Recipe: Granny’s Tamale Pie

Reader recipe from “Cook’s Country Best Lost Suppers.” This recipe has not been tested by the L.A. Times Test Kitchen.


“My mother got this recipe from the elderly wife of a sheep rancher, who would make this dish and heat it up over the fire at herding camps. We always made it with pheasants, which were plentiful in the area when I was a child, but as the pheasant population grew slim we turned to duck or geese; now we use chicken, ideally dark meat for more flavorful broth. This dish was always madeon my father’s birthday in November, a tradition started in the late 1930s andcontinued until his death in 1990. Now, I serve it on special occasions and whenever I get to see my brothers.” We were immediately drawn to the recipe because it is a far cry from the typical cheesy casserole-style versions we usually come across. First and foremost, this old-fashioned tamale pie is baked in a Dutch oven set in a roasting pan filled with simmering water, a method that mimics how tamales are steamed. And rather than mixing in some sort of sauce before baking, Betty makes a flavorful, spicy tomato sauce to serve on the side. Lastly, you won’t find a single shred of cheese in this recipe--don’t worry, you won’t miss it. You’ll need a large roasting pan, ideally one that’s 16 by 13 inches, to accommodate the water bath.




3 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, trimmed

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup vegetable oil

3 cups low-sodium chicken broth

8 slices bacon, chopped

1 onion, minced

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 (14.5-ounce) cans diced tomatoes, drained

1 (14.75-ounce) can creamed corn

1 (6-ounce) can pitted ripe black olives, drained and chopped

1 cup whole milk

3 large eggs

2 cups yellow cornmeal


3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 1/2 cups enriched chicken broth (reserved from making the pie filling)

1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

Salt and pepper

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, for serving

1. For the pie: Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 325 degrees.

2. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Heat 1 1/2 teaspoons of the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until just smoking. Add half of the chicken and cook until golden brown on both sides, about 10 minutes, flipping halfway through. Transfer the chicken to a plate and remove the skin. Return the pot to medium-high heat and repeat with 1 1/2 teaspoons more oil and the remaining chicken.

3. Stir the broth into the pot, scraping up any browned bits. Return the chicken, along with any accumulated juices, to the pot. Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook until the thickest part of the thighs registers 175 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 1 hour.

4. Transfer the chicken to a plate. Measure out and reserve 1 1/2 cups of the broth for the sauce. (Discard any remaining broth or save for another use.) When the chicken is cool enough to handle, shred the meat into bite-sized pieces and set aside.

5. Bring a kettle of water to a boil. Meanwhile, cook the bacon in the Dutch ovenover medium-low heat until crisp, about 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a paper towel-lined plate.

6. Increase the heat to medium and heat the bacon fat until shimmering. Add the onion and 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the remaining 7 tablespoons oil, the tomatoes, corn, olives, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper and bring to a simmer.

7. Meanwhile, whisk the milk and eggs together in a bowl. Whisk in the cornmeal until incorporated and smooth. Slowly pour the cornmeal mixture into the pot while stirring constantly in a circular motion to prevent clumping, and cook until the mixture thickens slightly, about 1 minute. Off the heat, stir in the reserved bacon.

8. Measure out and reserve half (about 4 cups) of the cornmeal mixture. Smooth the cornmeal mixture left in the pot into an even layer, then top with the shredded chicken. Pour the reserved cornmeal mixture over the chicken and smooth into an even layer, covering the meat completely.

9. Cover the pot and place it inside a large roasting pan. Place the roasting pan in the oven and carefully pour enough boiling water into the pan to reach one-third of the way up the sides of the Dutch oven. Bake until the cornmeal mixture is dry to the touch and lightly browned, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Cool for10 minutes.

10. For the sauce: While the pie bakes, cook the flour in a medium dry skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, until light golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the chili powder, cumin, and coriander and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the reserved broth and tomato sauce, bring to a simmer, and cook until thickened, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

11. When the pie has cooled, sprinkle it with the cilantro and serve, passing thesauce -separately.

Notes from the Test Kitchen Our test cooks agreed that this recipe beat out any tamale pie casserole we’d had--it has a genuine flavor and texture that is just like taking a bite of a tamale, and an authentic sauce as well. The water bath was a clever technique, as it was a gentle cooking method that kept the sides from drying out and kept the rest of the pie moist and fluffy. We did, however, make afew changes to the original for the sake of convenience. We swapped out the salt pork called for in the original recipe for bacon, since the latter is easier to find for most of us, and we liked the smoky flavor bacon added (though you can certainly use salt pork if you prefer). This recipe calls for bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, which provide excellent richness, but it will work with white meat chicken too. We recommend using bone-in, -skin-on split breasts forthe best flavor; just reduce the cooking time in step 3 to 20 minutes.