Editor’s note: Kathy Ayer was fortunate this past holiday season to meet with an old family friend for a lesson in how to make authentic Mexican tamales.
Here are step-by-step instructions for how to make them from a recipe that has been passed down through the generations. It’s no easy task, and after reading it’s hard not to appreciate the time and tradition that is put into the effort. You may also find yourself wishing you had a Mexican neighbor!
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In California, we are fortunate to have an abundance of ethnic restaurants, especially Mexican ones.
When you have friends from Mexico who cook, or when their moms cook for you, it’s even better. Around Christmas, I’ve been known to hang around these friends’ houses just a bit more because I know it’s the season for tamales. During the holidays in a Mexican household, you’ll see bags filled with cornhusk-wrapped packages being passed around like presents.
At one time tamales were just that.
Families that had little money would instead make tamales and give them as gifts for Christmas. Although actual store-bought presents are the norm now, I have a feeling those of us who get the take-home bag of tamales cherish them as much or even more than the “official” Christmas gift.
Traditionally, along with Christmas and New Year, hundreds of tamales are made for all special events; including weddings, religious celebrations and special birthdays.
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You don’t just make 10 tamales at a time. It takes a lot of time and works to make them. When you do, you make hundreds – even thousands at a time.
It’s also a family affair. Each year my friend’s mom, Rosemary, marks a Saturday in December as tamales making day. The whole family participates – sisters, aunts, daughters, and granddaughters. Nothing is written down. Instead, the centuries-old recipes, methods, and traditions are passed to the next generation during this yearly ritual.
For Christmas, they make three kinds: pork, chile and cheese, and sweet ones of pineapple, raisins, brown sugar and cinnamon. To reduce the amount of work, Rosemary, with the help of the Hispanic markets in the area, found a few shortcuts from what her mom did.
She starts with already prepared masa that she buys and adds a little extra to it. She also uses dried chile powders instead of dried chiles. Her mom would soak the chiles in water, to reconstitute them, and then blend them into a paste. Even with these shortcuts, it takes the group of six an entire day to make the 250 Christmas tamales.
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They serve them at the Christmas Eve family dinner. After dinner, the extra tamales are packed up and given away to family and friends.
In addition to my bag of tamales, this year Rosemary shared with me how her family has made them over the years. I have always appreciated my annual tamales gift. After learning the history and tradition behind them and how much and love and hard work go into making them, I appreciate them even more.
With Rosemary’s permission, I’m sharing this pork tamales recipe adapted from my mini-lesson with her.
How to Make Tamales
Rosemary’s Pork Tamales (Makes about 10 dozen tamales)
- 120 dried cornhusks (known at Ojas)
- 15 pounds prepared masa (recipe below)
- About 13 pounds braised and pulled pork meat with the cooking juices reserved (recipe below)
- About 5 quarts mole (recipe below)
- 120 black olives, optional
- Preparing the corn husks:
Place the cornhusks flat one on top of the other in a large bowl.
Pour very hot water over them to cover all the husks.
Cover with a lid and weigh the lid down with a brick or tin cans to keep all the husks submerged in water.
Soak for an hour. When you’re ready to assemble the tamales, pour out the water, wring the husks to get out most of the water and pat away any excess water.
- About 13 pounds of pork shoulder or butt, boneless
- 3 onions, quartered
- 6 garlic cloves
- 2 tablespoons salt
Place the pork, onions and garlic in a big pot. (Rosemary uses a roaster for this amount of meat). Add water just to cover the pork, and add the salt.
Bring to a boil. Once it boils, lower the temperature to a simmer, the water should bubble up only every few seconds. Cover and simmer for eight hours, checking every few hours.
Add water just to cover the meat, if necessary.
After the eight-hour cooking time, remove the pork from the liquid and place on a cutting board. Let cool. Meanwhile, strain and cool the cooking liquid and refrigerate.
Once the juices are cold, the fat will have come to the top and solidified. Once it’s solid, you can easily skim the fat from the broth. Skim the fat and reserve the cooking liquid in two parts. Reserve 2 cups for the masa and the rest for to make the chile sauce.
Once the pork has cooled., cut it or pull it into shreds. It will be so tender that it just pulls away. Set aside until you are ready to assemble the tamales. (If you make this the day before, refrigerate.)
- 1 cup canola oil
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- About 4 quarts of the pork cooking liquid (if there is not enough, add water to make up the difference)
- 4 ounces California chile powder
- 4 ounces New Mexico chile powder
- 2 ounces cumin
- 2 ounces onion powder
- 2 ounces garlic powder
- About 2 tablespoons salt, plus more to taste
In a six-quart saucepot, stir together the flour and oil over medium heat to make a roux. Continue stirring until the mixture becomes a golden color.
Add the chile, cumin, onion and garlic powders until all is combined. With a big whisk, slowly whisk in the liquid until it is one inch from the top of the pot.
Add the salt and bring the mixture to a boil, turning the heat up a little if necessary and whisking continuously. Continue cooking after it boils until it becomes the consistency of thin gravy.
Remove from the heat and cool.
Preparing the Masa:
- 15 pounds already prepared masa
- 1 ounce California chile powder
- 2 tablespoons (1 packet) cumin
- 2 tablespoons baking powder
- 1 to 2 cups pork cooking juices
The prepared masa will be the consistency of dough. Rosemary adds some flavor and liquid so that it becomes a little spicy and a wetter consistency, that of polenta.
Flatten out the masa dough. Stir together the chile powder, cumin and baking powder and knead it into the dough.
Add the cooking juices a little at a time until the masa is the consistency of polenta. You will start by kneading the water into the masa. As the masa loosens, you can stir it in.
Preparing the filling:
Mix together the chile sauce and pork by adding a little chile sauce at a time to the pork. The pork should be moist but the sauce should not be running out of the mixture.
Assembling and Cooking the Tamales:
Take one of the prepared cornhusks. There is a smooth and a rough side to the cornhusk. You want to fill the cornhusk on the smooth side.
The cooked masa will easily pull away from the smooth side of the cornhusk. Spread a heaping tablespoon of masa, about 1/3 cup, on the smooth side of the cornhusk. Spread it out onto the triangular-shaped husk, starting at the wide bottom.
Leave ¼ inch space at the wide bottom and spread only half way up to the pointed part of the husk. Take 2-3 tablespoons of the pork mixture and place it in the center of the masa-covered portion of the cornhusk. Add one black olive in the center, if you like.
To ensure that all tamales get an equal amount of masa and filling, you can use ice cream scoops to portion both out.
To fold the tamale:
Fold 1/3 of each long outer edge into the center so that they overlap. Take the narrow top flap, which has not been filled, and fold it down onto the filled portion to close the bottom edge. You will have one open edge. Place the tamale on a baking sheet and continue with each cornhusk until you have used all the masa and filling.
To cook the tamales:
Add about 2 inches of water to the bottom of a big stockpot. Place a rack at the bottom of the pot. Stand each tamale up on the rack with the open part of the tamale facing up. While holding the tamales up, fill the stockpot with as many tamales as you can.
You will have one layer of standing tamales packed together when you are finished. Bring the water to a boil, and then turn down to a simmer. Cover with paper towels or a clean dishtowel. (This prevents the steam from escaping.)
Cover with a lid and steam for 1 ½ to 2 hours. Check for doneness after 1 ½ hour. You will know the tamales are down when the masa easily comes off the cornhusk.
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