Tuesday, July 27, 2010


This post is long overdue. Thanks for the patience. 

Tamales hold a special place in the heart of many Mexicans. And I only add the “many” to avoid potentially offensive stereotyping. Thank goodness I live in Mexico and political correctness is not (generally) a major point of concern.

All joking aside, tamales are something special. Traditionally eaten on Sundays with hot chocolate (my uncle likes to dip green salsa tamales right on in like donuts), and especially on February 2nd, prepared by the person who found the baby Jesus in his or her piece of rosca on the día de los Reyes on January 6th, tamales are a labor of love.

Fittingly, when I brought a rosca I had helped prepare from the panadería to share with my aunt and uncle, as hard as I tried not to remember where we normally ended up placing the tiny plastic dolls, I inevitably ended up with one of the baby Jesuses. And he was facedown...we really should try to be more careful with the infant savior as we toss him in the dough. And that meant that I would be preparing my uncle’s long-wished for batch of tamales. Thank goodness my aunt took it into her hands to teach me the ins-and-outs of the tamale business.

Like any dish or recipe that requires a fair amount of patience and elbow-grease, there are several beliefs and traditions that go hand in hand with the preparation. Break one of the rules and you are doomed to unevenly cooked tamales or a goopy mess. When we prepared a whopping 5 kilos of dough, about 170 tamales in early February, my aunt didn’t let me help her with mixing the dough because of the belief that if more than one person se mete la mano, the tamales will never fully cook. The result would be goopy, unevenly cooked tamales. A shame after all that work. She also said that if someone became angry or fought while preparing the tamales, that person had to dance around the tamale steamer as a sort of penitence, or the tamales won’t fully cook. Finally, if someone helping is pregnant, a small tamale must be prepared and cooked along side the other tamales for the baby or, you guessed it, the tamales won’t fully cook. She explained these rules without a trace of skepticism so I decided to take her word for it.

After an hour and a half of (im)patiently waiting for the tamales to fully cook in not one, but TWO vaporeras, we dug in. My aunt and I each ate 6 apiece! Most cooks now buy pre-prepared masa para tamales, but María Ester's homemade family recipe for the masa was exquisite. The tesquesquite and tomatillo husks resulted in perfectly fluffy dough that still held together to encase the delicious rellenos. In a pinch and most likely without access to tesquesquite, a rock or powdered mineral, to use as a rising agent, a teaspoon of baking powder will do the trick. 

Note: If you don't have two steamers or a way to makeshift two steamers (glass teacups with a flattened steamer basket placed inside a large pot will do the trick), reduce the amount of dough and fillings by half. You'll still have around 80 tamales to enjoy. If this is your first time making tamales, don't go all out with 5 types, try one or two. This is just for those who want to recreate the (thoroughly enjoyable) all-day tamale-making frenzy I underwent with my aunt.  
Note: Tamales can be frozen and enjoyed for up to a month. (I stretched it to three.) 

María Ester Canal Zanella

150 corn husks (about 3 bunches)

For the masa (corn dough for tamales):

husks from 3/4 kg tomatillo
1 pumpkin or large squash stem
1 tsp. tesquesquite
1 tsp. anise
1/2 kg shortening
1/2 kg pork lard
5 kg corn flour (for tamales)
~5 cups chicken broth 

For the savory rellenos:

1 chicken breasts, cooked and shredded
3/4 kg tomatillo
125 g serrano chile
1 garlic clove
1/2 kg tomato
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/2 kg jalapeños, cut in strips (seeding optional)
~75 g of pasta for mole poblano 
1-2 cups of chicken broth
1 bunch epazote
200 g queso fresco, in strips
salt to taste

For the tamales dulces:
250 g raisins
200 g sweetened shredded coconut
sugar to taste
red food coloring
Before beginning assembly, prepare the savory fillings: 
Boil the tomatillos with the serrano chiles until soft. Blend with the garlic and salt to taste until you obtain a uniform salsa. Mix with half the shredded chicken breast.  

Dice the tomato. Saute in 1-2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Add the cumin and season until the tomato is soft. Add the strips (rajas) of chile jalapeño and stir. Cook until just tender. 

Thin the mole poblano paste with chicken broth. (Who makes a complicated mole recipe just to make a complicated tamale recipe? I don't think so. Mole pastes in a range of prices are available for sale in the market, supermarket, even Walmart. Some moles specify that they are made with almond, others with peanut or a mixture for a less pricey mole). Mix with half a shredded chicken breast.

Undo the husk bundles and put the husks in water to soak.

Boil the tomatillo husks and the squash stem with the tesquesquite and anise until the water obtains a greenish hue. Set aside to cool. 

In a very large bowl or earthenware casserole and at room temperature, beat the shortening with the lard and half a cup of cold water until fluffy and all lumps are gone.

After using the hand mixer, use a technique of rotating the large earthenware casserole while pushing hand down and towards the center, incorporating air and ensuring thorough mixing.

Add the tamale flour and mix using hand mixer and then manuel technique to incorporate fully. Add the tomatillo-husk water, strained. Add up to 5 cups of chicken broth a little at a time to obtain a loose but not liquid dough, using manual technique to mix thoroughly after each addition.

The dough is fully mixed and ready to form tamales when a small ball of dough dropped in room-temperature water floats and does not come apart. 

Remove the husks from the water and shake to remove excess water. Get yourself, dough, husks, and fillings ready for assembly!

Working with one husk at a time, take a husk in your hand. Using a large spoon, add tamale dough and spread to fill the base of the husk with a centimeter-thick layer. 

 Add filling to the center. In this picture, first a slice of fresh cheese, an epazote leaf and a few rajas quickly softened in the chunky tomato sauce.

Carefully detach one side of the dough from the husk to cover part of the filling. Detach the other side of the dough and hope the two ends meet. Fold one edge of the husk over the filling and dough and into the other husk edge, created a tight and neat little package. 

Repeat with remaining cheese and rajas. Start the process with the other savory fillings, the chicken breast with mole poblano and the chicken breast in salsa verde. Save about a fifth of the dough (or more if you have a sweet-tooth) to make the tamales dulces. You will most likely have some filling left over. 

For the tamales dulces: 

Mix half the remaining dough with the shredded coconut and a handful of raisins. Add sugar to taste (yep, taste the dough, just a bit). Form tamales with the dough.

Mix the remaining dough with a bit of food coloring to obtain a Mexican rose color (too bad I didn't take a picture...the hands were a little doughy at this point.) Mix with the remaining raisins and sugar to taste. Form tamales with the dough. 
Place water in the bottom of two vaporeras. Add a small coin to each. The coin will let you know when the water begins to boil (clink clink clink) and when it's necessary to add more water. 

My aunt made the sign of the cross over the vaporeras, kissed the coin before dropping it in and prayed for the fruits of out efforts to cook quickly and evenly. This step is considered crucial, so I'm including it. Many of us take our food religiously, and tamales should be no exception.  

Accommodate the tamales vertically, not too tightly packed. Stuff the tail-end of extra husks overlapping down into the sides of the vaporera, ensuring that the bases overlap to cover the tamales. Cover with a wet cloth and a plastic bag, tucking into the sides of the vaporera. Cover with tightly-fitting lid and cook for an hour and a half, counting from the time the water begins to boil with the signature clink clink clink noise, on the stove with medium-high flame or over a charcoal fire. Be sure to add water if necessary. 

After an hour and 15 minutes, remove a tamale and check to see if the dough is fluffy and easily detaches from the husk. If so, your tamales are ready to eat. Remove from the flame and remove carefully with tongs.