As I unwrap the husk, sweet corn aromas spiked with pungent pasilla chiles swirl around me. With the touch of my fork against the light, spongy masa, rivulets of dark red chili sauce gush forth. My first freshly made, hot-from-the-steamer tamale is a revelation.
Like just about everyone in Los Angeles, I’ve happily eaten tamales of every shape and flavor, in styles from all around Latin America. Whether wrapped in dried corn husks, banana or avocado leaves, filled with pork, peppers or chocolate, this traditional Christmas holiday treat is available here all year long in a seemingly endless variety.
But this was the first time I’d waited by the stove for my own tamales to cook, and then, with the masa still puffed full of hot steam, devoured one after another after another. Compared with the typical dense, relatively dry tamales we buy in stores or Mexican restaurants, which have to be reheated, these were moist packets of creamy masa still alive with flavor -- and plenty of saucy filling.
Eating freshly made, just-steamed tamales is a pleasure usually reserved for the Latin American families who have passed recipes from generation to generation and shown them off at tamale-making parties during the Christmas holidays. That’s how Alice Tapp and her daughter, the owners of Tamara’s Tamales in Venice, perfected their techniques.
Alice’s Mexican grandmother taught her how to make tamales when she was a little girl in East Los Angeles; she loved to join her grandmother’s friends selling the corn husk-wrapped treats after Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe. Collecting tamale recipes and chronicling the centuries-old traditions for herself and her American children became a lifelong hobby.
I’m from Kansas, not East L.A., and unfortunately I don’t have a Mexican grandmother. So I asked Alice to teach me how to make a great tamale. We settled on red pork chili, traditional for Christmas but delicious anytime.
Alice, her daughter Tamara Tapp and Alice’s sister Diane Tarango (the tamale sauce expert in the family) join me in the tamale shop’s kitchen to let me in on the secrets.
Buy the right masa, the women all chime. Fresh, unprepared tamale masa is available at any Latino market. It’s finer than tortilla masa because it’s ground three or four times, while tortilla masa is ground only once. “You want it wet, and dated for freshness,” Alice says. “If it smells the least bit sour, it’s not good.”
We’ll prepare the masa, spread it on the cleaned, soaked corn husks, add filling of red pork chili, wrap them and steam them. It’s easy to understand why the labor-intensive process works best with an army of relatives working a kitchen assembly line, like the family in the book I used to read to my children, “Too Many Tamales.”
“You can do it all by yourself,” Tamara says. “But the second time, you’ll invite friends over and pour some margaritas for a tamale-making party. It’s a lot of work.”
Start by preparing the masa with fat, broth and a pinch of salt, Alice says.
I interrupt. After reading cookbooks by the renowned Mexican food authority Diana Kennedy, I’m a little worried that unless I render the pork lard myself, just like the ancients did, any tamale I make will be a tragic failure.
Alice explains. Her grandmother, she says, used pork lard back in the days when it actually tasted like pork. Alice’s mother, concerned about her family’s health, used half lard, half Crisco. Alice, who dislikes both the taste of Crisco and the bland processed lard now available, has experimented with everything.
“I like butter best,” she says. “It has the animal fat that works so well with the masa and yet has flavors that today’s lard lacks.” But the shop’s customers, she says, considered the butter tamales too rich and, in their minds, unhealthy. Tamara’s Tamales now are made with Alta Dena Golden Sweet, a soy-based margarine.
Actually, any fat or oil will work -- the ratio should be one part fat to five parts masa -- and even olive oil works if it’s frozen to the right consistency, she says.
“With lard or butter, you get a thinner layer of moist masa. With margarine or shortening, the masa gets fluffier, but I think it can be too dry,” Alice says. Adding a bit more of the pork broth to the masa helps. A liberal hand with the sauce and filling also counteracts the effect.
Now for the broth: Homemade is better -- they make their own at Tamara’s -- but go ahead and use canned chicken, beef or vegetable broth if you want. Most of your guests won’t be able to tell the difference, Alice says.
Use a mixer to whip the fat until light, mix in the fresh masa, then thin it with just enough broth (roughly 5% of the total volume of the prepared masa) until it is the consistency of butter icing. Spread the prepared masa evenly side to side across the inside, fatter half of a soaked and pliable corn husk.
How much? One ice cream scoop of masa is enough for a large husk. It should be a little less than a one-fourth inch thick, just enough to make sure it’ll seal in all the filling. The best way to spread it is with a rubber or offset spatula.
And how much filling? The same ice cream scoop measures out just the right amount.
Wrapping it up
There are no rules on what can be used as filling, according to the Tapps. To put together the family cookbook, “Tamales 101,” they experimented with everything they could imagine. What didn’t work?
“Shrimp and seafood get tough and rubbery,” says Tamara, noting that the tamales need to steam for at least an hour, too long for delicate seafood. Pecans and walnuts also don’t hold up to that kind of heat treatment. With sweet dessert tamales, go light on the sugar. Too much can make the tamales tough and hard.
Experienced tamale cooks make their sauces and fillings and clean and soak their husks the day before they assemble and steam their tamales. That way the assembly line of family and friends can work smoothly.
When it comes to how to wrap tamales into their corn husk bundles, the style of wrapping is traditionally an indicator of the type of tamale. Red pork chili tamales use the fold-over method with an open end. To achieve this, Tamara rolls an assembled tamale on an 8-inch-wide husk into a 3-inch-wide log. The pointed half of the husk, which hasn’t been spread with masa and doesn’t contain filling, is folded up to meet the open end of the tamale.
For most styles of wrapping -- husks tied at both ends, husks tied in square packages, or two-husk rectangular tied packages -- it’s the cook’s decision. The different styles are nothing more than a way to differentiate one kind of tamale from the others someone has made that day.
The final step is steaming. Tamara sets the tamales in the steamer pan folded end down. With enough tamales loosely set in a pan, they won’t fall over and spill their contents, and there still will be enough room around the tamales to allow them to cook evenly.
Tamara places the steamer on top of a pan with 6 inches of water already at a full boil, enough water to keep the steam constant during the hour or more it takes to cook the tamales.
She covers the pan, then turns the heat down to a medium setting. If you keep the pot on high, the tamales are likely to overheat and explode, she explains.
After an hour, they should be done. Pull one out, wait two minutes for the masa to set, and unwrap it. The masa should roll cleanly off the husk. If not, they need a few more minutes’ steaming.
It’s worth the wait.