Saturday, January 14, 2012

Daring Cooks' January Challenge - Tamales

Maranda of Jolts & Jollies was our January 2012 Daring Cooks hostess with the mostess! Maranda challenged us to make traditional Mexican Tamales as our first challenge of the year!

You may have noticed I skipped out on the last couple of Daring Kitchen challenges. Up until then, I had only skipped one challenge (the croquembouche one, which I still intend to make someday). But toward the end of 2011, there was just too much going on, and I was barely cooking at all. However, with the new year, I was ready to get back on track and get back to the kitchen.

I’ll just announce is right now so that you won’t be shocked when you get to the end of this post: it was a disaster.

I love Mexican food, but had never eaten, let alone made tamales. I wasn’t even sure what they were. Basically, they consist of a filling wrapped inside a corn flour dough, which is itself wrapped inside a rehydrated corn husk, then steamed. Sounded easy enough.

Up until two weeks ago, I had a pack of corn husks in my pantry, purchased on a whim at a Mexican grocery store, in one of those “Oooh, I wonder what I could do with this?” moments. They had lingered there for months, until I was seized by a rabid need to clean up the clutter that had seemingly taken over every shelf, cupboard, and drawer of the apartment, and began moving stuff around and clearing out spaces. In my enthusiasm, I chucked out the corn husks, in one of those “The hell with it, I’m never going to use this” moments. It figures that this month’s challenge called for corn husks.

Too lazy to go out and buy a new package, I decided to use parchment paper instead. In that same spirit of laziness, I opted for the proposed vegan filling, even though I made the very non-vegan lard-infused dough. Assembling the tamales was easy enough, and I used my Asian bamboo baskets for the steaming.

But when the tamales were cooked, I tasted a tiny piece of the dough, and decided I didn’t care for it much. Something about the texture, the way it came apart, and also something about the flavour... Keep in mind that I had never had tamales before, and therefore had no reference. I only knew that I wasn’t wild about what I had made. While doing some research (even when I’m lazy, I still do research, because I am a flaming geek), I found that some people liked to reheat their tamales by frying them. In my book, frying makes everything better, and crispy seemed like a better option than the crumbly, wet-yet-dry texture I had obtained. Into the oiled skillet they went.

Having lovingly stacked and photographed the tamales, Laurent and I dug in. Then stopped. Then looked at each other.

“I’ll make us something else,” I said matter-of-factly, and got up to look for those homemade gyoza I knew were in the freezer.

I now knew what the problem was. It wasn’t the recipe, it wasn’t even my technique. My masa (corn) mix had gone bad. It gave off that horrible stale, bitter, rancid aftertaste. It’s strange, because I made corn tortillas not that long ago, and they were fine; it’s hard to imagine the mix could have gone so bad so quickly. I should have noticed it while making the dough, the smell should have tipped me off. For some reason, it hadn’t. At the very least, I should have noticed it when tasting the dough right out of the steamer, but maybe the steam had temporarily masked the taste. Or maybe I was just distracted.

While I was cooking the gyoza, Laurent had fun salvaging the filling by picking it out of the tamales. He even took pictures.

So, not a particularly glorious start to the year. Obviously, this was completely my fault. But I think I’m going to order tamales from a restaurant before attempting to make them again. And, obviously, I’m going to buy a new bag of masa mix.

My thanks to Maranda for a great challenge idea, and my apologies for screwing it up so badly. If you want to look at real tamales, please look at the Daring Cooks’ blog roll. And if you want to make your own, check out the challenge recipes. Just make sure your masa mix is fresh.


  1. Oh no, sorry your first challenge back was a no go! I skipped last challenge too, holidays take all our time :)
    May be you will bring yourself to make tamales again. May be a different filling or even sweet tamales.
    Come see me at

  2. Done that before - hate going to all that work and a bad ingredient messes you up. Even worse when it was your first try. Hope you try again (or at least try some good ones at a restaurant). Glad to have you back.

  3. What a bummer about your masa! They looked lovely, and I have to say, the deconstructed tamales picture is pretty keen!

  4. Oh well! Too bad about throwing out your corn husks. That sounds like something I would do! Next challenge might be better for you.

  5. They say that every failure is just an opportunity to succeed, with that in mind....Great job!!

  6. That's too bad about the rancid masa--I keep mine in the freezer just because I don't often use it, though I only have a fridge freezer so that's valuable real estate. And I have 2 kinds of masa (fine for tortillas and coarse for tamales). Sigh, I'm a geek too. Anyway, your lard/vegan filling sounds good and I hope you give these another go. My recipe actually called for twice as much liquid in the masa, so they were a nice texture. Oh, and look for Abuelita or Ibarra chocolate in a hexagonal pack where you buy Mexican ingredients. I can send you some if you can't find it.

  7. Argh, how annoying for you. They do look really nice, such a shame about the flour. Well, here's to a brilliantly successful February challenge!

    Interesting you mentioned frying them. I was thinking about trying that myself.

  8. Oh no! What bad luck and timing that you'd gotten rid of the corn husks and the masa went bad on you just in time for the challenge. You get an A+ for effort, though. And I had to laugh about the vegan filling in the lard-ful dough. :) Hope to see you around the DK more now! :)

  9. ça me rappelle quand ma coloc à essayé de faire des Pupusas ( des crêpes fourées spécialité de l'équateur ) c'était bon mais ça ressemblait pas trop à celles qu'on adorait manger dans les restos de notre quartier ! d'ailleurs ils vendent aussi de très bon tamales si tu veux y gouter ! bisous

  10. It is always a shame when the work and anticipation associated with a new a recipe doesn't work out. For what it is worth, your photos are terrific and most of us who cook a lot have had similar experiences. I keep all grain products in the freezer. Have a wonderful weekend. Blessings...Mary

  11. What a sad story - but I will tell you that there is a LOT of flavour in those dried corn husks, too - and not so much in parchment paper! :)
    You are so funny taking shortcuts with something you had never tasted... but, a trooper to make it anyway. Did this experience completely deter you from ever making them again?

  12. Oh no! I'm sorry to hear that the tamales didn't turn out, but I commend you for being brave enough to take on the challenge of cooking something that you had never tasted before. From the looks of it, the tamales look about right. Such a shame about the husks and the masa!

  13. Ah I am so sorry you will associate this experience to tamales. I did not know such an ingredients could go bad. But the filling looks great!

  14. So sorry your tamales didn't come out right. Nothing will ruin them like stale masa - we've been there too... looks like the filling was good though!

  15. Oh no!!! I always do that exact same thing, throw something I've had forever out, and then it never fails I need it shortly afterward! That stinks that your masa was bad, too. Hopefully next month will go better for you!!