Tamales for Christmas

photo(1)My sister Meg spends her long commute on the subway reading the New York Times on her iphone, and on Wednesdays I can usually expect her to email me a recipe or two from that day’s paper. The week before Christmas it was this story about the Mexican tradition of making tamales for Christmas. We immediately started planning an Boxing Day tamale feast. For one batch we cooked a whole pork shoulder over night in the slow cooker, and then tossed the shredded meat with a New Mexico red chile sauce, based on the recipe in the Times. The second batch was filled with shredded Monterey Jack cheese and pickled jalepeños. We made a big pot of beans and some rice and served it all with a few of the salsas I put up last summer. The meal was a huge success and we all agreed it should become a new Christmas tradition.

We expected rolling and filling the tamales to be much more difficult than it was. Everyone got the hang of it after one or two tries. Our youngest tamale maker was nine years old and even she was able do it with a little guidance. It’s a fun group activity, and if you make a few batches you’ll have plenty of leftovers, which freeze beautifully. To reheat them you can just steam them or microwave them for a couple minutes until they’re heated through.


Tamales are made from masa harina, which is cornmeal that has been treated with lime. Regular cornmeal will not work. I’m able to get masa harina at my local food co-op, both in the bulk bins and packaged from Bob’s Red Mill. If you live in an area with a sizable Latin American population, you can probably get masa in the supermarket. The most common brand is Maseca. Dried corn husks may be more difficult to find; we got ours from a Mexican grocery store in my sister’s neighborhood, but I know my co-op sells them too. If all else fails the internet is your friend. Both the masa harina and the corn husks can be ordered from a few online Mexican grocery companies as well as amazon.com.

Tamales adapted from The New York Times December 19, 2012

Soak the corn husks in hot water for a half hour to an hour, until they are soft and pliable. Then pat them dry with a clean dish towel.

For the dough:
1 cup lard (you can substitute vegetable shortening)
4 cups dry masa
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons kosher salt
3 1/2 to 4 cups warm chicken broth


In a large bowl, beat the lard or shortening with an electric mixer until light fluffy. Add the masa, baking powder , and salt and mix until well combined. The mixture will look dry and clumpy.  Mix in the broth about a cup at time until the mixture forms a soft, moist dough. You may not need all four cups of broth.


Take a soaked and patted dry corn husk and hold it with the wide end facing toward you, the pointy end facing out. Spread a layer of the dough about a 1/4 inch thick along the bottom half of the husk. You want to make a square of dough about 5 to 6 inches across. It should go to the bottom and right edges of the husk, but not all the way to the top or left edge.


Next spoon a couple tablespoons of your filling in a line down the center of the dough. We made some with pork and some with cheese and chiles, but you can use anything you like. Chicken, beef, or beans would also be good. Next time I want to make some with chicken and tomatillo sauce.


Now fold the right edge toward the center, and then fold the left edge to meet the right edge. The left and right edges of the dough should meet in the center, and you’ll have a little flap of husk from the left side that overlaps, covering the seam. Now fold the pointy end over the tamale. The finished tamale will be open at one end.

Once you’ve assembled all your tamales they need to be steamed. If you have a deep steamer pot you can use that, otherwise you can just place a small wire rack in the bottom of a large pot. We made a make shift rack out of coiled aluminum foil. Put a couple inches of water in the bottom of the pot and then stand the tamales up on end in the pot, with the open end of the tamale facing up. Cover and steam for an hour to an hour and a half, until the dough begins to pull away from the husk at the edges.


One batch of dough will make about two dozen tamales. If you’re making extra to have leftovers, steam all of them right away. Then they will just need to be heated through for a quick snack.

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