Why This Recipe Works
- Using hot water and hot fat in the empanada dough ensures flexibility for easy folding and shaping of the dough.
- A mixture of butter and shortening creates an empanada dough that is flaky and tender yet sturdy enough to shape and hold up to the juicy onion filling.
- Flash freezing the onion filling for 15 minutes before using ensures the filling is cold when entering the oven, preventing a leaky and soggy final empanada.
In Chile, we enjoy empanadas in a variety of ways: baked or fried; small or large; at the dinner table or as a street food; with sweet fillings like pear puree or with savory fillings like cheese or razor clams. The most popular version is the empanada de pino, a big baked empanada filled with a mixture of onion and a beef stew called pino (pino comes from the indigenous Mapuche word for “filling,” or “stew”).
While the popular empanada de pino is delicious, I think the lesser known onion-filled empanada called pequén deserves just as much attention. This meatless empanada is filled with a stewed onion mixture that is seasoned with cumin, aji de color (the local paprika), and, optionally, hot sauce. Their unique and specific folding technique is meant to resemble the shape of the Chilean Pequen owl’s angular and pointy face, which is where the recipe name comes from.
The most common version is baked, but you can find fried versions sold in the food markets in Chile, usually for breakfast or early lunch. Pequenes’ humble and accessible ingredients made them popular in times of economic crisis and scarcity during the last century, when beef was considered a luxury item.
There was a time in the 1990’s and early 2000’s when pequenes were less readily available in bakeries and restaurants, but these days they are experiencing a strong comeback among recipe bloggers and home cooks, possibly because they are a traditional Chilean vegetarian dish in a time when interest in meatless cooking is growing. Whatever the reasons for pequenes’ resurgence, I enjoy them for their nostalgic value. They remind me of my grandmother with every bite.
Before the pandemic, my husband and I lived in Copenhagen for a few years. September was the time of year when we most missed home (and Chilean food), as September 18th is Chilean independence day, a celebration involving the consumption of dozens of empanadas de pino. My homesickness instilled in me a profound need to make empanadas while living abroad.
In my time living away, I have a memory of listening to the song “Violeta Ausente” by the Chilean folk singer Violeta Parra. I remember hearing the lyrics, and feeling a deep connection to her experiences. She wrote this song while living in France back in the 1960’s and in the song she questions her decision to ever have left Chile (much like I did during the long, dark Danish winters). Violeta, who was a great traditional cook, goes on to explain that the one thing she truly wishes to do is “to go to the market and eat a pequén.” Her lyrics inspired me to create my own recipe for pequén while I was living away from home.
Around the same time, my abuelita (grandma), Techy—whose empanadas were famous—passed away. After shedding many tears, I decided to make, for the first time, two dozen pequenes, using her recipe for empanada dough, while masochistically listening to Violeta’s song on a loop.
It was magic: Just by touching the warm, soft dough, I instantly felt better. I was again at my grandma’s table, eating one of the great meals she used to cook. And these new-for-me meatless empanadas turned out lovely, lighter than the beef-based ones I was more familiar with cooking. The simple pequenes, besides being absolutely delicious, turned bitter homesickness into a calm, almost enjoyable nostalgia: a feeling I could embrace.
My abuelita’s recipe for empanada dough, which she learned as a child from her grandma, is the same I share here. It is important to note that the wheat-based, high-fat empanada dough is not merely an efficient container for a flavorful filling, it is just as important as the filling inside. I have tried other empanada dough recipes that use less fat or fewer eggs, and other recipes that don’t take the time and care to stretch the dough while still warm, but none are as wonderful as my abuelita’s recipe. Her empanada dough is slightly salty, rich, and supple enough to be stretched thin without tearing, and sturdy enough to not leak any juicy filling while baking.
I have to admit to making two changes to her recipe. First, instead of using 100% shortening or lard, I use a mixture of half lard and half butter. The water content in the butter steams and puffs the dough while it bakes to create a flakier crust, while a good quality lard provides rich flavor and sturdy structure.
The second change I made is offering substitutions for the Chilean pisco my abuelita called for in her recipe. During different periods of living abroad—first in Columbus, Ohio, and then in Denmark—I was not always able to find Chilean pisco that her recipe requires. As it turns out, Peruvian pisco or vodka are both good replacements.
Through practice, I have found that temperature control is what makes this recipe work. You must keep the dough warm, and at the same time you have to keep the filling cold. Making the dough with hot water and hot melted fat not only produces a pliable and resilient result, but also keeps the dough slightly warm for folding time. If the dough becomes too cold before shaping, it will stiffen up, making folding and pinching the dough challenging. Of course, if you are making dough ahead of time, even freezing it, there are ways to ensure that it is perfectly warm and soft before assembling empanadas (see my grandma’s trick in the notes section below).
Making the filling is a simpler process. The onions, fat, aromatics, and spices like Chilean aji de color and cumin are cooked down together until the flavors meld and the onions are soft and transparent. To ensure the filling is firm and doesn’t leak out while baking, it’s best to briefly freeze it for 30 minutes before assembling the pequenes. This prevents the filling from boiling inside the empanada while baking, which can cause juices to escape the empanadas and dry them out.
A perfect Chilean empanada should be juicy and even drip down your wrist—but only once you’ve taken the first bite, not before. Enjoy these pequenes as we do in Chile: Still hot, by hand, and with a small tumbler of a simple, medium-bodied Chilean red wine.
Pequenes (Chilean Onion Empanadas)
A savory onion filling wrapped in a flaky empanada crust defines this handheld pastry
- For the Pequenes Filling:
- 1/4 cup lard, vegetable shortening, or vegetable oil
- 3 1/2 pounds (1.5kg) white or yellow onions (about 7 medium onions), diced
- 1 tablespoon Chilean aji de color or sweet paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon (9g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt, plus more as needed; for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 1 to 2 tablespoons (15-30ml) Chilean hot sauce or sriracha (optional)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
- 1 cup (235ml) beef or vegetable broth
- For the Empanada Dough:
- 4 ounces (115g) unsalted butter
- 4 ounces (115g) lard or vegetable shortening
- 1 tablespoon (9g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; if using table salt, use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 2 pounds (905g) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 1/2 cups (355ml) hot water (130 to 140°F/55 to 60°C), divided
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature and lightly beaten, divided
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) Chilean pisco (use Peruvian pisco or vodka if not available)
- To Assemble:
- 1/4 cup (60ml) milk
- 1 egg yolk beaten with 2 tablespoons milk to form an egg wash
For the Pequenes Filling: In a large nonstick pan or medium Dutch oven, heat lard over medium heat until melted and shimmering. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and transparent, about 15 minutes.
Add ají de color, cumin, salt, hot sauce (if using), and freshly ground black pepper to taste and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Using a wooden spoon, add flour into onion mixture and cook stirring frequently until no lumps remain, about 2 minutes.Stir in broth and bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until reduced and onion mixture is almost dry, 10 to 20 minutes. Season with salt to taste.
Transfer onion mixture to bowl and let cool slightly, then refrigerate until chilled, about 30 minutes.
For the Empanada Dough: In a small saucepan, melt butter and shortening over medium heat until hot (130 to 140°/55 to 60°C).
In a big mixing bowl, thoroughly whisk together flour, salt, and baking powder. Make a well in center of flour mixture and add half of the hot water, half of the melted hot fat mixture, and half of the eggs. Using a wooden spoon, stir vigorously until combined and small lumps form. Add remaining water, fat mixture, eggs, and pisco and stir vigorously until rough dough ball forms and separates from the bowl.
Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead by hand until smooth, and still warm, about 3 minutes.
Wrap with with plastic wrap and let rest in a warm place for 15 minutes (see notes).
To Assemble: Before filling the pequenes, par-freeze onion filling until firm, 15 to 30 minutes (see notes). Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 475°F (245°C).
Cut dough into 12 equal pieces (4 1/2 ounces;125g each).
Working with 1 piece of dough at a time (keep remaining dough pieces covered and warm), dust dough piece lightly with flour and roll into a ball on a lightly floured work surface. Using a rolling pin, roll into a 9 1/2-inch (24cm) round (1/16-inch thick). Do not worry if disc is not perfect; edges will be trimmed later.
Place 3 tablespoons (about 3 ounces; 85g) cold onion filling in lower center half of dough round. Using pastry brush, lightly brush outer 1-inch edge of dough round with milk. Fold dough over filling (without stretching the dough), pressing gently on the border to seal the edges. It should look like a half moon. Don’t worry if some air is trapped inside, as empanadas will be pricked before baking.
Using a pasta wheel or pizza cutter, trim excess dough to form a 3/4-inch (2cm) dough border. Lightly brush milk over sealed edge. Using your fingers, make 4 evenly spaced folds of the dough border inward towards the filling: 2 from the corners towards the sides of the empanada, and then 2 in the center. Folds should slightly overlap and form a V (as shown in the image). Using your index finger, press firmly in the corners where foldings meet. Repeat with remaining dough pieces and filling.
Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Arrange the pequenes on the prepared sheets, spacing them at least 1 inch apart. Re-whisk egg wash to recombine and brush pequenes with egg wash. Using a toothpick or tip of paring knife, prick tops of pequenes for ventilation.
Bake one sheet tray at a time, rotating once halfway through, until golden brown, 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack and repeat with remaining baking sheet. Let the pequenes cool for 10 minutes before serving.
Kitchen scale, rolling pin, pasta wheel cutter or pizza cutter, pastry brush, bench scraper
It is common for pequenes to leak juices while baking. However, this can be avoided by keeping the filling very cold during assembly. Chilling the onion mixture in the freezer for 15 to 30 minutes before assembling ensures the pequenes will not leak. If filling becomes warm, chill in the freezer while assembling.
It is important to keep the empanada dough warm and malleable for easier shaping. To keep the dough warm, try my late Abuelita’s trick: keep the covered dough in a bowl on an inverted lid of a stockpot half full of simmering water.
When shaping the pequenes, always fold the dough edge inward towards the body of the empanada. The inspiration behind this specific folding technique is to resemble the shape of the Chilean Pequen owl’s angular and pointy face, which is where the recipe name comes from.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The onion filling can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days or frozen for up to 2 months.