Sunday, December 23, 2012

tamales 101

Whoo friends, you are in for a TREAT!

‘Twas 12 days before Christmas, and all through the casa,

Chef-types were digging their hands into masa.

We went to my family friend Carolyn’s house. Her house is RIDIC. Her husband Michael is one of those I Know How To Make Anything types, so they have, oh, a PIZZA OVEN IN THEIR BACKYARD WHAT?! Living the life of Gwyneth Paltrow, these two.


Our mission for the day (Carolyn, myself, my boyfriend and I, with the occasional support via alcoholic beverages from Michael) was to make tamales. Some back story: Carolyn and I started talking about cooking (as I am wont to do with everyone) and she mentioned that she made tamales, via a family recipe from her Mexican heritage, the previous Christmas. Being a tamale lover (duh), I grilled her for information and learned a lot, and then she just said, “I’ll call you around Christmas. We’ll make tamales.” Imagine my surprise when that actually happened.

So perhaps in the past you thought of a tamale as a self contained packet of deliciousness. Yes, yes it is.


It is so much more.

The meat.

The broth in which the meat was cooked.

The chiles that infuse the broth in which the meat was cooked (which then is used to make the masa dough)

The sauce made with the chiles that flavors the meat.

The masa dough that encloses the meat mixed with the sauce which is flavored with the broth in which the meat was cooked that is flavored by the chiles.

The husks that enclose the masa dough that encloses the meat mixed with the sauce which is flavored with the broth in which the meat was cooked that is flavored by the chiles (okay okay I’m done.)

Blessedly, Carolyn had done some things in advance. Corn husks were soaking. And more critically, the meat was cooked. Carolyn cooked FOUR roasts- three pork, one beef- nice fatty ones, in big stock pots with garlic and onions for eight hours or so the previous day. She then took excess fat off the meat, shredded it, and let the broth hang out overnight.


We used that broth to rehydrate some dried chiles. We used ancho- Carolyn said don’t use anything too spicy or the tamales won’t be good!

My first task was to take the chiles, decapitate them (take off their stems :D), and scrape out their seeds, leaving a big pile of soft chiles ready for the using.



Then she had me puree the broth to blend in the onions and garlic and make it nice and smooth, ready to use both for the chile sauce that went into the meat and the dough.


We were all set to make the chile sauce for the dough. We pureed the peppers with our newly smooth stock.  

That puree got poured into a big pot with various seasonings, some seen below, in large quantities.

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And rosemary and oregano and salt. It got all thick and lovely.


And it was ready for MEAT! In that went, getting thicker and thicker and awesomer and awesomer!

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Elbow grease needed!


But, it smelled like heaven.


I just want to mention that for every step in this process, I’m describing the events that took place in a sentence but they were taking up a LOT of time.

We felt like Maddie the dog. Tired but oh-so-festively attired.


(Who would, bless her heart,  perk up considerably if she thought she could get a taste of what was going down).


So as I mentioned, the dry corn husks had already been soaked (incidentally, you can buy those corn husks, as well as the masa flour we used, at any respectable Latin supermarket.)


Once we removed them from the water, we had to pat them dry to ensure that the filling would adhere to the dough.

We made a big old pile of husks that were ready (which paled in comparison for the number of husks Carolyn had bought! Girl makes a LOT of tamales!)


The dough was a combination of masa flour, Crisco (yeuuurgh. They’re traditionally prepared with lard and I definitely prefer saturated fat to trans fat), and the flavorful broth that’d had some chiles soaked in it- it gave the dough a wonderful pink color!



Nothing like Crisco floating around.

The goal for consistency with the dough is to get it to make a nice self-contained ball. It reached that phase and then Carolyn demonstrated how one went about patting out the dough into the husk.

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You want a niiiiiiice thiiiiiiin layer. She said her Mexican grandmother could just pat it out with a spoon, but she’d never mastered the skill. I was happy to get in there with my fingers.

Then the meat went atop (note that the top was left uncovered by dough or meat).

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And a folding operation…

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At last complete. And into the pan. To be joined by many tamale hermanos.


Rolling the empanadas was by far the most time-consuming part of the process. We attempted an assembly line and I decided to focus all of my efforts on adhering the dough to the husks.

Steve gave up at a certain point and did the dishes.


Michael perked up morale with Manhattans. I tried a sip but blecccch- I am not old enough for Manhattans, Martinis, or Mad Men drinks.


Hours upon hours upon hours upon hours later, we’d amassed a sizeable stack of tamales.


And so they were ready to steam. Tamale steamers exist, but Carolyn’s clever method is simply to place a mug in the center of a big stock pot- so as to surround the tamales around it.


She said 20 minutes butttt…. it was more. Partly I was having a charming hypoglycemic moment since I hadn’t eaten anything for many hours except various selections from the box of See’s Candy I brought as a hostess gift.

But anyway, we chatted and admired the festive table. Michael and Carolyn are classy.


And the tamales emerged from the steamer. Extra meat in chile sauce was heated up, to spoon atop the completed tamales for an extra burst of flavor.

We dug in.


A few parting notes:

- Carolyn found this recipe to be helpful in recreating her family’s tamales. She copied their proportions of masa and fat for the tamale dough.
- That being said, Carolyn’s tamales I’m sure OWNED the ones from that recipe, since they involved homemade broth and real chiles, not chili powder. She also soaked the dried chiles in the broth used for the masa dough, which gave the dough more flavor AND a pretty pink color.
- Carolyn used ancho chiles for this recipe, but there was another kind she said she thought she preferred, after tasting these. Carolyn, comment on this post and tell me which!

Feliz Navidad, friends.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


There has been so much fun and joy and Christmas awesomeness in my past few weeks!

It began with gingerbread.

Someone in Superman pajamas making gingerbread.


We went to see Steve’s cousin Mickie  (Mickey? I can’t spell anyone’s name in this family, I’ve realized, as I’ve started writing this) and her kids Alison (Allison?) and Connor (Conor?). Baby Emily, the only one with a simply spelled name, is not pictured :)

The kids are SO MUCH FUN. Alison is 6 and Connor is… 3? 4? Not only are they adorable and well behaved, their family spent the past few years in England so they have ACCENTS!

Anyway, Mickie has been very very hospitable to Steve and I since she moved here, so I wanted to reciprocate. So I brought a big box of gingerbread men and frosting and red hots to beautify them. The kiddos jumped in!


I adore both of them- Alison is pretty much exactly like I was as a child- very into dressing up and performing. And she’s so smart! Alison is older and has her fine motor skills down a little more. Conor is young and excitable and yells everything. I think their personalities are represented nicely in their respective cookies.


Ended up with several beautiful plates. Each kiddo got one, and then the grownups ate the rest!


Steve and I decided to get a real Christmas tree for his apartment this year. He’d had an artificial tree in previous years (that as I recall he found in the hallway… or anyway, acquired it in a freegan way), but during his move, he ended up leaving a lot- a LOT- of stuff behind in his old cockroach infested apartment. It was better that way. But slightly tricky in that he didn’t have a couch for awhile… or a table.

Anyway, real trees were a good deal and smelled awesome and the profits from them were going to charity, so it was great.

AND because that tree sale was in Steve’s old neighborhood, we went to one of our favorite old haunts- Cafe Sazon! How I miss you, Cafe Sazon.

Got our old favorites- a cheese empanada for Steve (or Esteban, given the primary language spoken at Cafe Sazon) and an api morado, the most wonderful sweet, fruity, filling, festive purple corn drink for me.


They always go all out for the holidays (Halloween is hilarious) and assembled a gigantic animatronic village in their front window display. Complete with an animatronic village Ferris wheel. Loved it loved it!


The tree was beautiful and shapely. In lieu of having a dedicated tree skirt, we put it on Steve’s Sweden blanket.


We picked up a coupla ornaments at Goodwill- I opted for this angel/alien/moth…


… but I then had a LOT of fun making ornaments!


My favorites were these guys- made from toilet paper rolls!


The two projects we used were on Pinterest, which I just joined and I feel ambivalent about. One because it’s so cliche being a girl on Pinterest. Two because the second I joined the spam coming to my inbox multiplied EXPONENTIALLY. However, you may follow me if you like, at leleinthesky.

More holiday festivities. This past Saturday night found us at our friend Erica’s house. She and her husband Chris hosted a Christmas Vacation themed party. I wish I could’ve come up with some costume (why, why do I not own a blue leisure suit to play Uncle Eddie?!) but it was fun even without.

Best of all, Erica and Chris live in a REALLY fancy building, so we took a few minutes sitting by the fireplace in the lobby on our way out :)


And we had gotten all of the leftover cherry tomatoes from the party (!) because Erica and Chris both don’t like tomatoes (?!).

So Rudolph poses it was.


And so we reach Tuesday night, when Steve and I co-hosted a Chrismukkah party!

Surprise surprise, pretzels happened (actually, there was a special request from my girl Maya, the girl who doesn’t update her blog anymore so I won’t link!).

There is a charming difference between girl pretzels (rolled by myself/my mother/my sister) and boy pretzels (lovingly assembled by Steve with just a brief tutorial as I ran back and forth doing a billion other things).

The pepper-Parmesan variation, which I think is the MOST delicious! Told you I’d get a picture in daylight.


Public service announcement this holiday season: KNIFE SAFETY. GUYS. Whilst making one of my slightly older batches of pretzels into pretzel chips for dippers, my knife took a detour through the pretzel into my thumb. My nail bore the brunt of it but it still entailed applying pressure and holding my hand over my head for probably fifteen minutes, bleeding all over Steve’s apartment, frantically hunting the manly apartment and not finding any bandaids, putting together a Hail Mary bandage out of a paper towel with my apron string tied around it.

And then I had to get a nice holiday tetanus shot, so in addition to a sore thumb, I now have a sore arm.

Steve was super great and cleaned the ENTIRE APARTMENT. You know, I trashed it cooking, sprinkled it with my own blood, and then conveniently left for an hour and a half to go to the doctor (and, uh, buy Bandaids). Steve, you are really really great.

Steve’s other major project was cookin’ up a batch of GLUGG! Otherwise known as mulled wine.

Wine goes into a big pot with orange peel, cinnamon sticks, raisins, and almonds.


But the highlight, of course, is the sugar-brandy flambé that goes atop. Lotsa sugar! Lotsa brandy!


Pyro boy enjoyed watching the flames grow larger and larger.


So I had a little epiphany pre-party that was like, “I try to be a healthy eater most of the time and then any consideration of the nutrients or lack thereof in my food completely disappears when I have a party. Why do that?! I know healthy food can also be delicious. I am going to try to cultivate some balance at this party.”

And I think it was overall a smashing success.

I decided that I wanted a red and green color scheme for Christmas.

So there were red and green dips- my all time love muhammara and hummus given extra pep and deliciousness with roasted garlic and fresh basil.

There was a red and green apple pear salsa with cinnamon chips (regretfully a bit of a yawn).

And there were adorable red and green cheesy zucchini bites, selected based on the adorability of the recipe.

Cut zucchini into little hollowed out vessels, like so.


Fill with bleu cheese.


Annnnnnd just because cheese is a good idea during the holiday season- or always- add a little more, in the form of Parmesan livened up with herbs and pepper.


RED TOMATO HATS! Steve and I said that at the same time whilst making these.


And, you guessed it, a little more cheese for good luck. Missed the picture of the final product, as I was running around and ordered Steve to keep them from burning (no easy task given his oven). They were cute. More cute than delicious, but this time of year it’s fun to make cute stuff.

Now for the –ukkah portion of the Chrismukkah theme: LATKES!

I had been craving latkes when we first planned the party, which is partly how we opted for the theme. However, as the party grew closer I realized I’d never made latkes before and it all sounded a bit INVOLVED.

Fortunately, as I drove my sister home from the airport, she went, “… Yeah, I’m invited to Hannukah tonight at Jamie’s…” and we promptly rerouted the car and I went with her.

Hannukah was great fun and it also involved a LATKE TUTORIAL. These latkes are from an actual Jew, unlike me :) They are also very delicious and idiot proof.

The recipe:

1 large Russet potato (or 2 small)
1 small onion (or 1/2 a medium, 1/4 a large)
1 egg
Enough flour to give it an applesauce consistency

Blend ingredients in a food processor or blender. Fry in oil.

That’s IT. And it’s SO GOOD!

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I spent a lot of the night running around (Steve’s apartment is nice but it’s basically humanly impossible to find his building, so I tend to just walk people in), and I was also gabbing with people I don’t get to see very much (my cousin and her boyfriend, my friend from chemistry class, a high school friend I hadn’t seen in a few years!), so there are few pictures.

But this one conveys the general splendor. Red and green, eh?!


In the dessert department (rear right), there were peanut butter kisses, a pumpkin pie my friend Lorraine was kind enough to bring, and rutabega carrot bread (which I need to post about- it’s a revelation!).

The funny thing, however, is that my main dessert project did not get served. This is funny for a number of reasons.

First, the party initially was also going to be hosted by Steve’s roommate Dan. I asked Dan his favorite kind of pie, and he said pumpkin. Then Dan bailed on the party (work commitment? Social anxiety? Who knows) and the pie was still on the menu. That’s okay.

Then I put together this beeyootiful crust for the pie. A personal recipe I made by compiling ideas from some of my favorite blogs- ground up pecans, oats, butter, sugar… everything nice!


Well, I put it in the oven and there was a RING OF FIRE around the edge. Ash. I screamed and cursed and kicked Steve’s oven (sorry, Steve).

Fine. I made more crust (by which I mean, threw random amounts of pecans, oats, butter, and sugar into the food processor and hoped for the best) and did a patch job around the outside.

The filling looked fabulous (I added coconut milk for fun and excitement purposes). There was WAY too much, but that was okay as I put the excess into mugs and made microwave pumpkin pudding pie for Steve and I as a midafternoon snack to keep up cooking energy.

I baked it. The crust burnt again, despite being tented.

And then IT DIDN’T EVEN GET SERVED. Oh, irony. The things I stress about.

Anyway, it’s beautiful… and it’s in my fridge.


The pie is lovely- though a little schizophrenic. The crust is this granola-y crumbly cookie-y thing and the filling tastes like a sweet version of Thai curry. An odd couple. Though we haven’t exactly been having to choke it down- both elements are yummy yummy.

Being an entire pie, a posting was in order.

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