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Making Tamales

Christmas is tamale making time for Mexican families. Everyone gets involved in making these delicious little meat and masa treats. If you have never made tamales before, don't let people scare you away by saying how much work it takes to make them. If you divide the steps out and do part of the preparation a day ahead, it's not so bad. I usually make about six dozen which is a manageable amount for one person. If you want to make more, you need to enlist friends and family to help (have a tamale making party!).

Here is a good schedule for making tamales

Purchase ingredients and make the dough a day ahead

On Tamale Making Day

Cook the meat and while the meat is simmering, clean and soak the cornhusks. I usually do this on Saturday afternoon. Set dough out to come to room temperature.

Make the tamales and steam. I like to do this on Saturday evening. I make enough tamales to fill 2 steamers and while the first batch is steaming, I get the second batch ready.

Recipe for tamale dough. (Or you can purchase prepared dough at the Mexican market). Making your own isn't hard to do.

6 cups masa harina (available at the Mexican food market)
3 teaspoons baking powder 
3 teaspoons salt
1 cup solid vegetable shortening
3/4 cup butter, softened 
3 2/3 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons chili sauce from the filling (add for color)

In a large mixing bowl, combine the masa harina, baking powder, and salt. Whisk gently to mix well.

In another large mixing bowl, with the electric mixer, beat shortening and butter until creamy. Gradually beat in 1/2 cup the masa mixture, then 1/2 cup stock until light and fluffy, about one minute. Continue beating in the masa and stock alternately until the dough is very smooth and of spreading consistency, about 5 minutes. Cover and refrigerate up to 3 days. Let dough come to room temperature before using.

Recipe for the Meat Filling

5 to 6 pound pork butt roast or boneless pork shoulder
1 large onion, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
6 cloves of garlic
3 bay leaves
2 teaspoons dried oregano

In a large saucepan, combine meat, onion, garlic, bay leaves and oregano. Add just enough cold water to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium low and simmer until meat is fork-tender, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Let meat cool in broth, them remove and tear into shreds. Put meat in medium bowl, cover and set aside or refrigerate until ready to use. Strain broth, skim fat and reserve to use in making meat filling.

Recipe for Chili Sauce

8 ancho chilies, toasted lightly on griddle. When cool enough to handle, remove seeds and stems. Place in blender with 1 teaspoon cumin seeds. Grind them to a fine powder. (Or you can use about 1/3 to 1/2 cup ground chili powder.)

In a frying pan, heat 1/4 cup oil. Add the chili powder and cook a few seconds, stirring all the time. Add the meat, mixing well and cooking for a few minutes to season. Add 2 cups of the meat broth and cook five minutes. If meat is dry, add a little more broth. Add salt as needed to taste.

Prepare Corn Husks (If you cannot find corn husks, use a 4 x 6 inch piece of aluminum foil for each tamale)

You will need about six dozen purchased corn husks. These will be dry and have dust and corn silk,so you will need rinse them off, then soak in hot water at least 30 minutes to soften. When ready to use, shake off the excess water and pat dry with a towel.

Make the Tamales

You will have:
Corn Husks
Tamale Dough
Meat filling

Spread a thin coating of the dough over the broadest part of the husk, allowing for turning down about 1 1/2 inches at the broadest part of the leaf and about 3 inches at the top. That is to say for a good sized tamale, you will spread the dough over an area approximately 3 inches wide and 3 1/2 inches long.

Spread the filling down the middle of the dough. Overlap the sides of the husk loosely, to allow the dough to expand. Turn up the pointed end of the leaf and turn the broader end over it. You can tear some husks lengthwise to make narrow strips for tying to keep moisture out, but I do not tie mine, since I keep them packed well in the steamer. You want the tamale to be watertight so the dough will cook up light and spongy. If moisture gets in, it will be soggy.

Cooking the tamales

The easiest way to cook the tamales is in a conventional steamer. You can purchase tamale steamers at the Mexican Market. I cook mine in an old steamer and also use an oriental bamboo steamer set in a wok.

Fill the bottom of the steamer with water up to the level indicated and bring it to a boil. Line the top of the steamer with corn husks, covering the bottom and sides well. Stack the tamales upright. For best results, they should be firmly packed, put not too tightly, as the dough needs room to expand some. Once you have the tamales in the steamer, cover them with more corn husks. Cover the top of the steamer with a tea towel to catch the condensation from the lid of the steamer. Cover the steamer with a tightly fitted lid.

As the water in the steamer comes to a boil, put a coin in the bottom. You should hear the coin clinking in the bottom of the steamer. If you do not hear it, you need to add more hot water. Keep a pan of water boiling on the stove so you can add water as needed. Let the tamales cook 1 to 1 1/2 hours over a medium flame.

To test the tamales for doneness, remove one from the center and one from the side of the steamer. As you open the husks, the dough should come away from the husks easily and be smooth, spongy and well cooked throughout.

They can be eaten right way, stored in the refrigerator for a few days or frozen for up to 3 months. To reheat the tamales, wrap in foil and place in 350 degree oven about 30 minutes. Serve with red or green salsa.

Here is a page I scanned that shows the steps in tamale making.

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