I would say that pastel is the Brazilian response to empanada. Although we don’t actually have an empanada like in Argentina or Chile, the filling of beef mince pastel is very similar to the original beef empanadas of those South American countries. The true history of the origin of pastel is not very well documented, but the most accepted theory is that it the inspiration for this recipe came from a Portuguese roll related to the Chinese spring roll. Pastel was later propagated by the Chinese immigrants who started shops specialised in this snack in the 20s in the state of São Paulo, and then came the Japanese immigrants and descendants who also saw an opportunity with the same kind of business and started to sell pastel a few years later.
Pastel is the king of snacks in Brazilian markets, a true obsession in the South and South-East of the country. In São Paulo city there is even an annual competition to award the best street market pastel. The smell of pastel consumes the markets and it is so tempting that it’s impossible to resist. So if you ever decide to try one there, just be patient with the long queues!
The most common filings are minced beef, cheese, hearts of palm or prawns, but the specialised shops have any flavour you could possibly imagine: salted-cured beef, ham and cheese, four cheese, dried-tomatoes and bococcini, chicken, seafood, etc. The creativity does not stop there; the menu also includes sweet options such as chocolate, banana, apple, dulce de leche and guava paste fillings. The pastry is basically the same for both savoury and sweet versions, but it changes quite a bit for the baked version of pastel which is getting more admirers for the perception of being a healthier option. I tried to be conservative here and chose the most common of them all, and one of my favourites: the simple and irresistible deep-fried beef mince pastel.
One of the secrets to a good pastel is to get the pastry right. According to the masters of pastel, cachaça is the ingredient that makes the pastry crunchy, dry and flaky. You will notice that the dough is quite dry and difficult to knead, but after kneaded and rested the pastry will be very easy to handle.
Also, the filling should be well seasoned and flavoursome and the right quantity should be put into the pastry: not too much, not too little… just the right amount!
3 cups plain flour, sifted
Pinch of salt
3 tbs extra virgin olive oil
50 ml cachaça*
Vegetable oil for deep frying (e.g. canola or peanut oil)
2 tbs extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
500 g beef mince
1 garlic clove, crushed
15 green olives, pitted and roughly chopped
Pinch of nutmeg
2 tbs chopped parsley
2 tbs chopped spring onions
Salt and pepper to taste
*Available from large liquor stores or online
1. Pour the flour and a pinch of salt in a bowl, make a well in the centre and pour the oil, cachaça and milk. Mix the ingredients well.
2. On a clean surface, dust some flour and work the dough vigorously for 5 minutes or until it is smooth and elastic. Transfer to a bowl, cover with a clean tea towel and set aside to rest for 30 minutes.
3. In a small sauce pan boil some water and cook the eggs for 10 minutes. Cool under running water, peel and chop roughly. Reserve.
4. Heat the extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan and fry the onion, stirring for 5 minutes or until soft. Stir in the garlic and beef mince, breaking the meat with a wooden spoon. Keep frying for a few minutes until the meat is cooked through. Stir in the olives, eggs, nutmeg and herbs and cook for a further minute. Transfer to a bowl, cover and place in the fridge until required.
5. Using a pasta machine or a pin roll, roll the dough flat until it is about 0.3 cm thick. Using pizza cutter cut the pastry into various rectangles of about 8 cm long. As you pile the rectangles**, put a little bit of flour between them so they don’t stick. Keep repeating this step until all dough is used. The remaining dough can be kneaded and rolled again.
6. Pour some water into a small bowl. Place 1 ½ tbs of the meat mixture in the middle of a rectangle. Using a pastry brush, brush the edges of the pastry with a little bit of water. Use another rectangle to close the pastries together like a big ravioli. Press the edges of the pastry with a fork to ensure it will not open while is being fried. Repeat the process with the remaining pastries.
7. Line a large plate with paper towel. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat or deep-fryer. Test the oil with a piece of bread, if the bread turns brown in 30 seconds the oil is ready. Fry the pastries, a couple at a time, for 1 minute on each side or until slightly golden and crispy. They can be served hot or cold with tabasco or a good-quality hot chilli sauce on the side.
Other filling ideas: 1) a slice of your favourite cheese; 2) cheese and smoked ham; 3) hearts of palm sauce – sauté 1 chopped onion and 1 crushed garlic in olive oil, add 1 tomato, a can of sliced hearts of palm, chopped basil, salt and pepper; 4) sliced bananas and cinnamon. Makes: about 16
** Alternatively you can make half moon shapes (cut the dough using a round pastry cutter)