Tamales are a weird thing, for me. Over the years, I have eaten tamales that have made my heart sing and I have eaten tamales that have sunk like a lead ball to the bottom of my stomach.They can be dry as dust requiring an ample dousing of salsa to make them go down so I have gotten to the point where I just don't order them anymore because I never know what I am going to get. You know, just like there are real, live Italian grandmothers out there who use ragu and the green container of "parmesan", there are bad Mexican cooks too. I also realize that there are different styles of tamale, according to the region out there. In some areas of mexico, they are giant blobs of masa dough with a tiny dot of filling and even though they might be authentic, that is not my jam at all. Traversing the sea of tamales feels like a minefield sometimes people.
Then there is the fact that some tamales are wrapped in banana leaves or plaintain leaves but I like those that are steamed in a corn husk - I just prefer the flavour that the corn husk imparts to the finished tamale. Most south american countries have their own take on this little masa bundle but I am the most familiar with Mexican style tamales so that is what I set out to make.
By now you are probably wondering why I haven't just made my own tamales by this point, since I seem to have pretty definite ideas about what I like but it's just been too overwhelming. I have spent years reading recipes and techniques. Some people will convince me that you have to whip the lard first and then, just when I think that is the only way to go, someone else will swear that you mix the masa harina with the warm stock and let it sit for a while, whip the lard and add it in after. Most the of the video tutorials will show them smearing the dough on the husk and then others roll it into balls and smash them flat with their palms.
Life was just easier when I avoided them altogether, to be honest until I saw that there was going to be a tamale making workshop at The Depanneur and it was not too expensive. Hmmm, maybe I should check that out, I thought. When I posted about it on facebook, my blogger buddy, Heather/ The Tasty Gardener, said she was going to sign up too. Finally, Jen from Picannte Dolce, the woman who encouraged me to start blogging in the first place, signed up and we were off. I was going to go and see what Paola, from Santo Pecado Catering, had to share, preparing for the worst but hoping for the best.
Paola encouraged us to use our imagination and to replace some or all of the lard with things like duck fat, use spices in the masa if we want and to even try a sweet tamale to serve as a dessert. She said that one of her favourite ways to incorporate her Canadian life into her tamales was to make them with the turkey dinner leftovers - turkey fat and stock in the dough and shredded turkey as a filling.
I thought of nothing else adter taking the class. I was distracted by my impending batch of turkey tamales that I could barely concentrate on our Easter turkey dinner. As always, I skimmed the fact off of the drippings when it was gravy time but instead of throwing them out, I saved them. That night, I hauled out both crock pots and made turkey stock over night. After 24 hrs cooling in the fridge, I scraped off the layer of fat that had congealed on the top of the stock and, again, kept it instead of turfing it. I had to supplement the turkey fat with a couple of tablespoons of manteca to bring the final amount up to 1/2 cup but the resulting masa had a very distinctive turkey flavour.
As far as the cheese goes, I was going to use a softer cheese but my panela seemed like it was past it's prime so I used cojita instead but any soft, mexican cheese would be great. You can get queso fresco at any latin american store (in the east end of Toronto you can get it at Meating on Queen so you don't need to make a trip to Kensington market for fresh Mexican cheeses or corn tortillas anymore).
If you don't have a tortilla press, I highly recommend picking one up. It's so easy to make your own tortillas with one, they aren't expensive and I think it's a really handy gadget to have around if you like to cook Mexican food. If you can't get your hands on one, you can always flatten the masa balls using something with a flat bottom, like a pot as long as you remember to flatten it between a couple pieces of parchment or plastic wrap.
Lastly, these things freeze beautifully and you have a few choices in regards to reheating them. The two most popular ways seem to be popping them in the microwave but my favourite was to pop them out of the husk and fry them in a bit of oil in a covered pan, flipping them a few times, for about 8 minutes. They make a great lunch treat to pop into The Kid's hot food bento or if you have access to a microwave at work or at school, you can heat them up in a couple of minutes.
makes approx 20 tamales