Empanaditas de Calabaza
I only really became aware of el Dia de los Muertos a couple of years ago but then it was love at first sight – the papel picado, the calacas that would be frightening if they weren’t so eerily famliar, the food welcoming spirits home as though no time has passed. There’s an easy tension to the way it’s celebrated – a balance between the pre-Columbian and post-Discovery, the corporeal and the spiritual, the seen and unseen – that’s lovely to live in for a couple of days. In the past, I’ve made pan de muerto but this year wanted to try empanaditas de calabaza. Families may start their vigil with the ofrenda, but they see the spirits back to the cemetery. Whatever I made, I wanted it to be filled with fall spices, comforting, and most importantly, portable.At least that was the idea, but faced with a whole pumpkin, I couldn’t imagine how some people carved whole faces into them when I couldn’t break off a chunk. Carefully pushing through a heavy knife, I wasn’t getting anywhere and felt tempted to use the cans of (at least) organic pumpkin I’d been hoarding. My first batch was okay but could have been better which meant more spices and more pumpkin wrestling. Going back a second time, I asked the girls who worked at the market stand the best way to go about it and they suggested a strong, clean whack to start, careful of fingers and slipping of course. Desperation must have made me brave because it worked. With one deep, initial cut, I was able to break it apart easily, cutting it into the smaller pieces that were easier to work with being rewarded with 2+ pounds of peeled pumpkin chunks.My filling issues resolved, I turned my attention to the dough. I wanted the filling to still taste like pumpkin so I had added as little sugar as possible. The standard, bread like empanada dough I first tried was too plain and overpowered the pumpkin, so with my second batch of filling I tried something closer to a pie crust, flavored with anise, that worked well – a balance. I didn’t build an altar this year but at least I got to spend a few days in the kitchen, which for me has always been the most haunted room in the house.
Dough for the pastry:
2 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cups unsalted butter, cubed and kept cold
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon anise seeds
For the filling:
2-lbs pumpkin, peeled, seeded and cubed into 2-inch chunks
5 ounces piloncillo (about 1 cup), roughly chopped*
1 cinnamon stick, whole
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground anis
1/2 teaspoon ground clove
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
*Whole cane sugar also known as panela and sold in Latin American markets.
For the glaze:
1 egg white beaten with one tablespoon of water
Sugar for dusting
Bring 1/4 cup of water to a simmer and pour over anise seeds in a heatproof bowl or measuring cup. Set aside until cool, about 15 minutes.
Sift together the flour, salt, and sugar. Add to the bowl of a food processor and pulse until evenly distributed. Add the cubed butter and pulse until the butter flakes into pea-sized pieces, about 15-30 seconds.
Strain the water and discard the seeds. With the machine running add the infused anise water to the dough until it just comes together, do not over mix. Pour out onto a floured surface a knead about 3-5 minutes until smooth. Shape into two discs, wrap in plastic and refrigerate until firm, at least 30 minutes or overnight.
Combine all ingredients for the filling in a large heavy pot, stirring well so that the spices are well distributed. Cover and set over medium heat, stirring frequently. Watch closely until the pumpkin releases water and the piloncillo melts, adjusting the heat as needed so that the pumpkin does not stick to the pan. Continue to cook covered until the pumpkin is dark brown and falling apart, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
If refrigerated overnight, bring the dough to room temperature before proceeding. Starting with one disc, roll out the dough to an 1/8-of an inch and cut it into circles about 4 inches in diameter. Lightly brush ridge of each circle with egg glaze. Place a spoonful of filling in the center of each circle and fold in half. Seal the edges with the tines of a fork.
Brush with egg wash and lightly sprinkle with sugar. Bake in upper and lower thirds of oven, switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until lightly golden, about 25 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool at least 5 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes 12 large or 24 small empanadas.