Homemade strawberry tamales and Día de la Candelaria

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February 2, 2011Recipes24 Comments

Look at that buttery masa. Don't you want to just eat it with a spoon?

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.

Strawberry Tamales
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.

Ingredients

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.

This is the ideal texture for the masa.

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.

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24 Responses to “Homemade strawberry tamales and Día de la Candelaria”
  1. Laura

    Yum! Is it true that things take longer to cook here because of the altitude? I had no idea! :-) BTW, I saw your mention in Shermans Travel. Congrats!

    • Lesley

      Thanks Laura. And yeah, I’ve found that things take at least 1/3 longer to cook here than in the States — with beans, it’s double the cooking time. (My black beans cooked for *four hours* the other day.)

  2. Oaxaca Cultural Navigator

    Gorgeously yum. This is the reason those little plastic baby Jesus dolls appear on Jan. 6 — to eat strawberry tamales on Feb. 2. Buen provecho, Lesley.

  3. gloria

    I’ve never had strawberry tamales. These really look good. How neat that you took a class. That must have been fun. They look delish. Thx for sharing.

  4. Amanda

    Epic.
    I cannot tell you how much I want these.
    Right now!

  5. Cooking in Mexico

    Your comparing this to making a cake batter was the same thought I had when I recently made chocolate tamales. It tasted like a chocolate cake batter with undertones of corn. I wondered if I could have poured the batter into a cake pan and baked it.
    I don’t have a tamales pot, so I improvised, using a collapsible vegetable steamer in a pressure cooker, without the pressure valve in place. It worked fine.
    Good job, Lesley!

    Kathleen

    • Lesley

      Thanks. I like the idea of pouring it into a cake pan and seeing what would happen. Or even some sort of small mold. I’ll have to think about this. :-)

      • muybuenocookbook

        First chocolate tamales by Kathleen and now strawberry tamales by you! WOWZA!!! They both sound heavenly! Great job as always!

      • gabriellemarielopez

        I’ve never tried it but I know that there are several varieties of savory tamales de cazuela that bake like a casserole. I’m sure there’s a way to do the same with the chocolate and strawberry tamales, right? You could probably also reference recipes for Chinese steam cakes to keep the masa moist while baking.

  6. Katie

    Lesley, I am dying over here. Those look positively heavenly. For the past week I have been wishing and wishing that I had frozen some Christmas tamales, because I keep having intense tamale cravings. This does NOT help. Not at all.

    Now I know what I’m going to do with the gorgeous berries we have at the market right now and when strawberries come in season later this spring! I suppose the filling could be interchangeable here, right? Because now my mind is racing with possibilities. I really want to do it with apples and cheese.

    • gabriellemarielopez

      Lesley! These look and sound amazing. I’ve only ever had the neon pink variety of strawberry tamales, yours have restored my faith in the sweet tamal! I’m going to make some as soon as strawberry season rolls around- bookmarking this recipe now.

    • Lesley

      So glad I could make you hungry, Katie. :-) You should try apples and cheese. Why not? The filling can be anything you want. Although if you’re going to do apples, I’d suggest cooking them first like the strawberries. (Rolled around in a bit of sugar and heated in a skillet.) If you stick the apples in raw they might come out too dry. Although if you wanted to experiment with a couple, you could do that.

      The masa is lightly sweet, but other than that it doesn’t have much of a flavor, so the star is going to be the filling. My best advice would be to pick any combo you really like. You can’t go wrong.

      • kelly

        hey
        i’ve been reading your blog for a while and i just moved here. i am going to use this recipe to make a apple pie tamale, but i can’t find baking powder anywhere! any suggestiosn? i went to superama and they said they don’t stock it anymore and when i went to the market near my house they also didn’t have any

        • Lesley

          Hi Kelly: Maybe you can try a baking or kitchen specialty store? There’s one in Polanco, I don’t remember the name but you might try googling around. I think it’s near Antara. There’s also a baking store in the Col. Juarez/Zona Rosa area. It’s at Avda. Chapultepec and Niza, right next to one of my favorite cantinas, Salon Niza. I think it’s called Eurobake or something like that. Also, the folks in my cooking class call baking powder “Royal,” so you might try asking for that. (Instead of “polvo para hornear.”) Hope that helps!

      • S@sha

        I’ve only had the neon pink strawberry tamales too, and I’m not much of a fan. Mass that tastes like cake, and no food coloring makes these sound delicious. I’m going to have to add this to my “to make” folder.

  7. Amanda

    Oh man I love these so much. Thankfully they are plentifull here and I dont have to try and make them myself. :) This year I got to eat the tamales made by a coworker while at work. She made spinich ones and they were soooo good. I had never seen anyone make them like that. She just mixed the spinich in with the masa so it was all through the tamal. Yumm Yumm.

  8. James

    I’m so glad you’ve included the recipe and preparation tips in this story :) Have you done a similar post on savory tamales? Now that I have access to a mixer, I’m hoping to get some serious work done on a batch of tamales oaxaquenos!

    • Lesley

      Hi James: I’m doing a savory tamales post later this week. I was tooling around last Friday and discovered the wonders of pumpkin and chorizo, combined together. Stuffed inside corn masa they’re pretty fabulous. On tamales oaxaqueños, I’m pretty sure that masa is much moister than the one I made. (They ones they sell on the street here are almost wet.) I’ll look at a few recipes and double-check to be sure.

      • James

        Can’t wait to read whatever insights you post on how to vary the texture of the masa. My favorite tamales have been the ones that are so soft and creamy that they’re best eaten with a spoon :]

  9. Lainie

    Lesley, I’ve been saving this recipe to make later this month for a large group–finally we are in strawberry season here! I want to make them in advance and am wondering: Do you think these tamales would freeze well?

    Thanks so much!

    • Lesley

      Hi Lainie: So glad you’re making the recipe! Yes, tamales freeze wonderfully. Just put them in a freezer bag and they should be fine. To heat them up, I wrap mine individually in paper towels and warm them in the microwave, so they steam nicely. (You don’t want them to dry out.)

      You’ll notice that I just updated this recipe to clarify that the corn flour needed is nixtamalized corn flour — not regular old corn flour that you’d use for cornbread. Maseca sells a variety just for tamales, or you can buy tamale masa usually at Latino supermarkets or tortillerías. The ready-prepared masa generally requires you to mix it with lard, or in this case, butter. But you should ask just to make sure it doesn’t already have the lard in it.

      Good luck and let me know how it goes!

  10. Clayr

    Leslie,

    Thank you so very much!! I live in the US, was invited to a friends Three Kings Day and my daughter was the first to get a baby Jesus! So now I am researching how to make tamales. Your site is THE BEST! I read through the postings and will also vary on the sweet fillings. I like the apple pie option.

    I am new to the Mexican cooking culture and already have requests for my Caldo de Res every time I invite them for dinner. I can not wait to expand my knowledge!

    Best Regards

  11. nnyl

    2.25 cups of milk with 2.5 cups of flour, is that correct? Seems like that would be a little thinner than cookie dough consistency

    • Lesley Tellez

      Nice catch. I wrote this recipe when I was living in Mexico City (at nearly 8,000 feet), and you do need more liquid at that elevation, to achieve that thick consistency. At sea level, less would work. The amount of liquid is really not as important as the visual cue of the consistency. Hope that helps.

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