Jamie Davis-Ponce is nearly up to her elbows in masa, a simple cornflour dough that will form the base of her mother-in-law’s tamales. “It’s like making sand castles, except gooier,” she says, kneading and squeezing.
Tamales are small pockets of masa stuffed with fillings that might be meat, vegetables, or fruit, which are wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves and steamed or boiled. The dish originated in Pre-Columbian Central America, where Aztecs and other groups included corn in their diet. In modern Latin America, tamales are still traditional, and a beloved taste, like a favorite stuffing at Thanksgiving, or grandma’s apple pie.
These tamales are a favorite of Jamie’s husband, Marco Ponce, who was born and raised in Obregon, in northwest Mexico, and lives here now. His family had them on holidays and special occasions. “We used to make 200 or 300 tamales around Christmas,” says Marco, recalling the sweet smell of freshly ground corn that was turned into dough. Because they are so labor intensive, making tamales is often a family affair. This day, the operation’s mastermind is Marco’s mom, Delia Felix, who was 15 when she learned to make them from her mother.
This spring, when Delia and her husband, Ruben Ponce, visited Boston, the familiar dish was on the agenda. Marco hadn’t seen his parents for many years and was craving the taste of his mother’s tamales. I offered the use of my kitchen in exchange for a tamale lesson. They decided to make two types: savory pork-filled tamales, and sweet tamales with a pineapple-studded dough, which Marco enjoys for both breakfast and dessert. He likes to fry a pineapple tamale in a bit of butter and dunk it into good coffee. “That way,” he says, “you can make an entire meal out of tamales.”
This is a food that’s very forgiving. Tamales won’t suffer, for example, from adding a bit of cumin or swapping out the olives, but take your time with the dough. Kneading may take upwards of 15 minutes. You know the dough is ready when it’s completely free of lumps and moist but not wet. Or, you can use the traditional method: Roll a small ball of dough, about the size of a coffee bean, and drop it into a small glass of cold water. If it floats, the dough is ready.
Our dough doesn’t pass the water test, but Delia just waves her hand. “It doesn’t have to float, as long as the texture is right,” she says, in her native Spanish. Delia, like many home cooks, uses instinct and a sharp eye, but no written recipes.
The fruit for the pineapple tamales (tamales de pina) is folded right into the dough, so the process is relatively simple: Shape a thin rectangle of dough onto corn husks, which have been soaked to make them pliable, fold the husk over itself, and steam.
If you make tamales with a filling, however, you might benefit from the assembly line approach. First, spread a thin layer of dough onto a husk; this becomes a canvas for your filling. We made ours with vegetables, olives, and shredded pork in chile sauce, but almost anything can fill a tamale, including beef, chicken, turkey, or vegetables and cheese. Finally, the husks are folded over and ends tied with thin strips of husk. The tying is tedious work, and you often see meat tamales folded rather than tied, but tying is the way it’s done in Obregon. Delia tells us that a woman in her town once made meat tamales without tying them, and nobody wanted to buy them. Better safe than sorry.
Toward the end of the assembly, we run out of the pork filling, but use up the rest of our ingredients by making tontitos, literally “little fools,” meatless tamales stuffed only with olives and vegetables. Then all the tamales are steamed. Delia is adamant that only one person put the tamales into the steamer pot, controlling the pattern so that each cornhusk package gets an even steam. As the guest and teacher, she does the honors.
At the end of the night, when the tamales are piled high on trays, Marco smiles contentedly. “When I see these,” he says, “it makes me very happy.”