It’s hard for me to say what a traditional Mexican Christmas is. Time and regions offer a lot of diverse experiences. My father grew up in Juarez in the 1930’s, so his experience of Christmas was one in which he remembers being overjoyed at being given an orange, peanuts, a tamal, and atole (champurrado) on the last day of Las Posadas. There was no gift giving, so this modest meal was a big deal for him.
My memories of Christmas are quite different. Usually the weekend before (or weekend of) Christmas, our family, friends, and anyone who walked through the front door, was given an apron and spoon and joined the tamale assembly line in our kitchen. My father always made the chile and filling, while it was everyone else’s job to spread the masa onto the corn husks. My mom would be the one to fill the tamales and arrange them into the steamer. The kids (including myself) always tried to get out of making them by doing a crappy job and hoping we’d get excused from the table. But that never happened. Every year we would run out of filling, so after my dad scoured the pantry. The last batch of tamales could be anything from canned mixed vegetables to hot dogs. Either way the result would be several dozens of tamales that would be given to those who helped, as well as neighbors, co-workers, and friends.
As the years passed, and people have moved away, the tamale assembly line has grown smaller. It’s almost non-existent really as my dad and brother are the only ones who make them. Each year my dad professes “This is the last year I’m making tamales!” and each year he makes them.
This year, after he made tamales, my dad decided to stay home instead of coming to visit for Christmas. I understood, but couldn’t help feeling very nostalgic for family tradition. I had a hankering for bunuelos, atole, and tamales. So I asked a friend if he was up for cooking and a few hours later, we were in his kitchen whipping up 2 dozen vegan tamales.
Although the experience wasn’t the same as when I grew up, it felt really good to touch base with family tradition. As we made the tamales, memories of my family kept flooding my mind. This my first attempt at making tamales from start to finish, so I was a bit nervous about them not turning out right. For the last step of filling, wrapping, and placing the tamales in the steamer, I remembered my mother and father. These were the steps reserved for the head of the household, so it felt like a right of passage doing this part for the first time.
In the end, the tamales came out really close to how remembered as a kid. This always makes me happy since I’m vegan and the current recipe is modified to reflect that. Regionally, tamales vary. Some are rolled really small, tied with a strip of corn husk, or are wrapped in banana leaves. In my family they are wide and the corn husk is folded. Although they are time-consuming to make, it isn’t tedious. If you have several people helping it can be a fun and relaxing way to spent the day. I have to say though, the vegan version is so much easier. Preparing the filling takes only a few minutes and you don’t have to worry temperature control to keep the pork from going bad. I’m sure the pigs don’t mind either 😉
(makes 2 dozen)
16 oz. package Corn Husks
2 Packages of Soyrizo
½ Tbs Cooking Oil (any)
2 Cups Maseca for tamales
1 1/2 Cups No-Chicken Broth (or strong vegetable broth)
1/4 Cup Cooking Oil (whichever you prefer. I used peanut)
1/8 teaspoon Salt
Prepare Corn Husks:
In a large stock pot, place the corn husks in very warm water. Use a plate to weight the husks down. Allow the husks to soak until they are soft enough to fold without resistance or breaking (about 30 minutes). When husks are ready, drain all the water from the pot.
In a frying pan, heat ½ Tbs Cooking Oil over medium heat. Sauté Soyrizo for about 5 minutes (or less).
Mix the Maseca, broth, oil and salt to the consistency of cookie dough (you may need to add a little more oil and/or broth to get the right consistency).
Hold the husk in your palm with the point facing up and smooth side facing you. Spread masa dough onto the smooth side of the husk with a wet spoon. Do not spread the masa to edge of each side, bottom, or to the top of the husk. Leave about 1″ on each side and bottom, about 2″ form the top free of masa.
When the masa gets tough to spread, wet your spoon.
Place a stripe of Soyrizo (about 1 Tbs) down the middle of the masa on the husk. Carefully fold the right then left sides. Now fold the pointed top down (it’s like putting on a jacket and hoodie). Place the folded tamale pointed side down on a cookie sheet.
When all tamales are assembled, place a vegetable steamer upside-down in a large stock pot (the steamer should look like a dome). add enough water to steam, but not so much that the water touches the tamales being placed. Use the left over soaked husks to line the sides of the pot (you can do this as you add the tamales). Place each tamal, open end up, in the pot until the pot is filled. You can double stack if you need to. Place the left over soaked husks over the top of the tamales (like a lid). Cover the pot with a tight fitting lid and steam on low heat for 1 hour.
Check the tamales for doneness (if that isn’t a word, it should be). The masa should fall off the husk and be cooked throughout. If more time is needed, add water by using a measuring cup and pouring water slowly between the husk lining and pot. Check every 15 – 30 minutes. Our tamales took about 2 hours to cook. We were using an electric stove and I had it on a 3 setting.
Unwrap and enjoy!
Note: For variety, make batches of different fillings. Try faux chicken with vegan mole, Soy Cream Cheese with jalapenos, Vegan Chili beans, etc. You can also add spices to the masa that you think would compliment your filling.