A big tamal (or tamalón) wrapped in banana leaves and baked in the oven is practical because it saves cooks the trouble of wrapping dozens of individual tamales. It is also a thing of beauty—a spectacular way to showcase the elegance of an ancestral food cooked in the embrace of banana leaves and unveiled at the table. As you open the package, the musky aroma of the charred banana leaves mingles with the sweet scent of corn and the earthy aroma of the adobo, awakening the appetite. I like to use a handsome terra-cotta-colored earthenware baking dish, like a cazuela, which you will find at kitchenware and gourmet shops that sell Spanish ingredients and cookware.
Tamal Dough (masa)
Unfold the banana leaves and rinse under cold running water until soft and flexible, handling gently and being careful not to rip them. Pat dry with paper towels or a kitchen towel. Working on a cutting board, use a small sharp knife to cut the leaves into eight 12 by 6-inch/30.5 by 15 cm rectangles. If not using immediately, keep the leaves between sheets of damp paper towels or store in the refrigerator wrapped in a damp kitchen towel.
To make the adobo: Seed, toast, and reconstitute the anchos:
Seeding: If your recipe calls for seeding, pull out the stems of large peppers and shake out the seeds. With skinny peppers, slice them open with a paring knife (or tear them lengthwise with your fingers) and wipe out the seeds with a paper towel. I like to butterfly large meaty peppers, such as ancho chiles, to ensure even roasting.
Toasting: Heat a cast-iron skillet or comal over medium to medium-high heat until a drop of water sizzles on contact. With seeded and butterflied peppers, press the cut side against the hot surface with a metal spatula for a few seconds. Turn the pepper over with kitchen tongs and press the second side against the skillet, taking care that the flesh toasts lightly but does not burn. A pleasant roasted pepper aroma is a good cue. Watch closely, especially with smooth, thin-skinned peppers such as guajillos and cascabels, and be prepared to snatch them from the heat if they begin to scorch. Meatier, more wrinkled peppers such as anchos and mulatos are less prone to burning and may take longer to roast evenly. Small whole peppers should be toasted for a few seconds and turned once with kitchen tongs.
Reconstituting: Mexican and Central American cooks typically reconstitute toasted dried peppers to facilitate grinding. In Bolivia and Peru where toasting is not considered a prerequisite, dried peppers are also soaked to soften. To do so, cover the peppers with warm water or broth and let them soak for 15 to 30 minutes or until soft. Alternatively, boil them in water or broth to cover for 20 to 30 minutes, until softened.
Drain, reserving 1/4 cup/60 ml of the soaking liquid. Add the softened chiles and reserved soaking liquid to a blender, along with the garlic, orange juice, vinegar, cumin, oregano, achiote oil, and salt and process into a smooth puree. Set aside.
To prepare the chicken: Season the chicken inside and outside with salt and black pepper. Place in a pot with the water, onion, and cilantro. Bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat to medium and simmer for 20 minutes, until just barely tender. Remove the chicken from the broth. Strain the broth and reserve 1/2 cup/120 ml; refrigerate the remaining broth and save for another use.
Strip the meat from the bones, removing the skin if you like, and cut the meat into 2-inch/5 cm pieces; place in a bowl, pour the adobo over the chicken, and set aside to marinate for 1 to 12 hours, refrigerating it if marinating for more than 1 hour.
To make the dough: Put the corn in a blender or food processer and process into a smooth puree. In a heavy pot, warm the achiote oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté until lightly gold, about 20 seconds. Add the onion and sauté for about 5 minutes, until translucent and golden. Add the tomatoes, cumin, ground hot pepper, and salt and sauté for 5 minutes more, stirring occasionally. Add the corn puree, broth, milk, and butter and stir to combine. Stream in the cornmeal while stirring continuously and cook for 5 to 6 minutes, until thick and creamy.
Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C. Line a round 10 by 2 1/2-inch/25 by 6 cm) cazuela or other baking dish with the banana leaves layered in a crosshatch pattern. Spoon in half of the corn dough and cover with the chicken. Add the rest of the dough over the filling and smooth with a spatula. This second layer needs to be just thick enough to cover the filling. Fold the leaves over the top to close. To prevent the leaves from burning, cover with aluminum foil.
Bake the tamal for 1 hour, then remove the aluminum foil and bake for 15 minutes more to brown the top and form a delicious crust. If you bake the tamal in a cazuela, do not bother transferring it to a serving plate. Or, transfer it to a large round serving platter or rustic wooden cutting board using two large spatulas. Unwrap the tamal at the table. Slice the tamal into generous wedges or scoop out as you would a spoonbread. Serve with a spoonful of salsa and spoonsful of the pickled onions.
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Place the achiote seeds in a small skillet or saucepan with the olive oil. Warm over medium heat until the oil turns orange-red. Turn off the heat and let cool. Strain into a glass or metal container, cover tightly, and keep in a cool, dark place for up to 1 month.
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Reprinted with permission from Peppers of the Americas: The Remarkable Capsicums That Forever Changed Flavor by Maricel E. Presilla, copyright © 2017. Published by Lorena Jones Books/Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Photography credit: Romulo Yanes © 2017