All revved up

Somehow, in the midst of this oppressive heat wave, I have developed the irrational impulse to cook.

Big time.

Up a storm.

To the thweaty death.

(Sorry. It’s what happens when you watch The Princess Bride three times in two months.)

Coleslaws, potato salads, crostatas, jams, blueberry cakes, cookie tarts, tacos, empanadas, more slaws, crumbles, cocktails, granola, fruit rolls, and more, have been created and eaten in my sultry kitchen. Plus, there’s the peas and apricots, and now the zucchinis are starting to roll—wheeee!

Mornings, I cook, oversee kids’ chores, and take them to swimming lessons. (Miss Beccaboo made the newspaper! A photographer took an underwater shot of her—Miss Beccaboo reported “she had a fish tank in her camera,” and I said “Don’t you mean ‘her camera in a fish tank?’”) Early afternoon, I rest, write, and drink coffee. And late afternoon, when the sun is at its hottest but the promise of cool is just around the corner (though still a good five hours away), I pull down the shades to ward off the killer sun, pour a glass of iced tea, crank up the fan, and cook till the sun goes down. And after that, I head out the garden to yank ugly weeds, then read books to the kids, take a brrrr-cold shower, do some recipe research and photo sorting, visit with my honey, and then off to bed I trot. The end.

I wonder how long it will be before I crash.

I get like this—exceedingly excited about life and all its endless possibilities, energetic and giddy and productive, and then, quite suddenly, I’m not. I do normal things at normal speeds with normal bursts of energy and normal draggy spells. All fine and good, yes, but without the lusty, ho-ho-ho, whee-this-is fun feeling. And I really enjoy that feeling. Whenever it comes, I rev up my engines and GO.

I know it sounds bipolar-y, and bipolar disorder does run in my family, but I’m not. I’m just an up and down person, gleeful and grumpy, and sometimes grumpily gleeful (or gleefully grumpy). That my family hasn’t sent me to the looney bin is a testament to their upstanding character more than anything.

And don’t worry. I don’t do anything rash when I’m zippy. Unless you count making two (or three) cakes in one day “rash.”

Or baking empanadas when it’s 96 degrees outside, 86 in the kitchen, and muggy as a wet sock.

But man-oh-man, did I have fun with these empanadas. They were a delight the whole way through, from boiling the eggs and chopping the raisins and green olives (and eating about a dozen straight up in a sodium-deprived craze) to biting into the flaky-tender pastry. The dough was a dream, mysterious and supple and beautifully roll-able.

Why mysterious, you ask? Well, because there was tequila in it! Ole!

Maybe I’m slow on the uptake, but I just now, as in three days ago, learned about the marvels of vodka (or tequila) in pastry dough. It’s simple, really: the alcohol moistens the dough without forming gluten strands. Then, as the pastry bakes, the alcohol evaporates without a trace of flavor (shucks), leaving a shattery crust in its wake. It’s brilliant, I tell you. Absolutely brilliant.

I did research on the topic and apparently lots of people are already doing this. I suppose I could feel dejected about my slow-learning abilities, but I’m too thrilled to feel anything but giddy-gleeful with my discovery.

I did a bunch of reading, post-empanada-making, and learned that the filling recipe—with the cumin, green olives, and boiled eggs—is fairly authentic.

Of course, you could fill these with anything you like—cheeses, curried vegetables, chicken and spinach—but for me and my household, we will eat these beefy things till the cows come home. Or the heat wave breaks, whichever comes first.

Beef Empanadas
Adapted from the May and June 2010 issue of Cooks Illustrated

While not quite as flaky-crispy as they are straight out of the oven, frozen empanadas, thawed at room temperature and then reheated in the microwave, are totally delicious. Mr. Handsome takes them in his lunch and devours them, un-reheated. He says he looks around at what the other guys are eating and feels sorry for them.

*Ground chuck is leaner (and a little more expensive) than hamburger. If you use regular hamburger, omit the olive oil for frying and drain off any extra fat.
*Masa harina is not cornmeal. If you can’t find it (but do try!), just use another cup of all-purpose flour.
*I crimped some of my empanadas by twisting the dough, but I prefer the fork crimps. They make a thinner and lighter edge which balances better with the meat.

For the dough:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup masa harina
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons salt
12 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces and chilled
½ cup cold tequila or vodka
½ cup cold water

In a food processor, blend together 1 cup of flour, the masa harina, sugar, and salt. Add the butter and process till the mixture resembles wet sand. Add the remaining flour and pulse to combine.

Dump the mixture into a large bowl and sprinkle the alcohol and water over top. Stir to combine, and then, using your hands, knead lightly to pull the dough into a ball. Divide the dough into twelve equal pieces, set them on a plate, cover with plastic wrap, and transfer them to the fridge to chill for about an hour (or up to two days).

For the filling:
1 piece white bread, torn into pieces
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons broth, either chicken or beef
1 pound ground chuck (see head note)
3/4 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for baking
2 onions, about 2 cups, chopped fine
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon chipotle or cayenne powder
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
½ cup packed cilantro leaves, chopped
2 hard-cooked eggs, chopped
1/3 cup raisins, chopped
1/4 cup green olives, chopped
4 teaspoons cider vinegar

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the bread with 2 tablespoons broth until paste-y. Add beef, salt, and pepper and pulse till well combined.

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet, add the onions and cook for about 5 minutes, or until they start to brown. Add the garlic, cumin, cayenne, and cloves and cook for one minute. Add the beef and cook for about 7 more minutes, or until it begins to brown. Add the remaining broth and simmer for about five minutes (you want the mixture to be moist but not wet). Remove the skillet from the heat and let the mixture cool for about 20 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients (cilantro through vinegar) and, if needed, more salt and pepper. Transfer the mixture to the refrigerator to chill completely. (You can also make it weeks ahead of time and then freeze it till you need it.)

To assemble:
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Roll each ball of dough into a 6-inch circle about 1/8th-inch thick. Place 1/3 cup of the filling in the bottom center of each circle. Brush some water around the edges of the dough (it helps the dough stick together). Using a metal spatula, carefully fold the dough over the filling, Crimp the edges together using a fork.

Once you have filled and crimped six empanadas, generously coat the bottom of a rimmed baking sheet with olive oil and place it in the oven for five minutes to heat up. Remove the pan from the oven and carefully set the empanadas in the hot oil. Liberally coat the empanadas with more olive oil. Bake the empanadas for 20-30 minutes, turning the pan (and/or individual empanadas) if one side is browning faster than the other. (I also slid another cookie sheet under the baking pan half-way through because the empanadas were browning too quickly on the bottom.)

While the first tray of empanadas is baking, finish rolling and stuffing the remaining balls of dough.

When the empanadas have finished baking, transfer them to a wire rack and cool for ten minutes before serving.

Yield: 12 large empanadas

About one year ago: One whole year. Well look at that! It’s been two whole years that I’ve been blogging. Look at me go!
About two years ago: Reasons and Lemon Donut Muffins and Painter on the roof and Weird. Back in the beginning I was a crazy-happy blogger. Geesh.


  • Michelle

    Oh, those look yummy. We were watching some Food Network thing the other night and saw empanadas and thought they sounded good and now you've given us a recipie — yippee!

  • Kare

    I've never heard of booze in pastry dough either! Revelation!

    I love the way you write – it totally sucks me in, and I am always impressed.

  • Shirley

    Jennifer, I hope to borrow a little of your hypomania today but will probably not expend my energy on cooking. (I did, however, muster up a batch of pickled beets and pickled eggs last night.)

    I love your blog! The empanadas sound like fun for when my grown children come home in late July. I think I will take a run through your blog for something special. They have all turned into foodies.

  • Mr. H.

    The empanadas look delicious! We have been using your fabulous tortilla recipe of late, the addition of milk made all the difference in pliability…thanks so much for the recipe.:)

  • Karen

    hey, as long as you don't want to run for President or want to build a huge circular house with no corners when your pockets hold no money, you are good. 🙂

  • Mama Pea

    I'm right with ya, kiddo, in not ever having heard that putting the hard stuff in a dough makes it lighter and flakier. But I'll drink to the idea any day, and I haven't even tried it.

  • Kris

    Yes. I would have to say that baking two (or three) cakes in one day is rash. And so is baking anything in this infernal heat.

    But I was rash yesterday too, so I guess I'm not preaching, just agreeing. I baked a blueberry cobbler, then while the oven was on (in the morning!) I baked up the last of my stash of butternut squash and sweet potatoes in one fell swoop.

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