These super-savory, mini feasts mix the best of two very different worlds. Honest-to-goodness beef steak, potatoes, and onions are exotically spiced with serrano chili, paprika, cloves, and cinnamon. Spicy beef empanadas are an Anglo-Mexican alliance that produces outstandingly moreish results.
The English county of Cornwall meets the Mexican state of Hidalgo — 200 years of fab food fusion.
Pronounced pah-stays, pastry-wrapped delights called ‘pastes’ are a signature dish from the central Mexican state of Hidalgo.
Surprisingly, they’re a twist on the oh-so traditional meat-and-potato Cornish pasty. In the mid-1820s, these substantial pies were introduced to the silver-rich regions of Hidalgo by world-renowned mining experts from the tin-rich regions of Cornwall. If you’re interested in that weirdly curious piece of mining-meets-food history, there’s a lovely summary of it all here. And those Cornish miners left another rather startling legacy. They introduced Mexico to what has become the world’s most popular sport — soccer.
Throughout South America, there are multiple variations on the theme of small, half-moon pies that are widely known as ‘empanadas’. These reflect Spain’s broader reaching, pan-continental influence, and the ubiquitous name derives from a Spanish term for foods that are encased in bread.
Great as a party-time starter or for cocktail-hour appetizers
Our Hidalgo-style spicy beef empanadas are certainly smaller and daintier-looking than a chunky Cornish pasty. The pastry rounds which cover that super-spicy filling are only 4-1/2 inches across, and they’re rolled a lot thinner than the far more robust Cornwall crusts. There’s also a little olive oil in the dough, which gives it a glossier finish and lighter texture than a pasty’s workman-like walls short crust.
After all, ours aren’t supposed to be a sort of highly practical, edible lunchbox for miners who were spending their hardworking day underground. They might be fairly substantial snacks, but they’re not intended to be an entire meal.
And, even as a Brit, I’ll happily admit that the Mexican version tastes way better than its far more one-dimensional and comparatively bland English counterpart. For sure, the Cornish certainly got things off to a flying start with the basics. But it took some Mexican flair to transform this adopted pie it into a five-star treat.
Choosing the beef in your spicy beef empanadas
Beef is the centerpiece here, so it makes sense to choose wisely. Many recipes — from both sides of the Atlantic — suggest keeping things authentic by using a cut like skirt or chuck steak. This puzzles me a bit. Why? Well, that choice would be about right to replicate the type of pasties first introduced to Hidalgo all those years ago.
But that’s not at all what we’re aiming for here. We’re looking for something quite different, something that’s bursting with exciting, rich flavors. And the steak to do that is a fine piece of tender sirloin with a thick, flavor-full rim of fat all along one side. When it’s coarsely ground, that fat should account for about 15% of the steak’s weight.
And there’s another very good reason for choosing sirloin for our spicy beef empanadas recipe — it cooks far more quickly than those other cuts, giving you all the juicily beefy flavors of a fine, medium-rare steak. Which is precisely what these empanadas are all about.
Spicy Beef Empanadas
For the pastry
- 4 cups white bread flour sieved
- 4 1/2 ounces salted butter cold, cut into inch-square chunks. Cold matters here, so butter straight from the refrigerator is better.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground sea salt
- 1 1/4 cups cold water
- 1 egg beaten with 2 teaspoons water – for sealing the empanadas and glazing them
For the filling
- 4 red serrano peppers finely chopped, seeds and all
- 1 pound sirloin steak with a good fat layer along one edge, coarsely ground. Either ask your butcher to do this coarse grinding for you, or use your food processor. A coarse grind is key here so that the steak keeps a little chunky, crumbly texture.
- 2 all-purpose potatoes medium-sized, peeled, and cut into 1/4 inch dice. Use potatoes that are midway between floury and waxy – Idahos or similar will be grand.
- 2 yellow onions medium-sized, peeled, and chopped into 1/4 inch dice
- 6 scallions all the white parts and all the crisp green stalks, sliced into 1/4 inch rounds. That will be about 1/2 a cup.
- 4 cloves garlic peeled and mashed to a rough paste
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves.
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2 heaped tablespoons ground paprika
- 2 heaped teaspoons dried oregano
- 1 heaped teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground sea salt
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 1/2 ounces concentrated tomato paste about 2 heaped tablespoons
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 1/2 cups ice cold water
- 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
Making the pastry
- The pastry needs to chill for a couple of hours after you make it, so that’s where to start.
- Tip the sieved flour, butter, and salt into your food processor. Blitz until the mix is thoroughly combined, and then add the olive oil with the processor still running. Keep it running until the oil is completely absorbed into the mixture.
- Tip the whole lot into a good size mixing bowl – steel is ideal because pastry needs to stay cold when it’s being made. Now gradually – and I mean gradually – stir in the cold water a little at a time. Keep on adding and stirring until all the water is evenly combined with the flour mix. This will take a while and a bit of muscle but do it slowly until you have a dough that pulls away easily and cleanly from the sides of the bowl. Time for some kneading.
- Turn out the dough onto a cold work surface dusted with a little flour. Use your hands to give the dough a good kneading for 3 minutes.
- Form the kneaded dough into a ball, wrap it tightly in plastic film, and put it into the refrigerator. It’s going to stay there for two hours while you leisurely make your empanadas’ filling.
Making the filling
- For this you’ll need a big, deep, skillet – I used a heavy 12-inch one. That sort of skillet matters because it will give you a big spread of even heat and allow you to gently cook the filling in a quite shallow layer across the skillet’s wide base.
- Set the skillet on a medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Let the oil heat for about a minute and then stir in the diced onions so they get a coating of the oil. Drop the heat to low-medium and let the onions fry gently with a few watchful stirs for about 5 minutes. You’re looking to soften the onions and give them a little – a little – browning color all over.
- Stir in the serrano peppers, potatoes, and salt. Let the mix fry slowly on that medium-low heat for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally so that the potatoes just begin to soften a little and pick up a hint of color. Take a bit of care with this gentle stir-and-fry process so as not to break up the diced potatoes.
- Raise the heat to medium-high and add the ground steak, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, paprika, thyme, oregano, and black pepper. Give the mix a thorough stir and let it fry on that medium-high heat for 3 minutes. You want to give it a few good stirs as it cooks so that steak’s fat melts into the mix.
- Turn off the heat, and add the tomato paste, water, scallions and lime juice. Stir well so that everything is evenly mixed together. Taste the mix for saltiness – the potatoes absorb a fair amount of salt – and perhaps add a little more to suit your taste. That’s it – filling done. Let it sit in the skillet and cool completely while the dough still sits chilling.
Assembling and baking the empanadas
- Line a flat baking tray with greaseproof paper and set the tray in the middle of the oven. Set the oven to 400 F / 200C, and let it come up to heat as you make the empanadas.
- It’s easier to prep the rounds of pastry if you work with half the dough first, and then repeat the process with the other half. So, cut the ball of dough into two even pieces and form each one into a ball.
- On a cold, lightly floured work surface, use a rolling pin to roll out the first piece of dough into a roughly circular shape of 1/8-inch thick. Don’t go any thinner than that, but rather focus on rolling the pastry as close as you can to that 1/8-inch thickness.
- Use a 4 1/2 inch, circular pastry cutter (plain edged, not serrated), to cut as many rounds as you can from the rolled pastry. As you work, transfer the rounds to a large cold dinner plate. Form any leftover pieces of pastry into a ball with your hands, and roll that into a 1/8 inch sheet from which you can perhaps cut another few rounds. Set the rounds on their plate in the refrigerator.
- Now repeat the rolling and cutting process with the other half of the dough. Good. Time now for filling the rounds, sealing them, glazing them – and baking them.
- You want to put a neat mound of about a heaped tablespoon of the cooled filling into the centre of each pastry round. The filling should sit in the middle of each round like a little island, with about a clear half-inch of pastry surrounding it.
- Brush a little (about half a teaspoon) of the beaten egg-and-water mix all round the exposed edges. Now carefully fold one side of the pastry over the top of the filling so that you create a half moon ‘D’ shape.
- Use your fingers to press shut the curved side of the ‘D’ – you’re aiming to form a complete seal all around that curved edge.
- Don’t fuss too much about what the sealed edge looks like – much rather make sure you get a good seal that will keep the filling in place as the empanadas bake in the oven.
- As soon as the empanadas are all filled and sealed, space them evenly across the hot, paper-lined baking tray, and brush the remaining egg glaze all over their tops. Set the tray back into the middle of the oven.
- Let the empanadas bake for ten minutes at 400F / 200C, then drop the heat to 350F / 180C, and let them bake for another twenty minutes. Done.
- Remove the rack from the oven and let the empanadas cool down for 5 minutes – they’re ready to serve.
- Now, you can let them cool down even more. These empanadas are just as good when served just slightly warm or at room temperature. My top preference? Just slightly warm. But I do have a powerful liking for them completely cooled the following day.