Thanksgiving Leftover Empanadas
Leftovers are destined for an ill fate in my house. With the exception of a few things that are truly better in the days after cooking, like chili, neither my wife or I are much inclined to eat previous meals more than once, although she definitely is more apt to make use of remnants than me. Thanksgiving leftovers get hit even harder because the wife isn't that fond of turkey to begin with and their overabundance actually turns me off because I just imagine myself having to consume the same heavy meal day after day. This has led me to be more creative with Thanksgiving leftovers than most, and I've developed a number of recipes that make them feel fresh and new, like pressed into a panini, loaded into a potato skin, or slathered in barbecue sauced and piled onto a bun. All of those were great, but this year I've outdone myself with something that isn't just good in the days following the holiday, but can be frozen and eaten all year—Thanksgiving leftover empanadas.
To be totally honest, this was a purpose driven recipe and I developed it prior to Thanksgiving, so I had to compile a number of the components of the holiday feast on their own. For the turkey, I had broken down a whole bird and used the breasts for turkey porchetta, grilled and dressed the legs in an white barbecue sauce, then used the remaining wings and thighs to make these empanadas. I thought I'd get maximum flavor by smoking, so after giving the meat a simple salt and pepper seasoning, I merely tossed them in the smoker that I already had running at 225°F with apple wood.
I also made a huge batch of mashed potatoes, which I failed to take a finished photo of, so here you get to see the first step of boiling the peeled and diced russets. Mashed potatoes is the Thanksgiving outlier that will always get eaten as leftovers, and when making mashed potatoes this particular day, I cooked enough to serve my crowd of 10-12 people as a side, used part for the empanada stuffing, and still had enough extra for eating during the week.
For the dough, I went with a very pie-like recipe and process. It began with cutting butter into the flour just like you would do for pie. I used to exclusively use the food processor to make quick and easy work of this, but I've come to prefer the manual method with a pastry blender. This is partly due to having more control of how much the butter gets broken down—my doughs have turned out more tender and flaky with larger pieces of butter left remaining—and partly because I find cutting the butter by hand is less work than having the clean the food processor, which always feels like a chore I don't want to do.
Once the butter was blended in to my liking, I added the liquids in the form of an egg and cold water. The egg is not traditional for a pie crust, but it gives the empanada dough some extra stability, so I decided to go for it as a kind of insurance policy. I then gently folded and pushed the dough against the sides of the bowl until it just came together into a single mass. After that I shaped it into a disc, encased it in plastic wrap, and stored it in the fridge until I was ready to make the empanadas later that evening.
I did the dough while the turkey was smoking, and I let the thighs cook until they reached between 170-175°F in the thickest part of the meat. By that time they were a beautiful golden brown color and I removed them from the smoker, placed them in a large bowl, and set that in the fridge until the meat was throughly chilled. It was at that point that I was ready to actually make the empanadas, which began with pulling the meat from the bone and roughly chopping.
I also opted to to chop up the standard onion, celery, and carrot Thanksgiving vegetable trio and sauté them in butter to use as part of the filling too. I know this part isn't strictly leftovers, but I also almost never come out on the other side of the holiday without these three veggies still on hand, so it's a good way to use up those remaining raw ingredients too. After the veggies were all softened, I stirred in some thyme and garlic and then removed the pan from the heat.
The base of filling came together as equal parts turkey and mashed potatoes. The veggies then went in and added important notes of the holiday meal, but the filling wasn't yet popping how I wanted it to. So I decided to toss in some sharp cheddar cheese that I had bought for another dish that day and, after that, I started wanting to eat spoonful after spoonful of the filling even though it was cold.
With the filling done, it was time to roll out the dough and cut out the rounds for the empanadas. I went on the smaller size here because I'm more drawn to finger foods and knew the final product would be more to my liking in a smaller portion. I used my largest biscuit cutter—a littler over 3-inches—to make perfect circles that I topped with heaping tablespoons of the filling.
Shaping and sealing empanadas has never been a skill of mine, but I decided to learn how to crimp them closed in a nicer fashion this time around. After watching some YouTube videos on the process, I tried it out and my first couple attempts looked surprisingly good for me. I then lost it and the next 28 or so empanadas didn't have that more skilled look, but they remained shut and I guess that's really the point.
I did the empanada assembly the night prior to serving these, so I froze them on a parchment-lined baking sheet to get them into a state of suspended animation. The next day, while preheating the oven to 425°F, I took out the amount of empanadas I wanted to serve and brushed them with an egg wash so they would have that final glossy appearance. Then into the oven they went and I kept an eye on them, pulling them out once they were golden brown—this took about 25 minutes in my oven.
Cutting into one, they didn't look like much, just a brown that blended with the outer shell. That kind of drab appearance did not match the taste at all, which was really stellar. The mashed potatoes were the right base to give the innards a moisture and richness that went really well with the tender and flaky exterior. The turkey provided the heft, and the smokiness was a great flavor enhancer here. The veggies added a sweetness that had a flavor profile that was right at home, while you probably may not even realize there was cheese in there too, but there was an extra sharpness and creaminess that would have been missing without it. What really let me know that these were a success was the fact that I saw my wife eat many of them. Since she's not that inclined to eat a ton of Thanksgiving leftovers to begin with, these empanadas definitely provided a way to make use of them in manner that we both would have no problem eating again and again. I also found it interesting that she actually thought I put ham in there and not turkey, and to me ham is the far superior meat, so that really was just a bonus win in a recipe I was already incredibly happy with.
Thanksgiving Leftover Empanadas
- Yield About 30 Empanadas
- Prep 45 Minutes
- Inactive 1 Hour
- Cook 25 Minutes
- Total 2 Hours 10 Minutes
- For the Dough
- 4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the work surface
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 16 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 sticks), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 3/4 cup cold water, plus more as needed
- For the Filling
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup finely diced onion (about 1/2 a medium onion)
- 1/4 cup finely diced celery (about 1 large stalk)
- 1/4 cup finely diced carrot (about 1 medium carrot)
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme
- 1 teaspoon finely minced fresh garlic (about 1 medium cloves)
- 1 1/2 cups roughly chopped leftover turkey
- 1 1/2 cups mashed potatoes
- 3 oz grated white cheddar
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 1 cup turkey gravy, warmed (optional)
- 1 cup cranberry sauce (optional)
- To make the dough: In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, and salt. Add in butter cubes and toss to break up and coat in flour. Using a pastry blender, cut butter into flour until butter is broken down to the size of small peas and flour has a mealy texture. Add in water and egg. Using a rubber spatula, gently knead dough, pushing it against sides of bowl, until a shaggy ball forms. If a dough ball is not forming, add in additional cold water, one tablespoon at a time, until a ball forms. Divide dough in half and gently press each piece into a roughly 6-inch disc. Wrap each piece of dough in plastic wrap and place in refrigerator for 1 hour and up to 2 days.
- To make the filling: Melt butter in a small saucepan set over medium heat. When foaming subsides, add in onion, celery, and carrot and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables have softened, but not browned, about 8 minutes. Stir in thyme and garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Remove pan from heat and set aside.
- In a medium bowl, mix together turkey, mashed potatoes, cheese, and vegetable mixture. Season filling with salt and pepper to taste.
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Remove 1 disc of dough from the refrigerator. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured work surface until about 1/8 inch thick. Using a 3 1/2-inch round biscuit cutter, cut out rounds and remove excess dough, saving for later. Place a heaping tablespoon of filling in the middle of each dough round. Seal dough around filling and crimp shut with fingers or the tines of a fork. Transfer empanadas to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat process with second disc of dough and then saved excess dough.
- Brush empanadas with beaten egg. Transfer baking sheets to oven and bake until empanadas are golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes, switching and rotating the trays halfway through the baking time. Remove baking sheets from oven and let cool for 5 minutes. Transfer empanadas to a serving platter and serve with gravy and cranberry sauce, if desired.