I grew up in California, one side of my family is Mexican, and let me be the first to tell you that it simply is not Christmas without tamales.
Some people will tell you that the proper Christmas tamale is sweet; the masa infused with cinnamon and raisins, or for the even more wayward, pineapple or strawberry. These people are wrong.
The tamale you really want, this time of year, is one of savory meat in a spice-inflected red chile sauce, encased in flavorful, airy masa (treated ground cornmeal mixed with liquid and fat– more on that below), and wrapped and steamed in a corn husk.
Another acceptable variation, (although to some members of my family, this is blasphemy), is the cheese-and-jalapeno filled. Gooey, melting white cheese (Monterey jack is fine) and jalapenos en escabeche, (pickled jalapenos, with carrots and onions– like these) are an inspired filling.
Now that we have our basic description of the proper tamale out of the way, I have a confession. I’ve never made the masa from scratch. Some years ago, when cousins and uncles and I revived the tamale-making tradition, (which had otherwise taken a 15-year or so hiatus in our particular branch of the family, which spent the nineties and early aughts relying on the kindness of strangers, (or at least their willingness to sell us a few dozen) and the occasional benevolence of a distant relative), we discovered that prepared tamale masa could be purchased from Mexican markets and bakeries. This purchase can cut hours from tamale production time, (which already takes the better part of a day.) Reader, we purchased it. We have not looked back.
That isn’t to say that purchased masa should be used as-is! There are a number of– let’s call them “masa hacks”– that will render your purchased masa just as good as homemade.
1. Try to purchase your masa from a place that makes their own tamales.
2. The smaller the store or bakery, the better. We’ve had some incidents with poorly-mixed masa from giant Mexican supermarkets who are mixing thousands of pounds of it in bulk, in the back. Someone wasn’t checking the bottom of the industrial mixer.
3. Typically, purchased prepared masa needs a little help in the form of added broth, fat, and/or air. The air is added by kneading it. The broth and fat are saved from your tamale meat’s cooking liquid. Sometimes purchased masa feels dry or grainy. In that case, add broth and knead. You test it by pinching off and rolling a little ball, and dropping it into a glass of ice water. You want it to float, (ideally suspended about halfway up the glass.) If it sinks, you need to add more of the liquid fat from the cooked meat, or incorporate more air. Keep repeating these steps until your masa floats.
4. Beyond texture and airiness, if you’re looking for more flavor, both the broth and fat incorporation described above should help, and you can also add a little of your prepared red mole.
Beef or pork? Pork is more traditional, so I say go full puerco. But if you have die-hard beef fans in the family, and/or the friends with whom you are sharing the tamale-making experience this year have just purchased 1/4 of a grass-fed cow from a humane rancher near Petaluma, (as was the case for us), then beef it is.
There’s no need to waste your hard-earned cash on expensive cuts at tamale time. You want cuts that will take well to slow-cooking; their fat and collagen breaking down gradually to produce tender and sumptuous meat. If you’re using pork, think country ribs or shoulder. (Bone-in will have more flavor and also will release umami-overloaded marrow into the meat– just be sure to buy heavier cuts to make up for the eventual removal of the bones.) If you’re using beef, a couple of nice big chuck roasts will do nicely. The rule of thumb is a pound of meat to a pound of masa. You’re going to want dozens of tamales, so get at least 15 pounds of meat. Get 20 or 25 if you have a big crew to help with assembly.
So now that you have your meat, preparation is this easy: Fill a large stock pot halfway with water. Peel and quarter a couple of onions; drop them in. Peel and smash several cloves of garlic; drop them in. Add a few dried bay leaves. Salt that water like you mean it, add the meat, (don’t bother trimming it– you can remove any fat that doesn’t break down later, when you’re shredding it), and bring it to a low simmer. (Do not boil. Never boil. Boiling is the last thing on earth you want to do to meat. It will make it tough and stringy.) Then walk away. Check on it once in a while to make sure it hasn’t crept above a simmer (tiny bubbles– not big, not rolling); lower the heat if it has. In a few hours, you’ll have tender and flavorful meat. Reserve your broth and the liquid fat floating atop it for later. As soon as the meat is cool enough, shred it, removing the bones and any chunks of fat that haven’t broken down. Remember that each shred of meat you expose will soon be coated in tasty red mole, so don’t leave giant chunks of meat unless you have something against red mole. And if you do, you shouldn’t even be making these. Go eat some gingerbread and call it a day.
And now, you make your red mole. It’s really very similar to the mole traditionally used for chile colorado, (which I’ve written about previously), so I’m just going to give you that recipe again, with the minor modifications that make it scream “Christmas.”
Red Mole, for Tamales
- 12 dried California chiles
- 12 dried New Mexico chiles
- 12 dried chiles de arbol
- 12 dried Guajillo chiles
- 8 cloves of fresh garlic
- 2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon thyme
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon ground clove
- 1 stick cinnamon (try to get real cinnamon, as opposed to cassia*.)
- 4 cups pork or beef broth*
- To taste, salt (be generous*)
- Remove stems and shake off seeds from dried chiles. (If necessary, wash and thoroughly pat dry first.) (Note: other varietals of dried chiles may be substituted as per your preference and spice tolerance. Visit my Chile Colorado post for more information on your various dried chile options, and their flavor profiles and spice levels.)
- Toast the chiles until color deepens, but stop short of charring them. They will toast quickly in a hot pan. (Or just stick them in a 350 degree oven for a few minutes-- it's easier and there's less chance of burning them. They'll smell incredible when you pull them out. Do not allow people to eat them at this juncture, though they may ask.)
- Meanwhile, have a couple of quarts of water ready at a boil.
- Carefully pour the water over the chiles, place something on top of them to keep them submerged, and leave them for 20-30 minutes.
- Place the softened chiles in a blender with at least 4 cups of the broth produced by the cooked meat, plus the garlic, salt and spices. Blend thoroughly. Taste and adjust salt and other seasonings as necessary.
- Pass the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer to capture any remaining bits of tough skin or seeds. This process can take a while; press the sauce against the strainer with a spatula or other implement to hasten the process.
- *Cassia is commonly sold as cinnamon in the US. You can tell the difference by looking at the stick-- is it tightly coiled with many papery layers? Then it's real cinnamon. Is it more loosely coiled, with one thick layer that just looks like a pinched letter "C?" That's cassia. You'll have a better chance of finding real cinnamon at a Mexican supermarket.)
- * Use the broth derived from the meat you've cooked for the tamales.
- * Use more salt than you think you'll need, Taste after the first good whirl of all the ingredients in the blender, and add more salt as needed; it really brings the rest of the flavors alive. And since the salt-- or at least its flavor-- seems to be lost more rapidly in steaming than some of the other flavors, you should really ere on the side of "seems too salty" at this point. Your tamales will be perfect by the time they're done steaming.
Now that your red mole is ready, pour it over your shredded pork or beef, and mix to combine the two thoroughly. Give your new meat-and-mole mixture a taste. It’s not too late to add more salt if you think it needs it.
Do not, under any circumstances, allow your tamale crew to make tacos out of the filling at this point. They will plead, and cajole. Stay strong.
Okay, on to…
The night before, you left dozens of corn husks submerged and soaking in water. Now they’re pliant and ready to be filled.
Place the corn husk in your hand, with the narrow, pointy side towards you. Starting about 4 inches up the husk from the narrow point, spread the masa thinly, from one side of the husk to the other, leaving about a 1 inch gap of uncovered husk at the wide top.
Now add filling vertically up the middle of the tamale. Don’t spread your filling to the sides like you did with the masa. Just a nice, vertical line of spicy red meat.
Add a single black, California olive. This is my family’s signature move. You won’t regret it.
Now gather the left and right ends of your husk and press together so that the masa thoroughly encases the meat, and press the masa together to form a seal. Fold your husk left or right, and bring up the bottom few inches that you left uncovered previously. You’ll have a perfectly folded tamale.
Once you have a couple dozen ready, fire up a big stockpot with a steamer insert, with enough water to steam the tamales but not to actually touch them. Place your tamales in vertically, and steam them until the masa is firm. This can take up to four hours. (Check your water levels frequently and replenish as necessary, or risk a scorched black pot.) Lucky, you’ll be wrapping up the other several dozen in the interim. Keep steaming in batches until they’re all done! (You can also freeze unsteamed tamales, for steaming at a later date… just allow six hours instead of four for that endeavor.)
Finally, pile your steamed tamales on a plate, gather everyone around, and open your fragrant packets of deliciousness. Everyone’s eyes will sparkle with holiday cheer, (although that may just be as the result of the wine and cocktails consumed during tamale assembly), but still– it will be festive. Merry Christmas!