February 2 is Día de la Candelaria in Mexico, a Catholic holiday that honors the purification of the Virgin Mary. It’s also an important day for eating tamales.
The holiday is a follow-up to Three Kings Day on Jan. 6, when families serve a Rosca de Reyes cake that’s baked with hidden figurines of the Baby Jesus. Anyone who finds a Niño Dios inside the rosca must make tamales for friends and family on Feb. 2.
It’s been interesting to watch the holiday unfold here — the markets have been filled with ceramic dolls of the Baby Jesus, many with long eyelashes and eyeliner. (Bringing said doll to mass is a big part of the Día de la Candelaria ritual.) However, I didn’t know until recently that Día de la Candelaria is a truly mestizo holiday. February 2 formerly commemorated the first day of the Mexica new year. Guess what the Aztecs used to eat to ring in the festivities? Tamales.
The Christmas tamale-making spirit passed me up this year, so I signed up for a Día de la Candelaria cooking course at the Escuela de Gastronomía Mexicana, where I take classes on Thursday nights. Yuri was teaching and he had a whole slew of tamales on the menu: strawberry, fig, pineapple, bean with chicharrón, corn with pork and epazote, cazón.
I’d wanted to make one of the sweet ones, but he relegated me to the corn group. But I snuck a few peeks at what the strawberry folks were doing.
When they came out of the steamer (as depicted above), I couldn’t believe how amazing the masa was. Made with butter and milk instead of lard and chicken broth like the typical savory tamal, this was almost like a spongecake. A lone strawberry gem lay inside, soft and tart.
The next day I went to Mercado Merced and bought all the supplies to make my own. Surprisingly, they came out just as good at my house as they did in cooking school. I’m attributing this to the ease of the recipe rather than my own skills. It was really like baking a cake: cream butter and sugar, add dry ingredients, add milk. Sure, I had to soak the husks and spread the masa and fold, but it wasn’t complicated. It was fun.
Even if you’ve never made tamales before, these would be a good place to start. The masa is so good that it barely even matters what the filling is. And if you put too little or too much, no one will mind. I veered toward the smaller side, imagining a sweet treat I could have in the morning with tea. (Turns out there’s an entire variety of finger-sized tamales known as “tamales de dedo.” Who knew?)
Mine were done in about three hours. Half that time was assembly; the rest was waiting for them to cook. My KitchenAid mixer helped immensely — I had my hands free to chop while everything whirred.
I plan to post some tips on making tamales later this week or next week, but in the meantime here’s a few items that might be of interest:
*If you don’t have a steamer pot: How to Steam Tamales Without A Steamer Basket
*On folding: There are several ways to do it, and you don’t have to tie them closed necessarily. I like Use Real Butter’s photo pictorial here.
Makes perhaps 2 1/2 dozen small tamales
Recipe from the Escuela de Gastronomía Mexicana
Note: The corn flour called for in this recipe is the coarse-ground, nixtamalized variety — that means it’s corn that’s been cooked in water and calcium hydroxide. This flour is sold regularly at Mercado Merced in Mexico City, and other large markets. In the U.S., if you don’t have access to fresh nixtamalized corn flour, you can use Maseca. Just make sure it’s the variety used for tamales, not tortillas. Or you can visit your local tortillería or Latino supermarket and ask if they sell masa para hacer tamales — it’s a courser-ground masa than tortilla masa, and it tastes much better than Maseca.
For the masa:
150 grams butter, softened at room temperature (1 American stick + 2 1/2 tablespoons)
125 grams sugar (1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
250 grams (2 1/2 cups) nixtamalized corn flour* (see note)
2 1/4 cups whole milk, or slightly more/less
For the filling:
250 grams strawberries, sliced into 1/4-to-1/2 inch pieces (about 1 1/2 cups worth)
75 grams sugar (1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons)
At least 20 to 30 corn husks — you’ll want more for placing on top of the tamales as they steam
About 1 hour before you want to begin making your masa and filling, place the husks in a large pot and cover with hot water. The water doesn’t need to be boiling — very hot from the tap is fine. Also, you don’t need to weigh the husks down with anything; as long as they’re sitting in water, they’re fine.
In a standing mixer equipped with the paddle attachment — or a hand mixer, or a whisk — whip the butter until it’s fluffy. Add the sugar and repeat, beating until well combined. (It’s okay if the mixture still feels a bit grainy. You just want it airy and light.) Add in the flour a little at a time, and the baking powder. Continue mixing until you’ve got coarse crumbles. Then add the milk little by little until your dough is dense but still moist, kind of like cookie dough.
Once you’ve got your masa, toss the strawberries with sugar. Heat them in a skillet over medium heat, stirring often so they don’t burn. They should turn syrupy and bubbly. Remove them from the heat so they don’t continue cooking.
To form the tamales:
Grab a hand full of husks from your pot of water and place on a clean work surface. Look at them and make sure they’re at least four inches wide, or ideally wider. If they’re not very wide, you’ll have to use two at the same time.
Place the husk in front of you, with the narrow end closest to you.
Spread about 1 1/2 tablespoons of masa — or more if you want them larger — onto the upper end of the husk, creating a rectangular, oval-ish shape. Don’t spread the masa all the way to the top edge of the husk; leave about a one-inch border. (This is because they’ll swell as they steam.) Place one or two strawberry pieces in the center of your masa.
Grab both sides of the husk, and bring them towards each other like a taco. Press the seams of the masa together, and fold one edge of the husk over the other so you’ve got a smooth cylinder. Fold the lower end of the husk — the narrow end — up toward the top to seal.
Place vertically in a steamer pot, fold-side down. Cover with corn husks and a sheet of plastic wrap, and seal tightly with the lid. Steam on medium-high heat for about one hour. (Things take longer to cook in Mexico City because of the altitude, so if you live at sea level I’d start checking on them after 40 minutes.) You don’t want it so soft that it’s like pudding. Mine were done in just over an hour.