside to cool. If you're using the brandy, stir it in now.
  3. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface until it is less than 1/4-inch thick. Divide the dough in half and roll again to at least 1/8-inch thickness. Cut into 3-inch circles (I use a drinking glass with a 3-inch diameter opening) and place about 2 teaspoonfuls of filling in the center of each circle.
  4. Fold one side over the filling and seal tightly with your fingers. Crimp the edges with the tines of a fork. Brush the tops with the egg wash and place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until lightly browned. Remove from the oven and, while still hot, sprinkle with the sugar.

Crab Empanadas

  • 1 recipe Empanada Dough (see above)


  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 white onion, chopped (or about 3/4 cup)
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1-1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 8 pimiento-stuffed green olives, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 8 capers
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 12 ounces crabmeat
  • 1 fresh jalapeño chile, seeded and chopped


  • 1 egg lightly beaten with 1 teaspoon water (optional)
  1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and sauté the onion and garlic until the onion is soft. Add the tomatoes, olives, parsley, capers, bay leaf, and salt and pepper to taste. Lower the heat and continue cooking about 20 minutes. The mixture will be dry. Check the seasonings to make sure it is well seasoned.
  2. Stir in the crabmeat and chopped jalapeño (adding a little at a time to taste). Cook 5 minutes more. Discard the bay leaf and let the mixture cool.
  3. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface until it is less than 1/4-inch thick. Divide the dough in half and roll again to a thickness of at least 1/8 inch. Cut into 3-inch (for empanadita or appetizer size) or 5-inch (for empanadas) circles. Place about 2 teaspoons of the filling in the center of each smaller circle of dough or 3 to 4 teaspoons in the center of the larger circles.
  4. Fold one side over the filling and seal tightly with your fingers. Crimp the edges with the tines of a fork. Brush the tops with the beaten egg (if using) and place the turnovers on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until lightly browned.

A personal recommendation: If you're ever in San Antonio, stop by Teka Molino and enjoy some of the best Tex-Mex anywhere!.