Boiling Point: Belita’s Empanada Crust

Jim Hillibish

The most frustrating thing about baking is the piecrust. There are like 1,200 different recipes for it — 1,200 chances to bake shoe leather.

What that “ice cold” water does, I don’t know. I’ve never gotten the flour and butter to look like “rice grains.” Despite years of reinvention, my pies still taste like the ones in vending machines.

Then I watched Tony Bourdain on Travel Channel. He was in Brazil, and a light bulb switched on in my pie brain.

Tony’s best scenes are when he gets plastered in a neighborhood bar and then eats his way out of a hangover.

Us fans look forward to these scenes. It’s the reason for the parental warning at the show’s start and after every return from commercials. That more than anything causes us to cherish this show and buy his profane cooking books.

So Tony’s getting snookered in Brazil this week, and he seeks that nation’s national dish for relief. That would be the empanada, a one-inch pastry shell filled with all manner of good stuff.

It hit me during the commercial for the fake tax service. If it’s that good by the square inch, imagine the possibilities for a whole pie.

I Googled “empanada” and wound up with a crust recipe by Belita. Her secret: a shortening overload.

Quote the guru: “The secret to making good dough is to massage it, not knead it.”

Ah … I usually tear into pie dough like I do bread dough, as a cardio exercise. I should have been caressing it, treating it like the fragile thing that it is.

Belita’s recipe makes 25 empanadas. Translation: Enough for two American pies. Her process is more akin to sticky mud pies, but that only softens things in the end.

It boggles the mind: Going all the way to Brazil to make an American apple pie. All I can say is, for the first time, my wife isn’t leaving the crust for the dog.

Belita’s Empanada Crust

  • 4 cups flour
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 cup shortening such as Crisco
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1⁄2 cups ice-cold water

Roll up your sleeves and place the flour in a big bowl. Make a well in the center. Load the butter, shortening, eggs, salt and a cup of cold water in the well.

With one hand, squeeze the ingredients through your fingers to form a paste. Then, work in the surrounding flour, massaging the dough to mix it. Add more water to keep it remarkably soft. Let it rest for 30 minutes before rolling it out on a floured board (mandatory). Don’t sweat the sticky.

Notes: Try to capture an air bubble under the top crust when covering. If you try this, it might be better to experiment first before inviting your mother over.