Tag Archives: masa harina

HOW TO MAKE A HOT TORTILLA

If you have never eaten a freshly made tortilla, you do not know what you have been missing. Home-made tortillas are to the ones you buy in the supermarket like a slice of home-baked bread compared with the white-bread dough balls you also buy in the supermarket.

Fortunately, modernity has had an impact on tortilla making. If you had been a Native American making tortillas years ago, you would have had to make hominy or posole by mixing dried corn with wood ash, washing off the husks, and then grinding the still-damp corn kernels. Then you would mix that with a little salt (maybe) and knead it with a little water to the right consistency to form masa – literally  “dough”  to make tortillas, arepas, papusas, etc. These days, all you have to do is buy a sack of masa harina de maiz para tortillas y tamales (The package may have all or only some of these words – don’t worry, buy it.) The two most common brands in the USA are Quaker and Maseca. Masa harina or masa flour is actually dried masa which only needs water to form the dough.

Even though making the dough is easy, you may need some special equipment to make perfect tortillas. Of course experienced Mexican and Native American cooks just pat out perfectly round tortillas between their two hands. That expertise comes only from years of practice, so consider using some simple and inexpensive assistive devices.

Cast metal tortilla press made in Mexico

Cast metal tortilla press made in Mexico

First is the tortilla press. Several models are available in cooking shops or from the internet. The one I use was made in Mexico of cast iron. Some versions are made from wood; some have non-stick surfaces. They will probably cost around $20. If you don’t want to invest in one, you can use a small length of 2 inch PVC pipe as a sort of rolling-pin. With practice, that works OK, but it’s still not as good or easy as a press.

Second is the plastic protector. If you try to make tortillas on a bare press surface, they will probably stick – even with the “non-stick” variety – so you need plastic from which you can peel off the tortilla. I use a plastic sandwich bag. With a sharp knife, open the sides of the bag. Do not slit open the bottom fold of the bag. That way you will have a long, narrow plastic sheet with a fold in the middle. This will cost only about 2 cents or so.

Cast iron comal made in Mexico

Cast iron comal made in Mexico

Third is the comal. This is a round cast-iron pan with low sides. Mine is from Mexico. You can buy a similar one from a kitchen store or from the internet for around $20. You can also use a cast-iron skillet. The important thing is that the pan holds heat, so a light weight pan won’t work as well, and a non-stick pan really isn’t needed.

Ball of masa sandwiched in the prepared bag, ready to be pressed

Ball of masa sandwiched in the prepared bag, ready to be pressed

Another perfect tortilla ready to be baked

Another perfect tortilla ready to be baked

A pressed tortilla ready to be tranferred from the plastic to the palm of the hand and then the hot comal

A pressed tortilla ready to be transferred from the plastic to the palm of the hand and then the hot comal

RECIPE

Ingredients

  • 2 cups masa harina
  • 1 1/3 cups warm water
  • ½ teaspoon salt
Freshly-pressed tortilla baking on the hot comal

Freshly-pressed tortilla baking on the hot comal

Flipped over to be baked on the second side, this tortilla shows the color and brown spots from a well-heated comal

Flipped over to be baked on the second side, this tortilla shows the color and brown spots from a well-heated comal

Method

  • Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl. Stir until completely combined into a soft dough. If the flour does not all come together, add a few drops of additional water.
  • Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 30 minutes. This will allow the water to be completely absorbed make a smoother masa. If the masa is still crumbly, you can add a few more drops of water. Just be judicious in your additions, because you don’t want the masa to be too soft.
  • When you are ready to make the tortillas, remove the plastic wrap, knead the masa gently a few times, and then divide the dough into 12 equal-sized pieces. For more precision, you can weigh them (Each individual ball should weigh 1/12th of the weight of the total ball), but that may seem too compulsive.
  • One at a time, remove the pieces of dough, recovering the others with plastic film. Roll the dough into a ball
  • Prepare the tortilla press by covering the opened press with the prepared plastic sandwich bag. Then place the ball of dough in the  center of the bottom plate of the press. Cover with the flap of the sandwich bag, cover with the free plate of the press, and press down smoothly with the lever of the press.
  • Remove the plastic with the pressed tortilla from the press. Turn the tortilla into your hand, and then transfer gently to the middle of the comal which has been pre-heated over a medium-high flame.
  • Bake for about 30 seconds or until the underside is a light toasty color with dark brown flecks. Turn over and bake for another 30 seconds or so. The tortilla may puff up during the baking. That’s good. You can use a pancake turner to flatten the tortilla against the surface of the comal to make sure that the whole surface of the tortilla is baked.
  • Adjust the heat under the comal if the tortillas burn or do not bake quickly enough.
  • Press one tortilla while the previous one is baking. Continue the process until all of the dough balls have been used.
  • Keep the baked tortillas warm in a folded tea towel or in a special tortilla warmer. Serve immediately.
Insulated cloth tortilla warmer - slip warm tortillas into a slot on the side as you make them

Insulated cloth tortilla warmer – slip warm tortillas into a slot on the side as you make them

Stacking tortillas with cheese in preparation for huevos rancheros

Stacking tortillas with cheese in preparation for huevos rancheros

Once you get them baked, just slather them with butter and eat while warm. They are delicious that way, but they also make great huevos rancheros.

Huevos rancheros with black beans - there is no better breakfast

Huevos rancheros with black beans – there is no better breakfast

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CHICKEN TAMALES, A CHRISTMAS TRADITION

Our family has lived in the Southwest USA long enough that we have adopted many of the local traditions, especially those that have to do with food and with Christmas. For many years we have gathered around the kitchen table on Christmas Eve to make and then eat tamales.

The event is festive, with everyone laughing and each person assigned a particular task. Susan usually prepares the masa – always with lard, and beaten until the dough floats on water to show that it has enough incorporated air. I prepare the corn husks in hot water so that they are pliable and can be used to wrap up the dough and filling. Others make the filling. Our favorite is chicken. The recipe came from the back of a bag of masa harina from many years ago.

Pork in red chile is more traditional, and we sometimes make those, too, but our family favorite is chicken with an unusual ingredient – olives.

After the filling and dough are prepared, the teamwork and fun begin.  Some spread the masa dough on the corn husks. Others put on the filling. Others wrap up the tamales. We try to make things come out even with just enough filling for the masa dough. Usually it doesn’t, and we have a little of one or the other left over. Even at that, we always wind up with enough tamales for everyone to get their fill.

Finally, the tamales  are stacked on a trivet in a big pot to be steamed. The steamer pot is put on the stove, and the tamales are cooked to perfection.

While we wait – it may take an hour or so – we sit around the Christmas tree and enjoy a mug of home-made eggnog. Then the feast begins before it is time for bed and dreams of Christmas Day.

This year, Sarah and her son will join us for a few days before Christmas while Carol and her family will arrive on Christmas Eve so we won’t be able to have our tamales party. Instead we will make them ahead, freeze them, and then thaw and steam them for each of our visiting families.

 

RECIPE

Ingredients

Filling

  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • ½ cup taco sauce, canned or homemade
  • 1/3 cup black olive slices
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 cups shredded cooked chicken

Masa

  • 1 cup lard (may substitute vegetable shortening)
  • 2½ cups masa harina
  • 2 teaspoons ground red chiles (do not use chili powder)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1¾ cups chicken stock

Corn husks for filling (about 2 dozen, soaked in hot water)

Method

  • Sauté onions in oil. Then add taco sauce, olives, cumin, salt, and chicken.  Combine well, cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, then set aside.
  • In a stand mixer, cream the lard (or shortening) until fluffy. Then add masa harina, chiles, salt, and chicken stock. Continue to beat until the mixture is light and fluffy enough that a small piece of the dough floats in water.
  • Divide the masa into 24 balls. Spread each of the dough balls onto a soaked corn husk so that the dough comes to the edge of the husk. Place a good-sized tablespoon of the filling on the dough, fold over the two edges of the husk so that the dough completely covers the filling. Then fold over the two edges of the corn husk so that the dough completely covers the filling. Fold the tail of the folded husk over the tamal.
  • Stack the finished tamales on a trivet over water in a large kettle
  • Steam, covered, over gently boiling water for about one hour or until the masa does not stick to the corn husks. Serve warm with your favorite chile sauce or molé.
  • If you choose to freeze the tamales, thaw them completely before steaming.

Don’t try to make the dough without a mixer as the dough is heavy and it really does need to float in water before you quit beating. That’s hard on the modern wrist. You can use vegetable shortening if you wish, but the tamales are never as tasty as those made with lard. Choose your own degree of heat with the ground chiles. Personally, I prefer “hot”, but some in our family are incredibly sensitive so we choose “mild”. You can always douse your personal tamales with hot sauce.

IMPORTANT: Remember to remove the corn husk wrapper before you eat the tamal.

There should be about 2 dozen tamales.

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