Making tamales can be either a long, monotonous solo session filled with corn husks, masa, filling, and beer or it can be an out-of-control party. Those solo tamales might be neater, but there is some serious fun in teaching a bunch of newbies the pleasures of tamal making, even if the results are a bit mixed. Read up to get ready to throw your own tamal-making party.
First, the grammar lesson: The singular form of the word is tamal -- not tamale. This is grammatically incorrect and cheating at Scrabble -- with the plural being tamales.
Tamal masa is an entirely different being from tortilla masa -- lighter and with far more moisture and able to be easily spread on a reconstituted corn husk with a spoon. The key to this dough is in the whipped lard base, and a bit of stock or broth. Don't be scared at the mention of lard -- not much is needed to achieve a perfectly fluffy dough, with a ratio of one part lard to four parts masa being ideal.
When buying tamal masa, do be aware there is a difference between tortilla masa, prepared tamal masa, and unprepared tamal masa. Buy unprepared tamal masa, looking for one made with finely ground corn. My favorite local sources for masa are La Sonorense or any of the various Pro's Ranch Market locations, but also try any of the many fantastic neighborhood Mexican bakeries around town. Do yourself a favor and skip the masa spreader tools littering grocery stores; my great-grandma needed nothing more than a large spoon to get a nice layer of masa on a corn husk and neither do you.
Don't go cheap when buying corn husks. That cheap package of corn husks is going to pricey when it comes to patience, as the cheaper they are, the smaller the leaves, requiring layering two or more leaves to make a tamal of a decent size. Buy the $9 bag of husks, you cheapskate. Give them a good rinse in cold water to remove dirt, then submerge in hot water until they are completely pliable. Remove them from the water and give them a good shake to dry. It is best to use any husks that have been reconstituted at that time, as they can develop an unappealing smell.
To assemble the tamal, place a large corn husk in your hand and cover about two-thirds of the upper half of the husk with an even layer of masa, no more than quarter-inch thick. Place the filling in the middle of the dough, and fold the edge covered in masa over it, covering the filling completely with masa. This will prevent the filling from drying out during the cooking process. Continue folding the husk horizontally to form a flattened tube, and finish by folding the pointed end up from the edge of the masa. Get comfortable while doing this, you may be here a while. A six-pack of cold Tecate doesn't hurt. If you lack a tamal steamer, fit a deep pot with a steamer basket, or build up a layer of corn husks deep enough to add water to the pot without getting the bottom of the tamales wet will work. Be sure to not overcrowd the pot, as this would cause the tamales to cook unevenly. Place the tamales vertically in the pot over a layer of moist corn husks, open side up, in a circular pattern. Placing a ball of crumpled aluminum foil in the center of the pot provided support for the inner layers, and allows for greater circulation of the steam. Cook the tamales over a high enough heat to ensure a steady steam, but not so high that the water evaporates. If necessary, add more hot water, making sure to not pour it over the tamales.
Be very careful to not run out of water, as a burned tamal will be acrid and inedible, and an effort wasted. Cooking time will vary between 50 minutes to an hour, depending on the size -- the dough will feel firm but still moist and will begin to separate from the husk when fully cooked. Allow the tamales to rest for 10 minutes or so before eating, if you can resist. Once completely cool, store them in gallon-size storage bags.
Leftover tamales cook up beautifully when pan-fried over medium heat until they are warm through and develop a golden crust. With sunnyside-up eggs, they are the tastiest of breakfasts.
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2 pounds unprepared tamal masa ½ pound lard, cut into 1-inch cubes, room temperature 1 cup warm stock or broth Salt to taste
Whip the lard until fluffy, as if making frosting. This is really the crucial point of making the masa, so feel free to whip away to your heart's content. Add the masa and salt, and while mixing drizzle in the stock. Not all of the liquid may be necessary, add just enough to produce a dough that is spreadable and just slightly sticky. Continue mixing until well blended.
To check the flavor, fry a small amount of the masa over medium heat, adjusting for seasoning as necessary. If refrigerating the masa before making the tamales, allow it to come to room temperature before working with it, as cold masa is not as easily spreadable.