Found in translation: Spanish empanadillas

“Knowing what to make is not to same as knowing how to make it.” In a story full of Spanish colour, Ellie Casson explains why she chose to make Spanish empanadillas for the World Kitchen brunch –  and how.

When my family first moved to Spain, we discovered in a nearby village an outstanding family bakery.  It was situated on the square and had a little terrace outside where you could sit with a coffee from the bar (and a little brandy if you were feeling particularly Spanish that morning) and eat pastries or cakes you had just bought at the counter inside.

The shop was by no means pristine.  The bar was always propped up by one or two grizzled old men, occasionally interrupting grunted conversations for a minute on the slot machine; and, while the square has recently been refurbished, 20 years ago it was a little run down.

Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, we visited the bakery at least once a week for all the years we lived nearby, and still popped in whenever we holidayed at our family home after we moved away.

We would sometimes buy a barra to go with a rotisserie chicken from the market and occasionally treat my Grandma with a sweet, glossy square of cake from the glass cabinet.  However, we usually visited the bakery on a Saturday morning to pick up empanadillas and bechemelas for breakfast (usually before getting stuck into whatever mighty task Dad had planned for us that weekend!)

Dad’s favourite are the bechemelas – layers of puff pastry filled with ham and cheese (or béchamel sauce, hence the name). Empanadillas are made from a more bread-like pastry (pan being the Spanish word for bread) and offered a variety of fillings.  The most typical would be frito, which is tomato, onion and probably some red pepper; and my favourite, though not obvious, combination of boiled egg and tuna.

When the World Kitchen in Leith decided to hold a Brunch to help raise money and awareness for the Multi-Cultural Family Base in Edinburgh, I knew what I would make.  Knowing what to make, however, is not the same as knowing how to make it.

Luckily, my brother had a number of years ago bought me a book called 1080 Recetas de Cocina (1080 recipes) by Simone Ortega.  A Spanish chef friend was very excited when she saw this at Christmas, telling me it is quite an institution in Spain – of the Mrs Beaton variety.  Every young, newly-wed woman in Spain will receive this book as a gift.

I have never used a cook book like it. I finally found the recipe for the masa (pastry) and proceeded to translate the ingredients.  Flour, salt, butter, lard.  Standard quantities.  Then measurements for water and white wine.  Half and half in a glass, not quite full and, in brackets, a water-glass sized glass.  Perhaps they didn’t have liquid measures in Spain at the time.  It also used a method to make the pastry that I have not seen before.  You heat the water, wine and fats in a pan until everything is dissolved and mixed.  Take it off the heat, add the flour and salt, knead on a floured surface (while boiling hot!) and leave to cool for three hours.

As for fillings, the book suggested a number of combinations, including egg and tuna, but gave no advice on how to make these, what consistency they should be, or how much I would need for the amount of pastry I had made.  It stated quite simply at the end of a list of possibilities, “as you can see, you can make whatever filling you want based on your tastes.”  So Dave and I experimented.  I can tell you now that béchamel and ham is best saved for puff pastry.  However, tuna and egg with a good glug of first press, unfiltered olive oil is delicious.

There was no indication from the recipe how thin the pastry had to be rolled or how large the circle cut-outs should be.  It was also noted that the made-up pastries should be fried, but there was no mention of how long for, what temperature the oil should be or what they should look like when they were ready.

Again, Dave and I experimented.  We did try the frying method, and eventually came out with some perfectly acceptable little pastries.  But I was unconvinced.  The empanadillas of my childhood were from the bakery.  A bakery where you bake things.  So, we reverted to the oven.  We tried different thicknesses, diameters, washes (milk and egg), temperatures and cooking times, all the while tasting our finished products along the way.  We had no room for dinner at the end of the evening, but we had achieved success.

Successful chefs Dave and Ellie

When I recently returned to Spain, I discovered that our old bakery had closed down.  The baker had retired and his children had not wanted to carry on the family business.  It will now be knocked down and turned into luxury flats with a beautiful view of the square.

I had a conversation over a beer with the ironmonger who had come over to look at our front gate (in which he described Dave as “exotic” after I mentioned that he was ginger) and learned about a new bakery in one of the back streets of our local village.  It is smaller than our old bakery, and there is no bar or seating area, but I noted on my last visit that they had a larger variety of fillings for their empanadillas, one being morcilla or black pudding.

Now that I have perfected the method for making the empanadilla pastry, and I have such inspiration from the new bakery, I will follow the advice of Simone Ortega and try whatever combination suits my fancy!

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