New Year Turcos

Turcos are a kind of empanada stuffed with a flavorful pork filling. A journey back through history reveals that the story of  these savory-and-sweet turnovers is intertwined with the Sephardic Jews of Mexico who arrived from the Mediterranean in the colonial era. While numerous variations of these petite meat turnovers exist in Mexico and the US, the most interesting are turcos. Not only are they tasty but also linked by historical records to the Mexican Inquisition, the celebration of Sukkoth, a harvest festival, and Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year.

The Inquisition’s earliest evidence of the consumption of turcos dates from the early 17th century. The court documented the cultural habits, including foodways, of Jews, sometimes called conversos, who claimed to have converted to Christianity (mostly in order to escape death by fire) but who, in fact, continued to practice Judaism secretly. Their customs were a hybrid of Christian and Jewish habits. What conversos ate was used as evidence to identify them as crypto-Jews, and to justify sending them to their death.

On September 21, 1603, in Mexico City, prisoner of the Inquisition Sebastián Rodríguez hosted a feast at Cárcel Perpétua, which was a sort of penal residence. Prisoners could go out to conduct their business during the day but had to return every evening. Rodríguez’s party was a celebration of Sukkot, a Jewish harvest festival whose customs include building a hut outside and decorating it with natural materials.

All the dishes for this feast were prepared in Rodriguez’s home kitchen, mainly by his wife and daughter. David Gitlitz writes in Living in Silverado that Rodríguez and the other celebrants “drew their tables out into the prison courtyard under the open sky. They decorated the pillars of the corridor with willow branches and leaves that Rodríguez had purchased and arranged to be carried to the prison.”

The entire Portuguese prison community was invited to this lavish harvest festival. Three of Rodríguez’s invitees turned down the invitation because, it was speculated, they ate only kosher foods and “everyone else … eats salt pork and is not concerned about it.” The guests who did attend celebrated Sukkot with a banquet of turcos, pasteles, tortas, and empanadas.

Documentation of a Mexican trial which took place on September 10, 1603, also tells us about the consumption of turcos. Even if the Jewish holiday of Rosh HaShana (the New Year of the Jewish calendar) is not explicitly mentioned, we assume that turcos were made for this occasion.

Particularly when ancient customs are delicious, they live on. Today, regions nearest the Mexican border, especially Texas, embrace turcos as an integral part of New Year celebrations. Texans blend anise seeds into the dough and fill it with crispy pork, cinnamon, raisins, apple, garlic, onions, sugar, nuts, and cloves. This culinary synthesis echoes the greens and sweet-savory essence of Sephardic Rosh HaShana fare. From one New Year festivity to the next, turcos offer a tangible connection to the passage and integration of crypto-Jewish customs into contemporary American life.

New Year Turcos Recipe

FOR THE DOUGH:

INGREDIENTS

¾ cup water
2–3 inch cinnamon stick (or 1/8 tsp ground cinnamon)
¼ tsp anise seeds
¼ cup raisins
3 cups flour
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
7 tbsp margarine

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. In a saucepan, bring water, cinnamon stick, anise seeds, and raisins to a boil for about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.
  2. Quickly combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and margarine in a large bowl.
  3. Remove the cinnamon stick and drained raisins from the water. Reserve the raisins for the meat filling. Gradually add the cooled water with anise seeds to the dry ingredients.
  4. Knead the mixture by hand for approximately five minutes until you have a smooth dough. Form into a ball and place it in a plastic bag. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or overnight.

FOR THE BEEF FILLING:

INGREDIENTS

½ cup neutral oil
1/3 cup almonds
½ cup olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly chopped
2 tbsp honey
1 lb ground beef
½ tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp anise seeds or ground anise
2 cloves ground or ground nutmeg
1 green apple, cut into small chunks
1 egg (for egg wash)

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Heat the neutral oil in a small frying pan and fry the almonds for about 3 minutes, until golden. Remove the nuts, drain on a paper towel, and let them cool. Once cool, chop them and set aside.
  2. In another frying pan, heat half of the olive oil (1/4 cup) and sauté the thinly chopped onion slowly for about 5 minutes. Add honey and continue cooking until the mixture is dry and thick. Set aside.
  3. Add the remaining ¼ cup olive oil and the ground beef in the same frying pan. Simmer it for about 5 minutes. Add cinnamon, ground anise, and ground nutmeg, and mix well.
  4. Add the reserved raisins, apple chunks, and the cooked onion-honey mixture to the meat mixture. Incorporate the chopped almonds.

TO ASSEMBLE THE TURCOS:

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Line a baking tray with parchment paper.
  3. Place two parchment papers on your counter.
  4. Divide the dough into two parts, forming 2 balls.
  5. Place the first ball on parchment paper, cover it with the second parchment paper, and roll it out to 1/8-inch thickness. Remove the top sheet.
  6. Use a cookie cutter to make rounds with a 4-inch diameter.
  7. Lightly moisten the edge of half of the round with water.
  8. Place the round on the parchment paper on the baking tray. Fill the center of the half-round with 1 tablespoon of the beef filling.
  9. Fold the other half of the round over the top to close the turco, pressing the edges to seal. You can use a fork to press the edges for a secure seal, or for a more aesthetic touch, use your fingers to create a decorative seal.
  10. Brush the turcos with beaten egg wash.
  11. Bake for approximately 15-20 minutes or until golden.

Story by Hélène Jawhara-Piñer with Gabe Gomez / Styling by Anna Calabrese Photography by Dave Bryce

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