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Christmas tamales: making masa dough and memories

If you think about it, tamales are simply bundles of holiday love.

Around this time of the year, scoops of masa filled with savory surprises are swaddled in corn husks or banana leaves and steamed. But it is the assembly process – the tamaliza or tamalada – that infuses the love. Most often, a single tamal is assembled by many hands –old and young, expert and novice. 

Sure, an industrious cook could attempt the assembly line on her own, but who would be there to recount passed-along recipes? Who would be there to quibble over the amount of broth to add to the masa, or whether to use oil or lard? Who would be there to laugh at her jokes? 

If not for the stories and banter, the neat community kitchen at Jupiter’s El Sol resource center would have been a much quieter place during last week’s tamale-making session. That’s when center dietitian Kathleen Waddell brought together a diverse group to make “healthier chicken tamales.”  (See her recipe below this story.) 

What started as an exercise in restraint, involving measuring spoons to parcel out vegetable oil and chili powder, evolved into an exchange of memories and kitchen secrets. 

The sight of hands kneading broth-moistened corn flour (masa) in a massive bowl reminded Betzy Rega of the tamalizas of her childhood in New York, where her large Guatemalan family would gather for hours to prepare the ingredients for Christmas tamales. They would have to make industrial quantities of the cornmeal pouches – she has five sisters, two brothers and tons of aunts, uncles and cousins. 

“It was like a 24-hour thing leading up to Christmas Eve. At midnight, we would open our presents. Then we’d close our tamales and cook them for Christmas day,” says Rega, who is El Sol’s health coordinator. 

For Idalia Lazo, a visiting AmeriCorps member from southern California who soothes her homesickness by making her Oaxacan mother’s recipes, a collaborative tamal-making session summons the spirit of Christmas. 

“I love a tamaliza. It’s so neat. It’s the holidays. It’s the abuelita (grandmother) making the sauce because she has the right touch for it,” says Lazo, who works with immigrant laborers at El Sol. 

When she was studying for her degrees in Anthropology and Mexican-American Studies at UCLA, she and her friends often made tamales for school fundraisers. 

A tamaliza, she says, spells family and community. It is the way of Mexican, Guatemalan and Southwestern U.S. regional cultures, though variations of tamales can be found in many North American cultures. Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica love their hefty, overstuffed nacatamales. Venezuelans love their plantain-leaf-wrapped hallacas. Colombians enjoy a full meal tucked into a tamal valluno. And Puerto Ricans count their Christmastime blessings with every plantain-masa “pastel” they steam inside banana-leaf wrappings.

On this recent afternoon, Lazo stirs a simmering sauce of rehydrated guajillo and ancho chiles for the day’s tamales as the group follows the tamales recipe Waddell contributed to El Sol’s new community cookbook, “The Flavors of the Sun” ($20, El Sol). 

Waddell pours the thick, red chile sauce into a food processer bowl and blends it well before churning the mixture through a manual food mill to strain out the chile seeds and skin. She will use that strained sauce to coat a heap of chicken she poached on the bone (skinless) and shredded. This will be the filling inside the corn masa. 

A native of Ohio, Waddell learned to make tamales from the Tejano woman who cared for her children in El Paso, where she served as a U.S. Army dietician (and where the Christmas tamale tradition is fervently observed). To make the masa pockets less fatty, she replaced the lard with canola oil. That said, she prefers a thick, well stuffed tamal, even if the filling comes perilously close to spilling out of the husk in the steam bath. Her tamales are decidedly heftier than the demure pockets produced by Lazo, who prefers to spread a small amount of masa onto the husk. 

“I paint my masa onto the husk with a brush,” offers Blanca Robles, a resourceful mother of two from Sonora, Mexico. 

She has developed all kinds of shortcut tips, including delegating some cooking tasks to her two young sons. During the summer, she nudges them into the kitchen to help her make lunch and dinner. “When there’s no school, we all cook. It keeps them busy,” she says. 

Her 8-year-old son, Gabriel, is more than eager to help during this tamal-making session. So one of the women put a hair net and an apron on him and he was off to make corn-husk ribbons for securing the tamales. It took the boy several tries to get the knots to hold, but he learned well enough to contribute to the assembly line. Later, his efforts paid off in the form of freshly steamed chicken tamales. Some of them were thin, others were thick, but they were all made in the spirit of holiday collaboration. 

That’s the beauty of a tamaliza: One can expect diverse results from a diverse assembly line, where one set of hands spreads the masa, another adds the filling, another folds the husks over the masa, and another ties the folded tamal with husk strips and places the bundle in a steamer pot. If the folder trades spots with the filler, one never knows what to expect. 

Except stories. One can always expect stories from a tamaliza. 


Chicken Tamales 

El Sol dietician Kathleen Waddell, who contributed this recipe to the center’s community cookbook, uses canola oil instead of butter, margarine or lard to lighten up her Christmas tamales. But if you’d like to go for the richer flavor, add your choice of fat. 

Yields 32 small tamales 


12 pods dried red chiles (2 to 3-ounce packages of anchos, guajillos or your chile of choice) 

2 cups of water 


2 1/2 pounds chicken breasts 

3 1/2 cups water (or enough to cover chicken in pot) 

1 teaspoon canola oil 

1 large onion 

3 garlic cloves 

2 teaspoons cumin 

¼ teaspoon salt 

½ teaspoon black pepper 


8 cups masa corn flour (such as Maseca) 

2 tablespoons, plus 2 teaspoons canola oil 

2 teaspoons baking powder 

1 tablespoon plus, 1 teaspoons chili powder 

1 teaspoon salt 

8 cups chicken broth (reserved from cooking the chicken), or store-bought low-sodium chicken broth 

36 to 40 dried corn husks (2 to 3-ounce packages) 


Rehydrate the chiles: 

Wash the red chile pods and remove stems and seeds. Bring chiles and water to a boil; reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes or longer. Pour chiles and the liquid into a food processor and puree. Strain sauce through colander, sieve or use a food mill to remove all chile skins after blending. Set aside. 

Poach the chicken: 

Place the chicken breasts in a pot and add enough water to cover them. Bring pot to a low boil. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes until the meat is cooked. Remove chicken from the broth (set broth aside) and let it cool. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, shred it and chop. You may add a little broth to keep it moist. 

Make the sauce: 

Heat the canola oil in a large skillet and sauté the onion, garlic until tender. Add the red chile sauce, cumin, salt and pepper, and simmer for about 15 minutes. Stir the mixture as needed. Puree the sauce in a food processor or blender and return it to the pan. 

Combine sauce and chicken: 

Add the shredded chicken, stir and let the mixture simmer for 10 to 15 minutes on low heat. Allow to cool. 

Prep the husks: 

Soak the corn husks in a large bowl of hot water for about 20 minutes. Make sure they are pliable. 

Prep the masa dough: 

Prepare the masa dough by combining all masa ingredients until the mixture clumps together. Add broth as necessary to make the masa dough pliable. Turn it onto a lightly floured surface and knead lightly for a minute. Add additional broth until the masa is spreadable with the back of a spoon. 

Assemble the tamales: 

Make ahead: You may freeze the tamales to cook at a later date, though it is better to freeze them once they are fully steamed. Raw, frozen tamales should be thawed for at least one hour and will require a longer cook time.

Nutritional Analysis per serving: Calories 191; Fat 5 g; Carbohydrates 23 g; Sodium 218 mg; Protein 14 g; Fiber 1 g

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