Indulging my Inner Texan: Tamales

This has been the Year of Complicated Recipes.

I’ve known people who cook intricate things as a means of precise, mechanical distraction. I get it, but that is not quite my style. Distraction in cooking for me requires a sort of fugue state of whimsical iteration at 350+ degrees. There are two rules: spice liberally & wear a fancy apron.

I’m not sure why I finally decided to make tamales. Something about simulating a sense of home in what has been a half-year of aimless flux. They are tangible and stolid, process-oriented and no-nonsense, but with ample room for inspired wandering. In a pinch – or for the culinary minimalist – they provide a complete set of essential amino acids. They required less solid fat than August’s croissants, and slightly more than March’s Moroccan bastilla. There is a sort of self-sufficiency about the simplicity: should society as we know it collapse and send modern cookware up in flames, they are the one food I am nearly certain I could manage to wring from the earth and shepherd from seed to table.

Anyone who has cooked with me knows and/or has been frustrated by how awful I am at actually following recipes to the letter. With that in mind, what follows is the gist of what I did.

You’ll need:

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Tamale clothes
Corn husks
Water, for soaking, and optional food dye

Masa dough
Depending how many tamales you want to make, mix the masa flour and the liquid in equal parts, and then add half the fat. For example, I used 4.5 cups masa flour, 4.5 cups vegetable broth, and 2.25 cups vegetable shortening to make about 40 tamales. If you have access to fresh masa, just use it instead of the flour-broth conglomeration and just mix with the fat in a 2-to-1 ratio.
Masa flour
Broth (vegetable or chicken) or water
Lard or vegetable shortening
Spices for savory tamales – for two-thirds of my total masa mass, I used:

  • 3 tbs garlic powder
  • 3 tbs smoked chili powder
  • 2 tbs cumin
  • 1 tbs finely-ground salt

Filling of choice, savory or sweet. Shredded meats work well if you’re into that. I made three types

  • Cheese: oaxacan cheese or queso fresco (if you’re in the cold dark north, look for queso blanco made with rennet), cilantro, spice paste (see below)
  • Vegetable: corn, black beans, chopped green chili peppers, cilantro, spice paste (see below)
  • Dessert: candied pecan bits, cinnamon, brown sugar, vanilla, orange juice & zest mixed into a thick paste and blended into the masa at half volume.
  • Optional spice paste: whole dried chilies of choice (I used pasilla), garlic, pepper, salt, lime

Cooking method: Steaming (35-40 minutes) is ideal, and it really will make a difference in the final texture. In a pinch, you can bake them at 375 degrees for 15-20 minutes with a baking sheet of water also in the oven. You can steam in an actual steamer, a crock pot, or set up an elaborate DIY contraption with a large pot of water containing a smaller pot of tamales with the larger one covered (guess which method I used…).

Step 1: Soak the corn husks in water until pliable (at least two hours; they can also sit overnight). If you are feeling particularly festive, add food dye. This step is useful if you want a simple mechanism to differentiate between different types of tamales (ex. I wrapped my bean & corn in blue husks, bean & cheese in red husks, and dessert tamales in natural husks).


Step 2: Prepare the masa dough. Divide the masa dough ingredients proportionately to however many savory/sweet tamales you want to make (the split doesn’t matter as long as you maintain a 2:2:1 flour:broth:fat mix – the split is just to avoid putting cumin, for example, in sweet tamales). In an extremely large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients with the spices and blend well so as to distribute the spices evenly throughout the flour. Add the broth for savory tamales, or water for sweet tamales, one cup at a time. Stir into a sticky dough and then blend in the fat.

The texture and the way you handle the dough are important here. You’ll want to beat for at least 8-10 minutes. The dough should end up thick but not dense. (Some recipes I found suggested that it float in water, and to keep beating until it does. I don’t have a mixer so I gave up before that point and they turned out fine, but feel free to aim higher).

(Step 2.5: Stare in disgusted awe as your baby cat actually attempts to eat Crisco from the can you left sitting on the counter…why?!)

Step 3: Once the husks are adequately pliant and/or colored, set them between paper towel layers to remove excess water. At this point, your hands will look like you just voted in a poorly-monitored Iraqi election.

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Step 4 (optional): Prepare a spicy inner layer for the filling. I had some dried pasilla chilies lying around and wanted to get rid of them. Remove the caps, stems, and seeds, and toast them gently over medium heat until they are more pliable, like nice thin leather. Soak them in hot water (I left the stovetop on and kept it just below boiling) until soft – the standard I used was “soft enough to impale themselves” aka they’ll split if you hoist their weight on a sharp knife. With six pepper skins, I minced a whole head of garlic, added some pepper, salt, lime, and cilantro, and mashed the thing up mortar-and-pestle style into a sort of compote. A civilized human would use a blender or food processor. It is okay if there are some larger pieces; they are tender and will tear easily when chewed.

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Step 5: Prepare the filling! Feel free to play fast & loose with ingredients here. For my vegetable tamales, I used equal portions of corn and black beans (a can each) about a half-portion of green chilies (two tiny cans – Trader Joe’s has some good fire-roasted green chilies), with cilantro to taste. For the cheese, I crumbled the queso into small chunks and mixed with cilantro.

I’m not even going to attempt to guess at the proportions I used for the sweet tamales, but I mixed together a 4-oz bag of candied pecan crumbles with some brown sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, orange juice, and orange zest until it formed a slightly loose paste that tasted decent. I blended it straight into the masa mixture instead of forming an inner layer, as I’ll outline next for the savory tamales.

Step 6: Set up an assembly line. I worked with the husks close to me and bowls of masa, filling, and spice paste behind, lining/stacking the rolled husks up on parchment papers as I finished.

Step 7: Load ‘em up. Spread a layer of masa filling – about ¼ inch thick – in a triangle along one edge of the wide end of the husk, leaving about an inch to spare. Add a layer of your filling in the center of the masa – it should be fully enclosed by the masa after rolling, but don’t worry too much about precision – and then a line of spice mix if you’re using it. Tuck the thin end inside and roll it up. If you are feeling particularly fancy, you can tie them shut with strips of husk.

Step 8: Cook. Steam for 35-40 minutes. Lean them against the walls of the steamer with the open end pointing up. Again, you can either use an adult steamer, or jerry-rig your own – but the steam really helps the flavoring and texture. If you don’t have a steamer (or pots/bowls that are heat-proof and well-sized for nesting), place the tamales on a baking sheet and a pan of hot water beneath them in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes (you can also spray some water in the oven every few minutes for additional moisture). The tamales are done with the insides are tender and the husk peels away easily.

They also keep well in the freezer. Thaw and re-heat by steaming.

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Just for the neurotics.

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Indulging my Inner Texan: Tamales

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