Saturday, January 14, 2012

January Daring Cooks' Challenge - Tamales

I love Mexican food. I don't think that is a secret.

The thing is, I don't really know all that much about it, other than that I like it.

I mean, I watch Rick Bayless on PBS, and I'll play around with a few flavors here at home, but what I've made at home are mostly the easy, cheating, Americanized versions of Mexican dishes. Tasty, but not all that authentic.

This month I had a chance to change that, and make some real Mexican street fare!

Maranda of Jolts & Jollies was our January 2012 Daring Cooks hostess with the mostess! Maranda challenged us to make traditional Mexican Tamales as our first challenge of the year!

To say that I was excited when I read this would be an understatement.

However, due to the specialized ingredients required and the amount of time that it takes to fully prepare the meal, it took me a while to actually get started. But once I did, it was super fun.

This is a pretty picture-heavy post, so I will try my best not to be too wordy, and I'll let the pictures tell the story as much as possible.

For starters, I had to decide on a filling. My intention had been to prepare these for a family dinner, so they needed to satisfy a range of pallets, so I didn't want to go too crazy or spicy. I decided on a slow cooked shredded pork filling, so I put a beautifully large pork roast in the crock pot and let it do its thing for 12 hours overnight.

Wanting to make the most of my time, I also prepared the tamale dough the night before, so I had to get creative with counter space, as you can see.

The main ingredient of the tamale dough is masa harina, a flour-like powder made from dried hominy (corn).

Traditionally, the masa (masa harina, maseca... I call it masa for short, though...) is mixed with baking powder, salt, broth and lard or pork fat. I used vegetable shortening instead of the lard, though I have heard that you can use oil, which is something I may try next time.

The finished dough had the consistency of cookie dough.

Pork cooking, dough made, I was excited for the next morning.

We woke up to the delicious smell of the pork, which was enough motivation for us to start in on the next steps.

Soaking the corn husks.

That was the other specialty ingredient. I know many Daring Cooks had trouble procuring them, but I am extremely fortunate to live only a few miles for a totally cool little hole-in-the-wall Mexican grocery. That was a fun experience in and of itself. But I was able to purchase corn husks, and little miss helped me prepare them.

She counted them, and then we placed them in a big pot, covered them in water, then weighed them down with a plate to make sure they didn't float up.

Then it was time to shred the meat.

Yeah, 12 hours in the crock pot and it practically shredded itself. Yum.

The last prep-step that I needed to do wast to cut thin strips from a few of the corn husks, which would serve as ties to hold together the tamales once they were rolled.

Filling, check. Corn husks soaked, check. Dough ready, check. Corn husk ties ready, check. We're ready to make tamales!

A scoop of dough is spread out onto a corn husk. The best tool for this, from the few that I tried, was my fingers.

The dough should be a pretty thin rectangle.

Then a line of filling (I tried to be generous with my filling) is spooned down the middle of the dough.

Then the whole thing is rolled up in the corn husk, making a neat little package.

Cool, huh?

Once I got the hang of it, I started working two at a time.

Then daddy got in on the action, too.

The hardest part was tying those little knots!

But we soon had a nice pile of neatly rolled and tied tamales all ready to go.

The traditional method of cooking tamales is to steam them. I decided to try two methods of steaming our tamales - I put most of them in my biggest pot, into which I'd put my vegetable steamer basket. Then I tried a few in my bamboo steamer, too.

And then they steamed!

An hour later, during which I prepared all the sides for our feast (or, really, fiesta!), we were ready to take them out.

Not sure if you can tell, but the dough puffed considerably during the steaming process, and it also darkened by a shade or two.

We just brought the whole tray to the table and then we were ready to dig in!

Even before tasting the tamales, I was really pleased with how everything had turned out. The whole process of preparing the different components and rolling the tamales was a lot of fun, and the finished tamales just looked fun, all wrapped up and ready to just grab.

So how were they for a meal?

With Mexican rice and black beans, in addition to tortilla chips and fresh salsa (made by daddy!), this was really a delicious meal.

We found the dough to be a little dry, which is something I will have to work on, but all in all, this was a very fun meal and a truly wonderful challenge.

Maranda, thank you so much for truly being a hostess with the mostess!

To check out the delicious tamales cooked up in the kitchen this month, check them out here.

Masa Dough for Tamales
(from the challenge)

1 1/3 cups lard or vegetable shortening
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
4 cups masa harina
1 1/2 - 2 cups chicken broth (I needed the full 2 cups)

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together the lard (shortening), salt and baking powder. Mix in the masa harina one cup at a time.
Reduce the mixer speed to low, then gradually add in about 1 1/2 cups of broth.
If the mixture is too dry, you can gradually add in more broth, about two teaspoons at a time. The final dough should have the texture of cookie dough.

Maranda provided us with several choices of fillings. You can see the full challenge recipes here. For my filling, I slow-cooked a pork shoulder in the crock pot, seasoned with garlic salt, cumin and oregano, along with a cut onion and a couple of garlic cloves, for 12 hours, then shredded the meat, using the cooking liquid to moisten the shredded meat as necessary.

To prepare the tamales:
One 8-ounce package of dried corn husks (I had a one pound package, so I used about half - I made 24 tamales, and cut two additional corn husks for the ties.)
One batch of masa dough (above)
Filling of your choice

Place the dried corn husks in a large pot and cover with water. Place a heavy plate or a smaller pot full of water on top of the husks to keep them in the water. Soak the husks at least three hours, up to a full day.

Take two or three of the softened corn husks and cut or tear them into quarter-inch strips. It is a good idea to keep these strips in water so that they stay soft and don't become too brittle to tie.

Unfold a corn husk (or two at a time, if you would like) on your work surface. Scoop about a quarter of a cup of the prepared masa dough onto the husk, near the top. Carefully press the dough into about a four inch square, making sure to leave two to three inches at the bottom of the husk to be folded up (see photos above).
Place a heaping tablespoon of your filling in a line down the center of the dough.
Fold the dough around the filling, into the corn husk, and wrap the husk around the dough. Carefully fold up the bottom portion of the husk and secure the "package" with one of the husk-ties.

If using a big pot and a steamer basket, stand the tamales in the steamer basket (already in the pot, with a couple of inches of water in the pot). If your tamales don't fully fill the tray in the basket, place crumpled up aluminum foil in between the tamales to fill the space.

Steam the tamales for 45-75 minutes, until the dough puffs, deepens in color and pulls easily away from the husk.

Buen provecho!


  1. Great job! I decided to go with the pork tamales as well. I had a great time with this challenge too! it looks like you satisfied some hungry tummies at dinner :)
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  2. Your tamales look perfect! My adopted Mexican mom that I enlisted to help me, taught me some tricks to keep the masa from being dry and give it more flavor. Use 1/2 lard and 1/2 bacon grease and then use the liquid from the cooking meat (still warm) to mix the masa. The warm cooking liquid adds flavor and softens the masa/lard making it creamier and moister.

  3. Your pork filling looks fantastic! Such neat (and no doubt delicious) tamales

  4. Oooh, waking up to slow-cooked pork smells sounds like the most wonderful thing.

    It always sounds like you all have so much fun making and eating the challenges. It's so nice to read. :) Beautiful tamales!

  5. Your plating with Mexican rice, beans and fresh salsa looks fabulous. I did pork ones too and loved the experience.

  6. Your fiesta looks amazing! I think I'll fill mine a little more next time... I stayed pretty conservative when I made mine, because I wasn't sure how much they expanded.

  7. Your daughter must be adventurous with food, helping out with all these neat challenges! I was really excited to see this challenge too. That pork looks so tender and juicy and your tamales are very neat. I used a Rick Bayless recipe and it calls for about twice as much liquid in the masa as the challenge recipe (the powder is reconstituted with water, then chicken stock added). Try that next time and bathe the pork in sauce and you'll think you've hit the jackpot!

  8. Only looking at the pork, I drooled to the point of dehydration! I think I can smell it too. Everything looks so perfect! What a great job.

  9. Wow the slow-cooked pork sounds delicious! Great job!

  10. Yum! your tamales are picture perfect! I love slow-cooked pork in just about anything, but especially tamales!

  11. Your tamales look delicious. Love how you served them.

  12. Awesome job!! Your tamales look fantastic, as always!


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