I wasn’t an immediate whiz on the Nixtamatic. The instruction manual for my new corn grinder
was woefully lean. It basically said, “Turn it on and enjoy!” so I waited until Lola came over to clean, thinking she might have intrinsic knowledge of how the thing worked because she was Mexican. (This seems like a ridiculous notion now, because very few Mexicans in this city grind their own corn. But I was flailing.) Lola looked at the two-page manual, and I did too, over her shoulder. She looked over the parts and I did, too. “I guess we should add some corn?” I said. I had a bag of frozen nixtamalized
corn, which I'd defrosted to use a test batch. We loaded it into the Nixtamatic’s collector tube and pressed the “on” button. The plates squeaked and wobbled and corn went flying everywhere, ricocheting off the cabinets and onto the floor Lola had just cleaned. We both squealed and turned the thing off. “Maybe that’s just what happens the first time you use it?” Lola suggested. I agreed, so we loaded more corn in the collector tube. The same thing happened again.
The instructions had warned not to tighten the plates too tightly or else the masa wouldn’t be able to exit the machine. That was really the only word of caution in the entire manual, outside of not sticking your fingers in the motor. Lola and I were both at a loss. In addition to the wobbly plates, there was also an extra screw that I had no idea what to do with. So the next day I called the manufacturer and explained the problem. Lola told me what to say, because I had no idea how to elucidate "The corn flew everywhere when I turned the machine on!" Lola's suggested phrasing included the verb "botar," which means to jump or bounce. The Nitxtamatic technician was nice enough when I explained the problem. He told me to tighten the plates. When I asked if he could come over and look at the machine, he said no, the company didn't offer that service. "You're welcome to bring the machine here and I'll teach you how to use it," he said. The Nixtamatic weighed maybe 40 pounds. It was a beast. I couldn't take it anywhere. So I decided to turn the plates as tight as possible and try again. Most of my test corn ended up on the floor, so I nitxtamalized a half-kilo of blue corn I’d purchased at Mercado Merced. I invited Alice over for moral support, trying to entice her at the thought of homemade corn tortillas. “You can take homemade blue corn tortillas home with you!” I said. Actually, all I had to utter was the word "tlacoyos
" and she was immediately in. Alice is a tlacoyo fiend. Thankfully I'd already done the nixtamalization part in cooking class a few times, so I didn't have to worry about that part. I rinsed the corn to remove any dust and grit and then added it to a pot of boiling water, with a few spoonfuls of calcium hydroxide. (In the future, I'd dissolve my cal in water first instead of adding it directly to the pot. Had a few cal-lumps in my water.) I boiled the mixture for an hour, adding hot water when it looked too dry. Then I turned off the flame and let the pot sit overnight. The next morning, the corn looked gorgeous -- like blue marbles.
This is what it looked like dry:
I rinsed the corn in water several times and rubbed off the outer skins. Then I told Alice to get the video camera ready -- I got a new one while I was in New York, just for instances like this. I poured the corn into the collector tube, turned the machine on and winced a bit. (Please don't fly everywhere, please don't fly everywhere, please please please
.) But the masa came out smooth and easy, squiggling out of the machine in soft, jagged pieces. I set a Pyrex dish under the Nixtamatic and let the fresh masa pile up. When the machine had ground all the corn -- it was over quickly, in probably three to five minutes -- I poured water over the masa a few tablespoons at at time and kneaded it with my hands, until it had a smooth and almost wet consistency.
To form the tortillas, Alice and I each grabbed off a chunk of masa, rolled it into a ball, and set it in the center of a tortilla press lined with plastic. Then we closed the press and pushed down on the lever.
A ball of masa, about to be flattened by the tortilla press
Folding the plate over, before using the press lever
The press didn't flatten the tortillas evenly, so after we did it once, we opened the press and rotated the tortilla a quarter-turn to the right, and then flattened it again. We repeated the process until the tortilla was more or less evenly flat. After that, we peeled off the tortilla from the plastic and placed it directly on the hot comal.
A homemade blue corn tortilla, cooking on my comal
My comal practically turns into a hearth
over high heat. And because of my electric stove, which takes about 10 minutes to adjust to a lower temperature, once the comal is hot it's nearly impossible to cool down. I cooked the tortillas for 15 to 30 seconds on each side; if I left them on longer, they burned. Next time I'll start with a lower heat. We piled the tortillas into a dish towel to keep warm, and we made a few tlacoyos filled with crumbles of longaniza sausage that I'd bought at the tianguis. Alice was an expert. My tlacoyo came out kind of uneven and funny-looking; hers looked as perfect as the woman on the corner's. I told her she should open up her own puesto, with Asian fillings. (Dude -- kimchi on a tlacoyo.)
Carrying a tlacoyo to the comal
Overall, I was happy with my tortillas, even though my masa didn't look like the kind I've seen on the streets. That masa is always a smooth cornflower-blue, without any speckles of corn. I'm not sure if I cooked my corn too long or not long enough, or perhaps it needed another run through the Nixtamatic. In either case, the tortillas turned out fine and it was really fun to spend an hour making them. Yes, that's how long this all took: about one hour. I'm going to edit my tortilla video and post it soon, just so you'll get an idea of how it works. And I'll have a tlacoyo recipe for you at some point, with more detailed instructions on filling them and shaping them. (Alice will be my guest tlacoyo expert.) More to come in the next few weeks on masa and tortilla-making! Homemade Corn Tortillas
Makes about 12 tortillas with a six-inch diameter Note:
Like many recipes in Mexico, the corn tortilla recipe is not set in stone. I didn't add salt to my masa; some people do. Quantities of calcium hydroxide and boiling times for the corn also differ depending on who you ask. Cal does affect the taste of the tortillas -- if you add too much, the tortillas will taste too bitter. My rule right now is two tablespoons of cal per kilo (2.2 lbs.) of corn, but I could see adjusting it slightly in the future, maybe adding just a wee bit more. As for boiling times for the corn kernels, both Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless recommend 15 minutes; my cooking class instructors say an hour, so that’s what I went with here. A note on tortilla presses:
Some people say wooden presses work better than aluminum ones, but I haven't found that to be the absolute rule. We have one wooden press in class and it works about as well as the others. No matter what the material is, you shouldn't place the dough directly on the press, or else it'll stick. The folks on the street cut squares of plastic taken from common grocery store bags to line their tortilla presses. I did the same thing here and it worked great. Ingredients
500 grams (1.1 lbs) dried corn 1 tablespoon calcium hydroxide (see headnote) 1 1/2 liters of water, plus extra for adding to the masa after it's been ground Equipment needed
Tortilla press Electric grain mill Directions
Rinse the corn under water to remove any dust or grit. Place the corn in a large pot or saucepan filled with water and bring to a boil. In a separate glass measuring cup or glass bowl, add about 1/2 cup water and sprinkle the cal on top. Let it dissolve. Pour this into your pot of corn and water. (DK says to strain the cal-water mixture into the pot, but I haven't found this step absolutely necessary so far.) Once the corn/cal mixture starts boiling, lower the heat and bring it to a slow, rolling simmer for one hour. Then shut off the flame, cover the pot and let sit overnight. The next morning, rinse the corn well. The water will feel slimy and mucky, but don't worry, this is good. While you rinse the corn, rub the kernels between your fingers to remove any loose hulls. Load the corn into the electric grain mill and use according to the manufacturer's instructions. The corn should come out of the mill as a soft, thin dough. Add water a few tablespoons at a time until the masa is very moist and pliable. It should feel almost like cold Play-Dough. The dough should not crack if you attempt to pat a piece into a tortilla. Once the masa is ready, heat the comal on the stove and prepare your tortilla press by placing sheets of plastic on the plates. (See headnote for more info.) Grab a chunk of dough, roll it into a ball and place it on the press's bottom plate. Flatten with top plate and push down with the lever. You may need to open the press back up and rotate the tortilla a quarter-turn, until it's evenly flat. When you've gained your desired thickness, carefully peel off the tortilla from the plastic and place on the hot comal. Cook for about 30 seconds to a minute on each side. If the edges start to look white and dry, you've overcooked the tortilla. Tortillas freeze well, so any extras that you haven't gobbled up warm off the comal can be placed in an airtight bag and frozen.