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Feature | Christmastime=Time for Tamales (and how I finally learned to make them!)

Posted on: December 16th, 2018 by Taryn Jeffries No Comments

For years, I’ve been fascinated by the tradition of tamales at Christmastime. To be fair, there’s really not a wrong time for tamales. Here in the Southwest, it is not really Christmas without them and I’ve wanted to join someone in the kitchen for a lesson. 2018 was the year and I could not have had a better experience.

121618 Taryn's tamales_ proof that maybe I can cook things
Photo Credit | Taryn Jeffries

My longtime friend Melissa set up a culinary date of sorts, where I would join her mother-in-law at the grocery store and then in her kitchen. Prior to the tastiest of playdates, I wanted to educate myself on the history of tamales and how they came to be a Christmas tradition.

Who Should We Thank for the Gift of Tamales?

The creation of tamales goes back so far in the history books that it very well may predate the birth of Christianity. Certainly, the Aztec, Olmec, Maya, Toltec, Mixtec and Zapotec people had never heard of Christmas when they labored in primitive kitchens. Over time, tamales became associated with special occasions, likely due to the labor involved and the many hands needed to make the process go more smoothly. When the Mexican population became Christianized, the tradition of tamales was connected to the most highly regarded of Christian holidays; Christmas. Since those early times, families of all sizes have gathered near the holidays to create tamale making parties where several dozen tamales of varying flavor combinations are created and then divided amongst the makers and shared with friends, family and coworkers which has only helped to widen the appreciation of this time-honored tradition amongst all cultures.

Tradition Brings Families Together

Tamales are one of those things, for the makers, that is more of a taste memory than ingredients and quantities held within a recipe. Every family has that one thing that some member makes that everyone is trying to duplicate, but it never comes out quite right. And with such a storied tradition, some families tamale recipes are so highly guarded that it takes years to gain even partial access.

One of the most appealing things for me, as it relates to my fascination with tamale making, is the tradition of women gathering in the kitchen. This is where stories are shared; where we tease younger generations and honor those that have passed by recounting treasured memories. I see it as a way that parts of culture are held onto and made stronger year after year.

My Day in the Kitchen with Mary Alice

So, as I said, my sweet friend from junior high school offered up her mother-in-law to help me in my quest to learn how to make tamales. We started off with a visit to Ranch Market so I could get acquainted with the supplies I would need. The basics of which were corn husks, masa, lard, chile sauce, chile paste, olives and a protein.

121618 corn husks at Ranch Market
Photo Credit | Taryn Jeffries

I learned that you want to look for the whitest husks you can find. Surely there will be variations of color and size within the packages, but a quick inspection and comparison are key. For the masa, I learned the difference between prepared and unprepared. We opted for unprepared based partially on it is the way her family had always done it as well as it allows you to have greater control over the finished masa; getting a feel for the texture and being able to add seasoning to your tastes.

121618 beef roast mixture
Photo Credit | Taryn Jeffries

Once we had all our supplies, we headed to Mary Alice’s home to start to process. She told me that she had prepared her roast on Thursday by letting it cook in a crock pot with some seasonings and beef broth. After it was cooked through she fully shredded the meat and then added the chile sauce and paste, let it simmer a bit and then after it cooled down placed it in the refrigerator. This helps to let the flavors really marry together and get in every little strand of meat. During our visit to the grocery store, she had been reheating the meat and sauce on the stovetop so that it would be ready to go once we were ready with the masa.

121618 soaking corn husks
Photo Credit | Taryn Jeffries

Our first step was to get the corn husks rehydrated. We ran two sinks full of hot water and soaked the separated husks. We ended up doing this twice, rinsing with cool water between soaks, to ensure that the husks were pliable when it came time to fill them.

While the husks were soaking and eventually drying, we got to the fun part; preparing the masa. We first needed to whip up the lard. She told me that her mother swore by Crisco and wouldn’t use anything else. It was believed that this particular brand lent a bit of lightness to the mixture and didn’t feel so heavy, as some tamales can.

Once she felt there was enough air in lard (the end result reminded me a bit of the texture of mayonnaise) we went about the messy matter of adding in the masa. There really is no fancy way to do this other than to just toss it in the bowl…and her bowl was quite literally the largest bowl I had ever seen. Like, ever.

121618 masa and lard mixture
Photo Credit | Taryn Jeffries

The mixing part of this process is quite labor intensive and it goes on for quite a bit. There’s no set time that this needs to be done for because you’re looking for a feeling. You want it to be somewhat smooth, with little to no graininess left over. Once you feel like you are almost there, you’ll want to spoon in some of the sauce that the meat has been living in. Again, no hard and fast rule for this one on how much to add. What I found was that there should be enough to tint to masa and smooth the texture a bit. What I found was that the final texture is a bit like that of peanut butter cookie dough; not too smooth and not too thick.

121618 masa and sauce mixture
Photo Credit | Taryn Jeffries

I was able to find some helpful tips online, though I cannot vouch for their acceptability within Hispanic kitchens. I saw on more than one site that if you took a small ball of masa and dropped it into a glass of water and it floated, you were good to go.

121618 tamale training
Photo Credit | Melissa McGehee

Now came the tricky part; mastering the masa to meat ratio. Very serious business. This is a delicate balance. As I got in my groove, Mary Alice put me to work friends, I learned what worked best based on the size of the spoon that we were using. I got the spreading technique down and felt really accomplished by the end of the day. Mary Alice places a green olive in with the meat mixture. I learned that this is an important symbol. It is believed that the olive represents baby Jesus, waiting to be born. A more modern spin on that belief is that the olive represents any mother who carries the seeds for the future within herself, or maybe the hopeful fertility of the fields and a bountiful harvest.

121618 tamales to be steamed
Photo Credit | Taryn Jeffries

Once the tamales are filled and folded, you’re ready to either steam them or package them up for freezing. Mary Alice selected a dozen to steam so that we could relish in our hard work. It took somewhere between 45 minutes to an hour for them to be ready. You can test their readiness by selecting one, unfolding it and if the masa effortlessly separated from the husk you’re golden. If not, fold your tasty friend back up and give him a little more time.

121618 Taryn's tamale training was a success
Photo Credit | Melissa McGehee

I was so inspired by my lesson that when I was on my way home, I popped into Food City to get my own supplies. I found everything I needed and headed home to get the crock pot to work. I spent the better part of the next day creating my own tamales (about 4 or 5 dozen) and after the boys in the house made fast work of the dozen that I steamed I retreated to my bed to recover. I’ve since shared a few dozen with co-workers who have told me that they were pretty good, especially for my first try. I am excited to make more and experiment with different flavor combinations and I am incredibly thankful to have such a sweet friend that helped me to finally get my Christmas wish of learning how to make tamales. I owe you a dozen or so!

While I promised not to share Mary Alice’s family recipe, I have found a few online that may or may not be similar.

Mark Bittman’s Tamales

Gimme Some Oven Tamale Recipe

Bon Appetit Tamale Guide

About the Author - Taryn Jeffries

Editor and Chief Eating Officer of PhoenixBites, 2017 Food Writer of the Year (Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame) Taryn grew up in a small town in Illinois with a doting Grandmother who taught her the way around a kitchen and that food is representative of love. Her current quest is to find the love in local dishes and the chefs behind them. In addition to running all things PhoenixBites, Taryn is also a freelance writer, sharing her insight on the best dishes and where to get them each and every month.

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