The Versatile Empanada
I recently went out for lunch and ended up in a shop that sold Cornish pasties. The first time I saw the sign I thought maybe there was a typo and it should be Cornish pastries, but I was very mistaken and this led me to do some research about this delicious dish.
The first thing I researched is what is the basis for a Cornish pasty. I learned that the pasty is very similar to an empanada. Almost every culture has a version of an empanada, which is basically a dough made without yeast and filled with either a sweet or savory filling. These pasties are unique to different parts of the world, mostly due to ingredients that are indigenous to that land. The origin of this type of food is typically from the lunch that laborers brought to work so they can eat it with one hand or while still working with a clean hand while taking a break. This is much like the sandwich here in America or a taco in Mexico.
One of the most famous versions is the Australian meat pie, which has been called the national dish of Australia. This dish has strict standards based on the country’s Food Standard Code (more next month on that), which requires each pie contains at least 25% of meat. Jamaica is another country that is well known for their beef pasties, but this version includes a lot of Jamaican spices which are very favorable. The pie came to Jamaica when the British colonized the area. Colombian empanadas are atypical since they start with a corn meal, similar to the Mexican tamale. African versions are also spicy due to the indigenous growth of herbs and spices due to its longitudinal site.
The Moroccan version uses chicken and a filo dough that is usually flavored with almonds. The Russian version, again due to its indigenous foods, is usually made with salmon or sturgeon and contains dill, hard cooked eggs and rice or buckwheat to stretch it out. The dough is usually high in fat similar to a brioche or puff pastry crust.
Surprisingly, quiche is considered in the family even though it does not have a top crust. Pizza also falls into this category. While Bolivia fills their version with meat and vegetables, it is unique by adding liquid, such as stock.
Empanadas are often eaten around Christmas or New Year’s, especially in Canada, being abundant during autumn. This is similar to the tradition of eating dumplings in Asian culture. Chilean empanadas always include raisins and black olives, while El Salvador uses plantains and is made with some orange flavor. Another well-known empanada variety is from the British, which is steak and kidney pie. This dish always includes beef kidney, as well as potatoes and carrots.
One of the many varieties that is not well known is the Torta Pasqualina, originally from Liguria in Italy, near France on the top of the boot in the northwest part of Italy. This area is known for growing roses and other flowers and is near Genoa and, of course, the Ligurian Sea, on the east coast of the country. This food item is now enjoyed throughout Italy, most often during the Easter season. The fillings usually include indigenous ingredients such as spring greens like artichoke leaves, Swiss chard or spinach and then mixed with ricotta cheese and currently being put inside a puff pastry crust. Most importantly, whole eggs are baked inside. Historically, it was a cake with religious significance and featured 33 layers of thin pastry, one for each year Jesus was alive.
We think of the word empanada and certainly my first thoughts are to South America. The dough is a simple mixture of fat, salt and flour but then the variations come into play. You can use shortening, butter, lard, margarine or beef tallow and of course the different fat will create a different flavor profile for the dough. The type of fat will dictate whether or not there is saturated and unsaturated fats, which may certainly be a factor when shopping for them, but all of the fats contain the same amount of fat.
I’ve always enjoyed empanadas from a range of countries both here in Las Vegas, as well as when I travel, but today I was trying the Cornish pasty available here in town. I learned so much about, well, everything related to Cornish pasties. The first thing is to be a true Cornish pasty it needs to be produced in the county of Cornwall, which is in England. There are also rules about the fillings including the fact that there must be at least 12½% beef and 25% of certain vegetables. Additionally, all Cornish pasties must include swede, known here as a turnip. Other variables are that the ingredients must be raw when being placed inside the pasty, must be slowly cooked within the dough, and the way the pasty is crimped must be formed in the shape of the letter D. This all falls under the PGI status which was initiated and controlled since 1993 by the European Union. Basically, it gives legal protection for a regional food product to make sure it’s not being imitated elsewhere. This concept will be discussed more in a future article.
Here are some interesting facts about traditional Cornish pasties. They have different names depending on whether a left-handed person or right-handed person crimps the dough. If the person sealing it is a right hander it is called a hen pasty and if it is crimped by a left-hander it is called a cock pasty. In Cornish at least 120 million pasties are made each year and generate around $330 million in sales.
Cornish Pasty Week is celebrated from February 23 to February 29 in Cornwall, England, which is in the southwest region of the United Kingdom. One of the events during this celebration is a world’s fastest crimper contest. The person who crimps the most pasties in three minutes is given the title. (This can be anywhere from 10 to 20 pasties crimps during that time.) The competition has different categories including for the professional, as well as the amateur.