Adventures in Hispanic Food Land: Tamales, Arepas and un-named blobs

Published by emilyatspecklefarm on

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My husband

This post has been the most work yet! I guess I’m testing my metal as a blogger, hahaha. Anyway, When the pictures loaded in the post they were in the opposite order that I needed them in!  I’ve lost track of the hours I spend rearranging pictures. So I hope you appreciate them, because it was a TON of work.    

 On to a gringo attempting a keystone Hispanic dish. This all started because right now I’m stranded at home.  My husband is on his way back from learning to make knives in Colorado.  Not making any trips for groceries has made me explore my pantry a little more… thoroughly. My masa supply was almost untouched and it’s getting old so it needed to be used anyway.
I was trying to think of things to make with it when I remembered this one dish I had tried.                                                                                                                                                


The librarian from my home town is much loved by everyone. I was helping at the library one summer when a Hispanic kid brought her dinner. Being an absolute sweetheart, she split it with me. My memory is a little hazy about what it actually was but I remember thinking, “So this is what real Mexican food is like!”  The dish had none of the stereotypical bad aspects of Mexican food, it was just pure food heaven. All I can recall for sure is that there was some kind of meat, salsa and something made from at least part masa. The masa patty, as I have come to call it was tender and flavorful. 
     I hunted for hours on the internet trying to figure out what it was to no avail. That night I settled for making arepas instead. They where really good but a little tough, I really had no idea what I was doing so I was just happy they were edible. Here is a link (Please, let me know how it work!) to the recipe.
 They were good but I really wanted that masa patty from my memory. I figured the next most similar thing would be tamales but I didn’t have corn husks on hand or a big steamer and I had never made them before. I decided I would at least look at recipes. I found out that you can cook them without corn husks and, as I had suspected you can use a rice cooker with a steamer insert. I put making them off all day until I was so hungry I wouldn’t care how untraditional my methods were going to be.
wax paper for the steamer with slits cut in it.
leave the wax paper big so you can get the tamales out without burning yourself.


I was afraid that without the corn husks around the tamales they would turn out weird and be hard to get out of the steamer basket in one piece. I lined the basket with slitted wax paper and it worked fine, but it’s only good for one round of tamales. Next time I will make sure we have corn husks!

A note about masa, it’s NOT just finely ground corn meal. Masa is made by soaking and then cooking corn in a lime solution. It’s then rinsed multiple times and ground. Masa is used both fresh and dry but finding it fresh is probably an adventure all to itself in the States. Instead, you can find it as a dried meal at your local Hispanic market (or online if that’s more your style) and often at the large chain stores, although supporting the little guys would be very appreciated!

The dough.

I used the food processor to make the dough but an electric beater, stand mixer or bowl and whisk would all work too!  When I do this again I will split the recipe into two batches, this was the absolute max my 9-Cup Cuisinart could hold. The dough consists of your choice of fat, masa, baking powder, seasoning, stock and water. I intended to use the full amount of fat called for in the recipe but I just couldn’t, and 1/3 of what I did use was olive oil. For the filling I used a can of my grandma’s delicious canned elk.
* I later learned from some Hispanic friends that leavener is not traditionally added, so feel free to leave out the baking powder!*

The dough

4 cups masa
½ cup lard                 
1/3 cup olive oil
3 tsp baking powder
tsp salt
tbs ground cumin
tbs chili powder
tsp garlic powder
tsp pepper
1 can your choice of stock with hot water added to reach two cups
more warm water as needed

Add the lard or half of whatever fat you are using to the food processor and process to “fluffy”, really just get some air in it. Then add a cup of masa and your seasonings and baking powder. With that running add just enough of the stock/water mixture so that everything incorporates well. Then add another cup of masa and more liquid, repeat until all your masa and stock is used. Then add the rest of your fat and process one more time. The dough should be pretty plastic, if it crumbles instead of making a ball you need to process and add more water until it sticks together. How much water you need will vary depending on the climate and humidity in your home, among other things.

My Filling

Grandma Judy’s canned Elk

1 pint of Elk
5 minced cloves of garlic
pepper,cumin,salt,chili powder, garlic powder to taste

Procrastination coupled with a tamale coma meant I put off taking pictures of tamale making the night I made the dough.  Thanks to my laziness I can report that there was no ill affects on the dough from spending a night in the fridge. But the dough balls I used last were drying out by the time I got to them. Next time I will make sure to keep the dough I’m not working with covered.

I decided to weigh the dough out into balls between 2.6 and 3 oz.
little dough balls
Pay attention to how much filling you use, this is about right.

All together this recipe made about 12 tamales. The recipe I started working from said it would make two dozen, so maybe my tamales are huge?
As you can see, I used a piece of wax paper to flatten the dough and shape the tamales. 

The amount of filling you add is important, you want the filling and dough to balance each other. 
use the wax paper to fold the tamale into shape
then the other side…
then it will look like this
and you need to seal the two sides together
then fold in and seal the ends
then it will look like this…
now you can squash it into a little more tubular ( the years I have waited to use that word!) shape.
and load them into your wax papered steamer insert, they will expand-remember the baking powder? so leave room between them.

    They are done when the dough is firm and comes away from the filling easily. That was about 40 minutes in my rice cooker. Since only four of these guys fit at a time I decided to experiment with some other cooking methods and a different shape.
 I decided on a patty shape and I tried two different ways of making them. the first way:

add about this much filling
then you fold the edges in over the filling, make a ball and seal the edges.
like this one

The Other Way–                                  divide the ball in half and 
make two disks. fold one into a cup and add filling.

Then place the other disk on top and fold the sides down around the botton cup
so it looks like this, and seal the edges

Then, however you made them, you squash the ball flat and flatten the edges.

I cooked these ones coated with olive oil and a splash of water in the oven
The patties
 I put another pie pan over them to keep the steam in.
tamale patties cooked in the oven

And… that’s how they turned out. Yes, they tasted as bad as they look. Cooking in the oven was NOT a good idea. If they had been tightly covered with tin foil-I didn’t have any- they might have been okay, maybe, but I have my doubts.


 finished tamale patties

top: oven cooked bottom: fried then finished in the oven

    For the remaining patties I fried half and steamed the other half. The steamed ones turned out just as good as the tubular ones and took just as long to cook. The fried ones tasted good but were way to greasy and they needed 15 minutes in the oven at 375 F to finish cooking. I think my oil needed to be hotter to start out and I should have done most of the cooking in the ovenAs for the two different ways of shaping the patties, I preferred the second one. I think it was easier, more time efficient and stuck together better.

finished tamales

At first I thought the tamales needed to be spicier but my salsa was hot enough that it wasn’t necessary.  Overall I was very happy with how they turned out and I will be making them again! 
This here is a link,  recipes and instructions for tamale doughs and fillings.  this webpage has a whole list of different fillings and recipes for the dough. If you try these recipes, let me know how they turn out. they look great and I wish I had found it before I tried to make tamales.

Tamale and cabbage salsa, yum!–cabbage salsa recipe coming soon–

 This post is participating in the Fresh Food Wednesday and HomeAcre blog hops, go check out other blog with healthy recipes like ours!

I hope you found information and inspiration, come back soon!
Kindest regards,


White · June 20, 2013 at 11:26 pm

Hahaha! I love your comment about waiting years to use the word tubular! LOL! For some reason I feel its VERY delightful to say “I’ve always wanted to say that” so every now-and-then I ad that just for the fun of saying it! I know you weren’t just saying it for the fun of it, but I had to mention this! Hehe!

    Emily Swezey · June 20, 2013 at 11:56 pm

    I agree! Some words and expressions you just don’t get to use often enough, even if it isn’t really years before you get to use them again.I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

meNmykids · June 21, 2013 at 5:14 am

I love your post! Very nice blog with beautiful pictures,(thanks for all the effort in getting them organized for us) keep at it it is great to look back on years from now. In my house making tamales means a monster mess in the kitchen. I just don’t feel like I’ve perfected tamales yet. But we love it when I make tortillas!Gale

    Emily Swezey · June 21, 2013 at 3:35 pm

    I definitely feel like there is a lot of room for improvement in my tamales, what is your recipe like? and it did make a HUGE mess! I was really hesitant to try them but it turned out good in the end. I make corn tortillas sometimes, what kind do you make?

Mrs. Mom · June 21, 2013 at 11:24 pm

Great post, love the photos. Looks like making tamales is a lot of effort, but they look good! Okay, so I voted for two posts, although, I hope you continue to post more recipes. I would like to see a simple cheese recipe, and also see a post about making knives. Do you still make yogurt? I think that would be an interesting post too. I’m looking forward to whatever you come up with!

    Emily Swezey · June 22, 2013 at 12:37 am

    making tamales is a lot of work, but well worth it! Don’t worry, there will be MANY more recipes to come. Sadly, I lost my excellent yogurt culture I had so I haven’t made yogurt in a while, but its on the list! next week sometimes there will be a dairy related post of some kind, there will be posts about everything you asked about eventually, you all just get to pick the order 😉

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