Sunday, June 15, 2014

Improved Tamales

The first time I made tamales, I fell into the trap of thinking that it had to be difficult to make them, because they are delicious, and mysterious, and somewhat exotic to me. In hindsight, this was a pretty silly thing to assume, because like all really good comfort food, tamales are what poor people with few resources in terms of time or equipment make to feed themselves with. I'm sure the procedure outlined in my first attempt is just fine, if you want to make things hard on yourself, but this is easier, and comes out better. You do not need a mixer, just a big bowl and a spoon or spatula. You don't need to whip the shortening first, and then add little bits of this and little bits of that, just whack it all together. And for crying out loud, just use baking powder. No one in their right mind is going to turn their nose up at your tamale because it is too fluffy and delicious!

Start by putting half a package of corn husks in very hot water to soak. Weight them down with something so they stay submerged. This will make 10 to 15 tamales depending on how big you want them.

Then take

3 1/2 cups masa for tamales
2 1/2 cups nearly boiling water

Mix these 2 ingredients thoroughly, until the masa is evenly moistened. Cover and set aside for about 45 minutes to hydrate while you assemble whatever you want to put inside them. I used little sticks of cheddar and a half jar of roasted green peppers that was in the freezer. When you're ready to assemble things you will need:

More warm water
1 Tablespoon baking powder
2/3 cups shortening- I used about half butter and half bacon fat.
Aluminum foil

Break up the hydrated masa and mix in the shortening and baking powder.. A wooden spoon or something else firm is good for this. When the shortening is well incorporated, gradually add enough water to give the mix a soft play-doh consistency. Salt to taste.

Take about half a cup of dough and squish it onto the center of a corn husk. Form it into a square about 4" across and put few bits of filling down the center. Roll the whole business up, fold over the narrow end of the husk and leave the other end open. Tear a off rectangle of aluminum foil and firmly wrap the tamale with it.

To cook, fill a stock pot or other deep cooking vessel with about 4" of water. Put the tamales in the pot so that the open ends of the tamales are pointing upwards. Boil for about 45 minutes or until the cheese explodes out of the wrapper and makes a mess.


1. Remember to keep track of which end is the open end of the tamale! I folded the foil wrappers so the ends were easily distinguishable.
2. Use fresh masa. Mine was rather old, and while the texture is great, the taste is a little disappointing.
3. You can use any type of shortening, even cooking oil, I bet.
4. Likewise, you could use stock instead of water. I was just trying to keep things simple.
5. Use enough salt. Tamales don't even have to have fillings, it's really about the steamed masa, so make sure that stuff is well seasoned.
6. Try to keep the filings well encased in the masa. Tamales expand significantly during cooking, which puts a lot of pressure on the insides. 

Expansion is why you leave one end of the tamale open in the first place. If you wrap the whole thing up as tight as possible, you're just setting yourself up to have the husks rupture and make a giant gloppy mess in the cooking pot. It's better to leave one end open to give it a little extra room at the outset. Foil wrapping helps too. It eliminates the need to use little strings to tie up the husks, and keeps excess water out of the tamales while they're boiling.

This recipe is so much simpler than the previous one that I am again considering making my own tamales regularly.

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