In appearance, both are large and hot hand-held pies in the shape of a half moon, with surprise incorporated at the first bite, because their fillings come in a thousand different varieties which give full vent to the imagination.
Two culinary traditions that meet up in one speciality: panzerotto and empanada. Both of them derive from an ancient form of street food, typical of hot countries. In both cases, the art lies in the way the pastry is sealed. Some do it with their hands and others use a fork, but the aim is to ensure that the filling does not leak out during the cooking process.
We shall be considering the traditional version of each of these two foods. If a large tray were to contain panzerotti and empanadas, the difference would not be immediately apparent; they look similar but taste quite different, especially to a true gourmet.
The panzerotto is to be found throughout southern Italy. In Naples it goes under the name of pizza fritta and in Salento calzone but his majesty the panzerotto reigns in Bari and the surrounding area. This is the version we shall be comparing with the Argentine empanada.
Empanadas very probably first originated in Spain from where colonials and conquistadores exported them to South America and it is here, according to the geographical area, the availability of local products and flavourings, that they started to assume their definitive form, to become in the course of the years one of the typical food specialities of Argentina.
0-type soft wheat flour, lukewarm water, beer yeast and one teaspoonful of sugar are the ingredients needed to make the Apulian panzerotto. It is a leavened dough, very similar to that of pizza. The balls of dough weighing 50 g each are left to rise for a couple of hours and are then flattened using a rolling pin.
The empanadas dough, which is called masa in Argentina is a simple one: water, soft wheat flour, lard and salt. In extreme cases, the use of butter is permitted, but nothing other than animal fat. No rising process is involved, the dough is just left to rest for a short while. In Argentina, it is possible to buy the disks of dough, ready for use, but this is not for the purists.
The real difference consists in the filling which entails the use of different ingredients. What counts most of all is that the filling must not be too watery, which would moisten the pastry and cause it to fall apart when cooking.
Unlike the empanada, when making panzerotto it is advisable to place the diced mozzarella cheese and peeled tomatoes in a strainer beforehand. After two hours, when the excess liquid has been eliminated, the ingredients are combined with grated pecorino cheese and, most important of all, pepper. The filling is finally dry and ready for use.
The traditional filling of Argentine empanadas, on the other hand, contains minced beef and its equivalent amount of gently braised onion, sweet peppers, garlic, parsley, raisins and diced boiled eggs, together with a blend of mixed spices which must include paprika and cumin. A sort of meat sauce, whose ingredients are rapidly cooked for no longer than about twenty minutes, after which the mixture must be rather dry.
Both recipes are assembled in much the same way: once the pastry dough has been rolled out, a spoonful of filling is placed on the disk, not in the centre but slightly to one side. The disk is then folded into a half moon shape, but at this point the cooking method differs. The panzerotto is fried immediately to prevent the dough from moistening, in plenty of groundnut. Instead, the empanada is brushed with beaten egg and oven baked at 180°C for 20 minutes.
Shape and seal
In the case of the panzerotto, after moistening the edge of the disk, whose diameter can be as large as 20 cm, it is folded in half and sealed by firmly pressing with the fingertips. The edge is often trimmed with a pastry wheel cutter or simply sealed with the prongs of a fork.
Empanadas, on the other hand, are smaller and never more than 10 cm in diameter. To distinguish the various fillings of empanadas, different edge trims are used, called repulgue. Special dough presses are available to speed up this operation, but here again the purists do their sealing strictly by hand. The most common method is that of a braid-style crimp. Meat-filled empanadas are generally sealed in this way. The pastry edge is pinched and twisted to form a sort of braid. The second method is to "pinch" the edge, usually 8 pinches are required to seal the half moon.
Traditional panzerotto is enjoyed hot and immediately recalls the flavour of pizza, even though it is even richer owing to the unmistakable flavour of fried pastry which confers crispness and a pleasing sensation of greasiness. This is mitigated by the acidity of fresh tomato and, last but not least, the voluptuousness of mozzarella with that necessary dash of pungency provided by pepper.
Instead, when you bite into an empanada, you immediately encounter the flavour of meat with the added complexity of spicy notes conferred by cumin and paprika, which offset the sweetness of onion and raisins, in an interesting three-way contrast: acidity, sweetness and pungency.