Adapted from From My Mexican Kitchen: Techniques and Ingredients by Diana Kennedy
This type was the very first tamale I tasted in Mexico, and it has become a favorite. I always prefer a cheese, bean, or vegetable filling; meat, with few exceptions, always seems so worn-ragged with the cooking. These tamales are eaten just as they are: no adornments!
Although the proportion of lard in the masa seems high, don't worry: it is absorbed by the husk and transpires into the water. Of course, if you must use vegetable shortening, try at least adding a small proportion of lard for flavor. Unless you are a glutton for punishment or you need a tough arm exercise, use an electric mixer for this masa. Some cooks add baking powder, but if the masa is sufficiently beaten, no leavening agent is necessary. To test this, put ia small dollop of the dough onto the surface of a glass of water. It should remain floating on top. If it sinks, continue beating and test again.
Once cooked, any leftovers should be kept no longer than two days in the refrigerator as they tend to dry out. This tamale freezes very successfully for about three months. When reheating, do not defrost; put them still frozen into a hot steamer for 15 to 20 minutes, or reheat in their husks, covered, on a comal over medium heat, turning them from time to time until well heated through and spongy to the touch, about 10 minutes.
Most Mexican cooks make much more substantial tamales (of this kind) than I like, with rather thick masa. I put a very thin layer of the masa over the husk, remembering that it expands quite a bit in cooking. I use a U.S.-type husk and do not close it completely at the top. If you do try to bend the top over, the tamale won't expand as much and be as porous.
Makes about 36 tamales
About 40 dried corn husks, soaked and shaken dry
Have ready a prepared tamale steamer.
Put the lard into the bowl of an electric mixer and beat at high speed until very white and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Gradually add the tamale flour alternately with the broth, beating very thoroughly after each addition. Add salt to taste and test the masa by floating a bit on a glass of water.
Put the prepared steamer over medium heat. Give the husks an extra shaking to dispel excess water.
Spread a large tablespoonful of the masa in a very thin layer over the top part of the husk and down about 3 inches. Put 1¼ tablespoons of sauce down the middle of the masa, two chile strips, and a piece of cheese. Fold the edges of the husk over so that the dough covers the filling (or almost; it may be unorthodox but I like a little bit of filling to show through the masa) and fold the spare part of the husk toward the back. Set the prepared tamales on a tray while you assemble the rest. Work as fast as you can so that the sauce is not absorbed by the masa.
By this time the water in the bottom section of the steamer should be boiling. Stack the tamales firmly but not too tightly, to allow for expansion in the top of the steamer. Cover with more husks, or a piece of thick toweling, and a tightly fitting lid and cook the tamales over a brisk heat for about 1¼ hours. To test for doneness, remove one of the tamales and tap lightly; it should feel spongy and resilient, and when opened up the dough should separate easily from the husk. Even thoroughly cooked, the masa will be slightly textured.
Mexican cooks are very inventive when it comes to improvising ways of steaming tamales: recycled capacious square cans, earthenware ollas, even old galvanized buckets with some thick twigs or bits of wire in the bottom, holding a bed of corn husk or banana leaves above the water level and on which to support the tamales. And they all work! However, commercial tamale steamers are cheap enough and now widely available.
The steamers consist of four parts: the main container and its lid, a rack to hold the tamales just above the waterline, and a divider for holding the tamales upright. These steamers are very practical and you can buy them in varying sizes.
HARINA PARA TAMALES (Tamale Flour)
I always associate this method of preparing dried corn with the spongy white (masa) tamales typical of Mexico City and part of the central Bajio area. You can buy this textured flour of white (cachuazintle) corn in some stores where they still grind chiles and spices or in local neighborhood markets, but I have not seen it commercially packed for some years now. Do not confuse it with the flour sold for tortillas (like Maseca, Minsa, or Quaker Masa Harine).
To prepare this "flour" use the wide, white corn used for pozole and prepare it as if for tortilla masa. After soaking all night, rub it well of all the skins and rinse in several waters until it is absolutely white, except for the pedicels. Set the corn out in one layer on trays in the sun - it will take about two days depending on the intensity of the sun - or dry for several hours in a very low oven until dried and almost brittle but not toasted. Then grind (dry) in a grain mill to a fine, but slightly textured consistency, and sift in a medium strainer to remove all the tough pieces of pedical. Depending on the efficiency of your machine, principally the strength of the motor, you will probably have to grind and sift a second or even third time until all the pieces of corn are evenly ground. This is a lesson in patience.
Two pounds of dried corn will yield about 1½ pounds when sifted. This flour can be refrigerated for 1 month, frozen for 6.
Harold McGee, the author of Keys to Good Cooking, is an expert on the chemistry behind food and cooking. McGee recently made his first trip to China, where he learned more about rice wine.