Monday, November 23, 2009

Beginning Tamales

It is comforting to know that I have a Mexicatessen and Mexican bakery within three miles of my house. La Esperanza Bakery and Store near Franklin and Fruitridge in Sacramento. The bakery is well known for its pink sugar cookies, little pastries called porquitos, tres leches cake, and special wedding cakes.

A few doors down, sits La Esperanza Mexican Food Products. This little place is bulging with carnitas, chicharones, dried chiles, Mexican spices, utensils, cheese, beans, and of course, masa. This isn't run of the mill simple masa from dry masa harina flour. This is the real deal.

First is the masa para tortillas. This made by cooking corn kernels with calcium oxide and allowing to soak overnight. The following day, the corn kernels are rubbed loose of their softened skins. The corn, now called nixtamalizado, is drained and taken to a mill to grind. The firm dough is ready for tortillas, antojitos like sopes or gorditas, and some types of tamales. When I tell you that they sell the stuff for $0.75 a pound, it hardly seems worth making it yourself. A pound makes about 10 x 5 1/2" tortillas. These tortillas are better than anything you will ever get at the grocery store.

When this masa is mixed with flavorful pork manteca (lard) to a light and fluffy consistency, it becomes masa para tamales. When I pick the masa up, it is still warm from being processed and is costs $o.75 a pound to purchase in five point increments. A pound makes between 12 and 18 tamales, depending on their thickness.

At this point, I have gone through 25 pounds of masa. I have not yet been disappointed in any of the results, but still consider myself only a beginner at this point. For my first few rounds of tamales, I wanted to experiment with different wrappings. Traditionally, corn husks are used. I have also found a couple of Mexican markets that supply banana leaves. We also used corn leaves in one of the classes I took in Oaxaca, but I haven't seen them sold here and, because of their loose form around the tamale, require a thicker, tortilla grade masa to keep from falling apart in the steamer.

Banana leaf tamales are a little larger than ones wrapped in corn husks. They end up looking like beautiful wrapped presents when they are done. Sometimes, even the masa takes on a green shade on the outer layer.

The problem that I have with banana leaves, is the fragility of the leaf itself. The basic process is to soak the frozen leaves in hot water or steam them until they become pliable. Next, unfold the leaf entirely. I look for sections that are roughly 6 x 8 inches without any tears. Sometimes, I am lucky at finding these, sometimes they are scarce. One thing that I have discovered is to use the entire bag of frozen leaves at one time. Refreezing and defrosting them increases the risk of tears. All it takes is a little one to have the masa oozing out during the steaming process.

The technique for making the banana leaf tamales is relatively simple. Spread a thin layer of masa over the center of the leaf.

Now take two tablespoons of filling and two tablespoons of , I am using shredded tongue with a veracruzana sauce (you really can put anything inside of a tamale).

Fold the left third of the leaf over the middle third covering the masa. Next, fold the right third of the leaf over the middle third. Repeat the same technique with the bottom and top of the leaf to complete the rectangular package.

A good use of those left over leaf scraps is to tear them into sections a quarter inch wide and to use them to tie the tamale across the center perpendicular with the leaf strands.

Steaming the tamales is a pretty simple process. These ones take an hour to cook throughout. Take one out at that time and remove from the wrapper. If it separates easily, it is ready for eating. If it sticks to the sides, steam a little longer.

Corn husk tamales are more commonly prepared. The husks are sold everywhere in a variety of quantities. I even saw a six foot tall stack sold for $120. Instead, I have been purchasing the modest six inch thick supply.

Now for the tamale. I have been focusing on untraditional varieties to see the capabilities of these delicacies. Here is one for a dessert tamale recipe for Tamale Dulce con Chocolate, Nuez, y Cereza is adapted from "Tamales" by Daniel Hoyer.

Fold some brown sugar into around three pounds of masa. The amount to add wasn't clear, but I added about a cup in all, a little at a time until I could just make out the flavor of the brown sugar upon tasting the masa.

Next, fold the following ingredients into the sweet masa:
  • 12 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate chunks
  • 1 1/2 cups of dried sour cherries
  • 1 1/4 cups of pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons of Mexican vanilla
Now, it's time to rejuvenate the corn husks. The easiest way is to put them in a large bowl and cover them with steaming hot water. Put something on top of the husks to keep them submerged. In about 15 minutes, they will be ready for filling.

For these tamales, I take a heaping tablespoon of the masa mixture and spread with the tablespoon to a rectangular shape at the bottom of the husk. My current folding technique is to fold the bottom third up and to top third down. Finally, fold the sides together and wrap a single husk tie around the tamale with a knot.

After steaming for an hour, this batch came out beautiful.

I still have a long ways to go before mastering the technique. At least they always come out delicious, even if ugly at this stage.

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