Letting go is never easy.
My grandpa passed away at 5 o’clock in the morning two Sundays ago. I feel fortunate to have spent the last few days of his time with us beside his bed, holding his hand and giving him kisses. Though he was mostly unresponsive, we knew he could hear us, feel us and sense our presence gathered around him. When he slipped away from us in the wee hours of the morning I found solace in the knowledge that he was resting peacefully. Never in my life had I felt such a strong love, a love that reaches beyond our comprehension, beyond what is tangible, beyond what is seen. I find comfort in my love for him and it brings me joy each time I think of him and the fond memories we’ve shared together. His soul has drifted up and up but I know in my heart of hearts that I will see him again in another lifetime. And that makes me happy.
I am blessed to have such a big family. In the days that followed, we spent every waking moment together, reminiscing, consoling, laughing, cooking. My grandpa was known for his delicious chicken empanadas. Totally homemade and completely from the heart.
So, of course we had to make them.
Here’s my grandpa’s original chicken empanada recipe. We eat this warm, straight out of the oven, with nothing but a squeeze of lime juice. Perfection.
My grandpa’s chicken empanadas
[Recipe updated 4/8/12]
Makes 12 delightful empanadas (recipe can be doubled, but if you do, make the dough in 2 batches)
For the filling:
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into small 1/4″ pieces or thrown into the food processor for a quick whirl
1 medium yellow onion, diced finely or thrown into the food processor
4 slices of white bread; allowed to soak in warm water, then drained, squeezing out excess liquid and separating into small chunks with fingers
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon msg*
2 fat cloves garlic, pushed through garlic press or finely minced, about 1/2 teaspoon
1 tablespoon paprika or ají colorado
1/4 cup sliced black olives
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese (optional; my grandpa never added this but I’ve been adding it for extra umami flavoring, which is a good substitute for the msg)
2 hard-boiled eggs, each cut into 6 slices
1 egg, whisked for egg wash
Lime wedges, to serve
*You can omit msg if you’re averse to it. Personally, I don’t use it in my cooking but my family has used it for years, and I don’t mind eating their foods prepared with it. You can find more information regarding msg here and here.
In a medium-sized bowl, combine the chicken with the salt, black pepper, cumin, msg (optional), garlic, and paprika or ají colorado. Set aside to marinate while you cook up the onions.
In a large frying pan set over medium-high heat, drop in a couple tablespoons of olive oil. When it starts to shimmer, toss in the chopped onions and cook through until they’re soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add in the torn pieces of bread and mix together. Once all the liquid has evaporated, take this onion and bread mixture off the heat and set it aside in a medium bowl.
Grab your chicken and toss into the hot pan, adding a touch more oil if necessary and cook through, about 7 minutes. Toss in the sliced olives and mix. Take this off the heat and combine with the onion/bread mixture. Sprinkle in the Parmesan cheese, if using. Mix everything together. Taste for seasonings, adding more salt and pepper if needed. Set aside in a shallow baking pan to cool (if you flatten and spread it out, it will cool a lot faster. You want it at room temperature for filling).
For the dough:
4 cups (600 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup (200 grams) vegetable shortening, chilled
2 egg yolks, chilled
1 cup ice water mixed with 1 teaspoon salt (you might not need all of it)
My grandpa mixed his dough by hand placing the flour in the middle, creating a well in the center and adding the shortening and yolks inside, slowing incorporating each ingredient little by little. I’ve found that by using the stand mixer the ingredients incorporate better, cleaner, and quicker. But, if you prefer to do things by hand, my grandpa’s process yields great results too.
Making the dough by hand:
Using a fine mesh strainer, sift the flour into the center of your working area. Create a well in the middle. Sift the baking powder over the flour. Add the egg yolks and shortening to the well. Slowly start incorporating the ingredients together with your hands, adding salted water as you go to begin forming the dough. When the dough starts coming together, knead for about 5-7 minutes until smooth and supple.
Making the dough with a stand mixer:
Assemble your mixer by adding the paddle attachment. Using a fine mesh strainer, sift the flour and baking powder together. Set aside. Drop the shortening and egg yolks into the mixing bowl and cream together on medium speed until the mixture has softened and turned a pale yellow, a couple minutes. Switch out the paddle attachment with the hook attachment. Start adding the flour, in batches, alternating with the salted water to begin forming the dough. You may not use all 1 cup of ice water but add just enough that the dough starts to come together, dribbling in a tablespoon at a time. Once the dough has taken shape, dump it out onto the counter and knead for a couple minutes.
Shape the dough into a ball and cut it into 4 equal portions. Wrap each in plastic and let chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes and up to overnight.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and set the oven rack in the middle. Grab 2 baking sheets and set them within reach.
Clean off your working surface a bit so you have room to roll, stuff, and form the empanadas. Set out the bowls of chicken mixture, hard-boiled egg slices, and egg wash and put them beside you. Lightly flour the working surface and grab 1 portion of the dough from the fridge; cold dough is easier to roll out so make sure to only take out the dough you need at a time. Roll out the dough until it’s about 1/8″ thick. Grab a 6″ dough cutter and cut out 3 circles. Each ball of dough should yield 3 circles, making a total of 12 in all. If you don’t have a 6″ dough cutter, look around your house for something that is as close to it in size as possible. In the beginning, I was using a round grating attachment from my food processor, but I just recently purchased this, which makes things a lot easier.
Use an ice cream scoop to spoon the chicken mixture onto each circle and place it on the upper half of the dough. Add 1 slice of egg on top of the chicken mixture. Use a pastry brush and lightly brush egg wash along the top edges. Then, fold the dough over carefully, away from you, pressing down firmly over the filling and seal the edges, either with a fork or your fingers. Place the empanada onto a baking sheet and continue on with the rest. Once a baking sheet has 6 empanadas, brush egg wash over the empanadas and stick in the oven to bake for approximately 25-30 minutes or until the top is slightly golden, rotating the baking sheet once in between. When the first batch of empanadas come out of the oven immediately brush them with another helping of egg wash (this gives them that shine). Stick the other baking sheet of empanadas into the oven to bake for another 25-30 minutes, brushing with egg wash when they’re finished as well.
Let them cool slightly before digging in. We just eat them with limes and they’re delicious as is.
A few words I shared at my grandpa’s memorial:
Today, we celebrate the life of Orlando Lau, my grandpa. How does one begin to express all the love and memories we have shared with him on this single afternoon when he has given us so much to last a lifetime? I know that he has touched each of our lives in some way or another. It is written in our smiles, our kind words, our union as a family; they are all testimony to the immense love we have for him. The power of love is an amazing thing — I’ve always believed this. It has never been more evident to me than now. Because, despite the fact that he no longer stands next to me in his physical form, his presence sits firmly inside of me, in my heart, in my hands, in my being. His spirit has enveloped us all.
Words cannot convey the gratitude we feel to have had him in our lives. He has left an imprint on each of us – each one special, each one unique. For me, it was his inspired guidance in the kitchen that helped shape my love for cooking. For you, it may have been a few kind words of advice and encouragement that helped you find your way. For others, it might have been a simple smile, a funny joke, or one of his delicious homemade pastries that really brightened up their day. Because let’s face it: the man could cook. I would be remiss by saying that his creations in the kitchen – empanadas, corbatitas, pastel de acelga, just to name a few – are anything short of legendary.
He was a master in the culinary arts. Yet, his expertise did not end there. He was also a carpenter, an illustrator, a piñata-maker, a mambo dancer, a peace-keeper, a mayor, and a confidante. He was a husband, a father, a brother, a grandfather, an uncle. He was a best friend.
We cannot doubt the immense impact we all felt from having him in our lives. What an incredible man he truly was.
So, on this day of remembrance, let us not grieve for his loss but instead revel in the love and joy he embraced us with.
Grandpa, I know you are with us. I feel your love every day and am thankful for every moment shared with you. Until we meet again. I love you and miss you very much.
Te quiero abuelito. Nos vemos pronto. XO