Holiday Tamales

What's better than Tex-Mex takeout? Try homemade holiday tamales inspired Mexican food royalty. Chef Sylvia Casares shares the recipe.

Masa for Tamales

To test for right consistency, pinch off a piece of dough and place it in cold water. It should float. If it doesn't float, mix masa for another 5 minutes to more evenly distribute the fat. Makes enough masa for 10 dozen tamales.

5 guajillo chiles, seeds and stems removed
1 (3½ -pound) bag (14 cups) masa harina (instant corn flour)
6 teaspoons baking powder
4 teaspoons salt
2½ pounds lard or vegetable shortening
3¼ cups pork or chicken stock (reserved from guisado, see page 134)

In a medium saucepan over high heat, combine the chiles and 2¼ cups water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Set aside off the heat to cool for about 10 minutes. In a blender, process the chiles and their liquid until smooth. Pour through a fine strainer to remove solids that did not liquefy. Discard the solids. Set aside 1½ cups of the chile sauce to add to the masa.

In a large bowl, combine the masa harina, baking powder, and salt. Mix well by hand.

In a large saucepan over low heat, combine the lard, stock, the 1½ cups chile sauce, and 3½ cups water. Heat to melt the lard, using a whisk to blend all of the ingredients. Set aside off the heat when lard is melted and well blended. Allow to cool slightly.

To the dry ingredients in the large bowl, add the melted lard mixture, about 3 cups at a time. Mix with a large spoon or use gloved hands to combine. Use a mixer with a dough hook if available.

In the bowl, knead the masa until the dough is well blended and light, about 5 minutes. Break off a piece and see if it floats in cold water. If it floats, the dough is ready. If it sinks, knead the dough for an additional 5 minutes to better incorporate the fat.

Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.

Pollo Guisado (Stewed Chicken)

Chicken, freshly cooked with spices and vegetables, reminds me of the old-fashioned flavor of our mother's cooking and the aroma of her kitchen. It is a staple of most border kitchens. This recipe for stewed chicken is very versatile. Besides enchiladas, it can be used to fill tamales and tacos. Makes about 4 cups.

1 (3-pound) chicken, whole or cut into 8 or 10 serving pieces
3½ teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons Tex-Mex Holy Trinity (page 20)
1 onion, chopped
2 bay leaves
1 large tomato, chopped
½ cup tomato sauce
In a large saucepan over high heat, combine the whole chicken or chicken pieces, 1 quart water, and 2 teaspoons of the salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 35 minutes.

Remove the chicken from the saucepan and allow to cool for about 30 minutes. Reserve the broth in a saucepan off the heat.

To the broth in the saucepan, add the Holy Trinity, the remaining 1½ teaspoons salt, the onion, bay leaves, tomato, and tomato sauce. Stir to combine.

When the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove the skin. Pull meat from the bones and shred the meat by hand or chop into bite-size pieces. Discard the skin and bones.

Over low heat, add the chicken to the broth mixture. Simmer for 20 minutes, or until soft.

Set aside off the heat for about 15 minutes to cool. Using a slotted spoon, transfer seasoned chicken meat to a clean container, draining most of the liquid.

Pork or Chicken Tamales

These are basic tamales, filled with pork or chicken. Makes 10 dozen tamales

11 or 12 dozen soaked corn husks (page 154), or as needed
1 recipe masa for tamales (page 155)
6 cups Puerco (page 133) or Pollo (page 45) Guisado for Tamales

To assemble tamales: Arrange an assembly line: soaked corn husks, masa dough, and filling.

Place about 2 tablespoons (2 ounces) masa dough in the center of the smooth side of a soaked corn husk. The husk will resemble a triangle (wide on one end with long, narrow "tail" at the other end). The outside should be the side with palpable veins or ridges.

Using the back of a tablespoon, wall spackler, or flat-blade spatula, spread masa from the wide end, leaving 4 inches uncovered at the narrow "tail" end. There should be about 4 inches from the narrow "tail" end without tamale dough.

Spread masa evenly to the side edges of the husk. This will allow the "tail" to fold over the body of the tamale.

Place about 2 tablespoons filling down the center of the masa.

Fold the sides of the husk, one at a time, toward the center. They should overlap.

Fold the bottom part of the husk (the narrow "tail" end without masa) up. Place the tamale seam down on a platter or flat pan.

Tamales for Breakfast

I particularly love tamales for breakfast. To heat them, I place the tamales, husks still on, in a single layer in a heavy skillet over low heat. I put a lid on the skillet and cook for about 30 minutes to toast the husk and crisp the masa. Toasted tamales, brown and crispy, are fabulous with coffee.

Repeat until all the masa and filling are used. If masa is left over, you can use up the masa dough by making tamales without filling. Spread, fold, and steam as you would filled tamales. They're just as delicious. Remember, tamales are all about the masa!

To Steam Tamales

Ready a 20-quart stockpot with a steamer rack or tamale steamer on the stovetop. Drop a small coin in the bottom of the pot. Add enough water to come up level with the surface of the rack. Note how much water this required.

Invert a shallow heatproof bowl in the center of the rack. Stack the tamales, folded pointed end down, around the bowl like spokes on a wagon wheel. Repeat the layering, staggering tamales so there is some space in between for steam to circulate. Repeat until all the tamales are stacked in the steamer.

Drape flat corn husks over the stack of tamales to trap steam. To further make sure tamales get plenty of hot steam, cover the corn husks with a clean dish towel.

Turn the heat to high to bring the water to a boil. Place the lid on the steamer. When steam starts to rise, lower the heat and cook the tamales over simmering water for about 1 hour 30 minutes. If you hear the coin rattling, that means the water has cooked away. Add more water to the level of steamer rack, based on the initial amount.

After steaming the tamales, turn off the heat but leave the covered pot on the burner for 30 minutes to finish cooking.

To test for doneness, open one tamale. Completely cooked dough should separate easily from the husk. Serve warm.

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