Category Archives: Cooking with a Pinch of History

Cooking with a Pinch of History: Fig Empanaditas

By Anne Petersen

On Sunday July 12, Reina del Mar Parlor No. 126, Native Daughters of the Golden West, held their annual Pre-Fiesta Tea to honor descendants of Early California Families and the Directors of Old Spanish Days.  This annual event held at Casa de la Guerra, is steeped in tradition.  It includes a program full of music and dance, which is followed by a tea service that highlights several dishes from the Spanish and Mexican periods in California, made by parlor members.  In addition to tea and tea sandwiches, the historical delicacies include panecito (anise-flavored diced pastry dough), penuche and sweet empanaditas.

Monica Orozco helped me make fig empanaditas for our first tea as new members of the parlor.  I found this recipe in an excellent cookbook by early California descendant Jacqueline Higuera McMahan titled California Rancho Cooking.  You can find a copy here.

Ingredients

Empanadita dough:

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

½ cup shortening

½ cup sugar

1 egg

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract (we added an extra half                              teaspoon, yum!)

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

¼ cup milk, mixed with 1 teaspoon vinegar to sour (do this in                    advance!)

2 Tablespoons flour, mixed with 2 Tablespoons sugar

Fig Filling:

1 ½ cups dried mission figs

¼ cup sugar

¼ cup water

¼ cup milk

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1 Tablespoon lemon juice

1 Tablespoon butter

½ cup minced walnuts (we used slightly under this, so as not o                overwhelm the figs, and it was fine)

To prepare the dough:

Figure 1 AP
The dough, flattened and wrapped, ready to chill. Photo by Anne Petersen.

With an electric mixer, beat the butter and shortening until creamy.   Add sugar, egg and vanilla and beat until combined. In a separate bowl whisk flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt together. Add half the flour mixture to the butter mixture and combine with a spoon. Pour in the soured milk and stir.  Stir in the rest of the flour mixture. It will be soft, that’s ok!  Flatten and wrap, chill for two hours.

To prepare the fig filling:

Grind sugar and figs in a food processor.  Simmer figs and sugar on the stove with water, milk, lemon zest, lemon juice and butter for ten minutes, or until juicy and slightly thickened. Cool the mixture (we used an ice bath to speed it up) and add walnuts.

Prepare the empanaditas (this is where the magic happens):

Roll out half the dough at a time, keeping the other half chilled.  Sprinkle your rolling surface with the flour/sugar mixture before rolling to help keep it from sticking (We weren’t very accurate with the flour/sugar mixture.  You will likely need to add more as you work, so we just kept grabbing a bit from each jar). We found this dough to be more delicate than pie dough, so be gentle!

Cut out 3” circles (we happened to have a glass with a mouth exactly 3″ diam.).  Place a bit of filling (as much as you think the dough can cover) on half of each circle and fold the dough over the filling. Press the edges with a fork to seal. Press holes on the top with the tines of a fork. Bake until golden around the edges, about 15 minutes.

The recipe should make 14 -16 empanaditas, but we made almost twice as much with each of the two batches we made.

Two batches of empanaditas ready for the tea, with Monica Orozco.  Photo by Anne Petersen.
Two batches of empanaditas ready for the tea, with Monica Orozco. Photo by Anne Petersen.

Enjoy!  We found that making a multi-step recipe like this is exponentially better with help from a friend and some good music, but you can make them any way you like!

The volunteers who contributed to the tea produced a feast, and our empanaditas, if we do say so, were among the first treats to go.  Here are some bonus shots of the beautiful layout, and a of the amazing Alexandra Freres, Spirit of Fiesta 2015, performing.

Anne Petersen is the Associate Director for Historical Resources at the Santa Barbara trust for Historic Preservation. Monica Orozco is the Director of the Santa Barbara Mission Archive-Library.  Together they are new members of Reina del Mar Parlor 126, Native Daughters of the Golden West.

Cooking with a Pinch of History: Pozole

by Brittany Avila

Last month I had the honor of partaking at the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation’s  annual “Presidio Pastimes by Candlelight” event, where the birthplace of Santa Barbara is brought to life solely by candlelight for an evening full of historical demonstrations of Presidio life. I had the honor of running La Cocina, naturally, where SBTHP Receptionist Brittany Sundberg and I prepared pozole by candlelight. This was not an easy feat, but the hearty and warm recipe from California Rancho Cooking was a welcome treat at the end of the cold night. The next time you’ve got a little chill, this is the perfect dish to warm your body and soul.

Ingredients:

2 cups canned hominy

2 lbs of pork (butt end of the loin, chopped)

6 cups chicken broth

2 cups onion (chopped)

1 tbsp. oregano

1 tsp. cumin seeds

1 tsp. salt

2 tsp. garlic (minced)

2 cups red chile sauce

2 bay leaves

1 cup water

4 poblano chiles (charred, peeled and chopped)

1 tsp black pepper

Inside la cocina at El Presidio SHP. Photo by Brittany Avila.
Inside la cocina at El Presidio SHP. Photo by Brittany Avila.

To begin, I thought I would give you a glimpse of our lighting conditions in La Cocina when Brittany S. and I prepared the pozole. As you can see, this picture showcases our “stovetop” which is a counter of ladrillo with a small cut-out for a fire, and copper pot on top. Settlers of El Presidio de Santa Barbara would have been in the same conditions if not worse to prepare their night time meals–based on first hand experience, it’s a challenge!

Preparing the pork. Photo by Brittany Avila.
Preparing the pork. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Begin by chopping  the pork loin into bite-size chunks. As you can see by my chopped pork pieces, I like my stew “chunky.” Bring the chicken broth to a boil in a large pot and add pork.

Different types of meat can be used in pozole, leaving hominy as the signature ingredient in the recipe. Hominy comes from maize, which was originally grown by the Aztecs in chinampas, or raised gardens.

Pic 3 (800x697)
Hominy. Photo by Brittany Avila.

This is our pile of hominy for the stew straight from the can. Settlers in Early California wouldn’t have simply had to open a can to get this ingredient, but instead would’ve have to soak maize kernels in mineral lime to get them to the nixtamal or hominy texture.

Allow pork to simmer for one and one half hours. Meanwhile, begin preparing the poblano peppers and other chopped ingredients.

Roasting poblanos on the comal. Photo by Brittany Avila.
Roasting poblanos on the comal. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Chili peppers are native to the New World, and were commonly used as spices by Native Americans.

Cook the poblano peppers on skillet until charred. Then, peel the charred skin off of the pepper.  We used a comal, or iron skillet over a fire on our ladrillo stove top to char the peppers. This took about 5-10 minutes on each side.

Photo by Brittany Avila.
Photo by Brittany Avila.

Of course, Santa Ines Mission Mills olive oil (my favorite!) was used to grease the comal.

Chili peppers have five different forms, with the three most popular being bell pepper, jalapeno, and cayenne.

Brittany Sundberg prepares the vegetables. Photo by Brittany Avila.
Brittany Sundberg prepares the vegetables. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Chop the pepper, onion, and garlic into fine pieces. My sous chef ever so carefully chopped ingredients as close to a candle as she can get in our dim lighting! Add hominy and all other ingredients, and stir continuously for 30 minutes or until the broth has thickened.

When Europeans first settled in Mexico, maize was considered to be any grain grown in a particular region, including other grains such as wheat and barley. Later, it was exclusively referred to as the corn we now consider maize today, which is soaked in an alkali treatment of lime mineral to create what we today call hominy, or formerly nixtamal. It was this treatment of maize that prevented the spread of pellagra, a disease of the skin caused by maize consumption, because it brought more nutrients within maize to the surface.

The finished pozole. Photo by Brittany Avila.
The finished pozole. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Here is the final product, which received rave reviews from our cold and hungry volunteers at the end of the evening. It was perfectly described as hearty with a kick! And just like that, you have a hearty, traditional stew! Serve hot, and prepare for some spice!

The Brittanys, seen here in traditional Early California dress, had a blast setting off smoke alarms and creating delicious aromas in La Cocina.

Brittany Sundberg and Brittany Avila. Photo by Mike Imwalle.
Brittany Sundberg and Brittany Avila. Photo by Mike Imwalle.

Works Cited

Foster, Nelson, and Linda S. Cordell. Chilies to Chocolate: Food the Americas Gave the World. Tucson: U of Arizona, 1992. 3-4+.

Johnson, Sylvia A. Tomatoes, Potatoes, Corn, and Beans: How the Foods of the Americas Changed Eating around the World. New York: Atheneum for Young Readers, 1997.

McMahan, Jacqueline Higuera. California Rancho Cooking: Mexican and Califorian Recipes. Seattle: Sasquatch, 2001.

Brittany Avila is Volunteer Maestra de Cocina for the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation

Cooking with a Pinch of History: Spanish Chocolate Cake

by Brittany Avila

Happy New Year! What better way to start off 2015 than baking up a delicious recipe from our Hispanic California predecessors.  And hopefully you haven’t started your 2015 resolutions of eating healthier, because this one is another sweet treat!

I have adapted this recipe from California Mission Cookery by Mark Preston and David DeWitt. It is a more savory twist on your average chocolate cake. And if you’re used to cake box mixes, don’t be intimidated by baking from scratch. Like past recipes, this one is just as simple as it is delightful.

Ingredients:

Cake Batter

2 cakes Ybarra or Abuelita chocolate (this can be found at Hispanic supermarkets)

½ Cup butter

1 Cup piloncillo sugar (Brown or cane sugar could be a substitute if you have difficulty finding piloncillo)

4 eggs

1 Cup milk

3 Cups flour (as always, I used whole wheat flour to remain as similar as possible to flour used in Early CA)

2 Tablespoons baking powder

1 Teaspoons vanilla extract

Icing

1 Cake Ybarra or  Abuelita chocolate

¾ Cup butter

½ Cup piloncillo

Begin by preheating your oven to 300 degrees.  Start preparing the cake batter by melting the two chocolate cakes in a saucepan over the stovetop for no more than 5 minutes. Do not try melting in the microwave, they will burn and/or could start a fire.

The Spanish did not even recognize chocolate as a food until the 17th century, nearly a hundred years after they founded New Spain. But once they pronounced it edible, it made waves in Europe and become Spain’s largest export from their new-found territory.

Next, add the butter and piloncillo to the chocolate.  While the butter melts in with the chocolate, beat the eggs together. Mix your stovetop concoction in a bowl with the eggs. Then gradually add flour, baking powder and vanilla.

Spanish royalty were known to add a variety of unique ingredients to their new favorite import. They would consume chocolate with anything from vanilla, anise, chili peppers, hazelnut, and even powdered white roses mixed in.

Before adding the dry ingredients, your stove top mixture should be grainy and viscous. photo by Brittany Avila.
Before adding the dry ingredients, your stove top mixture should be grainy and viscous. photo by Brittany Avila.

Once this is well mixed, place in a 15” baking dish that is lined either with butter, PAM, or some form of non-stick spray. If you want your cake a little bit thicker, you can place it in a smaller baking dish, but you will have to cook it for a bit longer at a lower temperature.

During California’s rancho period, sweet cakes would have been baked for “la merienda,” or the meal eaten following the afternoon siesta. This “light luncheon” usually consisted of pastries, cakes, sweet cured cheese, olives and wafers. Doesn’t sound that light to me!

The final cake batter consistency should be similar to a mousse. This leads to a fluffy, yet still moist cake. Photo by Brittany Avila.
The final cake batter consistency should be similar to a mousse. This leads to a fluffy, yet still moist cake. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Place the baking dish in the oven and allow it to bake for 35-40 minutes. To be sure your cake is cooked all the way through, use the “toothpick method” by sticking a toothpick in the middle of the cake. If there is no cake batter on the toothpick when you pull it out, it’s ready. If there is, then allow it bake longer and check on it every 3-5 minutes.

This cake is amazing by itself, but why not add a little bit more sugar to it with some icing? After all, it’s a dessert! Photo by Brittany Avila.
This cake is amazing by itself, but why not add a little bit more sugar to it with some icing? After all, it’s a dessert! Photo by Brittany Avila.

While your cake is baking, you can begin working on the icing. Simply melt the appropriate amount of chocolate, butter and piloncillo for the icing together over the stove for no more than 5 minutes over low heat. Mix this with a spoon the entire time. Allow this to cool. Once cool, you can ice your cake. You can also use this mixture as a filling for your cake if you want to make multiple layers.

Piloncillo was a type of sugar formed into a cone shape also imported to El Presidio de Santa Barbara and other establishments in Early California. Even the Spanish settlers maintained their sweet tooth!

The consistency of the icing should be similar to the stovetop mixture for the cake batter. If you use real cane sugar the consistency will be grainier than using brown sugar.  Photo by Brittany Avila.
The consistency of the icing should be similar to the stovetop mixture for the cake batter. If you use real cane sugar the consistency will be grainier than using brown sugar. Photo by Brittany Avila.

I brought this cake to my coworkers in the midst of other delectable Christmas treats and this was not overshadowed by any means! Definitely worth breaking your healthy eating resolutions just once for this!

Works Cited

Foster, Nelson, and Linda S. Cordell. Chilies to Chocolate: Food the Americas Gave the World. Tucson: University of Arizona, 1992. 3-4

Packman, Ana Bégué. Early California Hospitality; the Cookery Customs of Spanish California, with Authentic Recipes and Menus of the Period. Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark, 1938. 30. Print.

Preston, Mark, and Dave DeWitt. California Mission Cookery: A Vanished Cuisine, Rediscovered. Albuquerque, New Mexico: Border, 1994. 194.

Cooking with a Pinch of History: Seviche de Pescado

by Brittany Avila

Continuing on a streak of summer-friendly recipes, I decided to make Seviche de Pescado, which meets my usual standards of being an easy to make, healthy and historical dish! This recipe comes from Don Ricardo’s Early California and Mexico Cookbook and reflects Santa Barbara’s maritime location and the use of fish in a lot of Chumash and Early California dishes.

Ingredients:

1 lb boneless fish, uncooked

Lime juice, enough to cover

3 Bay leaves

1 clove garlic, finely minced

4 tbs. white vinegar

Salt to taste

2 small dry red jap peppers, chopped

1 large sweet onion, thinly sliced

2 Lemons, sliced

4 sprigs of watercress

I used tilapia because it was inexpensive, but if I had it my way I probably would’ve gone with sea bass since it’s in season and local to Santa Barbara.  Photo by Brittany Avila.
I used tilapia because it was inexpensive, but if I had it my way I probably would’ve gone with sea bass since it’s in season and local to Santa Barbara. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Cut the filets of uncooked fish into small thin strips. Use white fish, such as red snapper, corbina, fresh tuna, or sea bass.

The Chumash did a lot of fish and sea mammal hunting from both the islands and the mainland of the Santa Barbara area.

Place in a bowl with enough lime juice to cover the fish. Add bay leaves and salt to taste. Leave in refrigerator overnight.

Bay leaves were used by the Chumash as an insect repellent. Local fish included swordfish, white Seabass, yellowtail and rockfish.

This is my tilapia only ¾ covered by lime juice. I used a full bottle of Sunkist lime juice here and had to run out and get more for it to completely cover the fish! photo by Brittany Avila.
This is my tilapia only ¾ covered by lime juice. I used a full bottle of Sunkist lime juice here and had to run out and get more for it to completely cover the fish! photo by Brittany Avila.

Mix together garlic, vinegar, and onion and jap red peppers.

I wasn’t able to find the peppers at a large grocery store like Vons, but instead at a small local produce store (Tri County Produce, for Santa Barbara locals).

Archaeological collections from the islands reveal bone harpoons with multiple barbs used for fishing.

I allowed the garlic, onion and peppers to marinate in the white vinegar for about an hour.  I believe the longer it marinates the better!

Photo by Brittany Avila.
Photo by Brittany Avila

Add your two mixtures together and garnish with lemon slices and watercress. Be sure to give the lemons a little squeeze over your dish first!

Vertebrae of fish were used as decorative beads by the Chumash.

I showcased the final product at a going away party for one of our beloved past staff members. She and other staff heartily approved!

 

 

Bibliography

Bennyhoff, J.A. Anthropological Records 9:4: Californian Fish Spears and Harpoons, University of California Press, CA, 1950, p.316-317.

Hardwick, Michael. Changes in Landscape: The Beginning of Horticulture in the California Missions, Paragon Agency Publishers, Orange, CA, 2005, p.6-7, 25, 67.

McCall, Lynne and Rosalind Perry. California’s Chumash Indians, John Daniel, Publisher, Santa Barbara, CA, 1986, p. 12, 26, 29.

Ricardo, Don. Early California and Mexico Cookbook, Pacifica House Inc. Publishers, 1968, p.39.

Brittany Avila is the Office Manager at the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation and an aspiring Maestra de Cocina.

Cooking with a Pinch of History: Ensalada de Guacamole

by Brittany Avila

Hello again! After a brief reprieve from the cocina I’m back and ready to dive into cooking up history! I thought I would ease back into my cooking skills with a simple and healthy recipe from Don Ricardo’s Early California and Mexico Cookbook, perfect for the pre-summer heat Santa Barbara has been experiencing. In this recipe you can just make the guacamole and pair with your favorite chips, or you can add the lettuce which makes up the ensalada or salad portion, to create more of a meal.

Ingredients

1 med. size avocado

2 med. size tomatoes

2 tbs. green onion (finely chopped)

3 tbs. canned green chili peppers (finely chopped)

2 tbs. oil (I used olive oil)

½ tsp. salt

2 tbs. lemon juice

1 med. size head of lettuce (cut up)

 

Puree the avocado meat.

Avocado is native to Mexico, but there is not much evidence of it being grown in Early CA. It is possible that settlers could have brought this fruit up with them.

Add tomatoes, green onion and green chili pepper. Mix well.

Presidio families regularly tended small vegetable gardens to enhance their staple food supplies.  Onions were among the of the most popular vegetables.

Add lemon, oil and salt. Mix Well.Pour over your chopped up lettuce.

Lettuce was known to grow at Mission Carmel, which did not have an irrigation system so the friars watered everything by hand with gourds.

 

I like to fluff up my salads a lot, so I strayed from the recipe and also added cooked black beans to mine.

Bibliography

Hardwick, Michael. Changes in Landscape: The Beginning of Horticulture in the California Missions, Paragon Agency Publishers, Orange, CA, 2005, p.6-7, 25, 67.

Ricardo, Don. Early California and Mexico Cookbook, Pacifica House Inc. Publishers, 1968, p.26.

 

Brittany Avila is SBTHP’s Office Manager and is enjoying  pursuing her dream to be a maestro de la cocina

 

 

Cooking with a Pinch of History: Atole

by Brittany Avila

On February 6, former SBTHP Higman Intern Mika Thornburg and I made a traditional Mexican drink, atole, while interpreting the cocina at the Presidio Pastimes by Candlelight event. I researched the various ways to make this recipe, and concocted my own by merging recipes from the Internet and my using my personal favorite historic resource, the California Missions Cookbook. Although I’ve prepared my share of complicated and traditional recipes, this one proved to be intimidating since I was preparing it for the first time in a kitchen with “antiquated” style. Minus the camper burners and a modern measuring cup, Mika and I prepared this relatively simple recipe with replicas of old cookware, in a small reconstructed 18th century cocina on the Presidio site, and purely by candlelight! Amidst these factors, the final product still received applause from our audience of volunteers that evening.

Disclaimer: The dim lighting from only candles in the cocina made photography difficult, so we apologize for the quality of some photos.

Ingredients (Many of these ingredients can be found at your local Hispanic or international foods market.)

6 cups of milk (whole is better)

1 piloncillo (sugar) cone

1 cup masa harina

2 cinnamon sticks

1 chocolate disk (Ibarra chocolate)

2 tsp. vanilla extract

**This recipe makes appx. 6 servings.

Begin by mixing the milk, masa, vanilla and cinnamon sticks on low heat in a pot.

You can simply shave up your piloncillo cone with a cutting knife. As you cut down the sides the shaving crumbles easily fall off. Photo by Brittany Avila.
You can simply shave up your piloncillo cone with a cutting knife. As you cut down the sides the shaving crumbles easily fall off. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Continuously stir this mixture. While you wait for the masa to become translucent in the mixture, begin to shave up your piloncillo cone. I did this simply by cutting thin slices off the cone, beginning at the fatter end.

Piloncillo cones were imported to the Santa Barbara Presidio along with chocolate once a year from the port of San Blas in Mexico.

Add your sugar shavings to the mixture and stir in until they are dissolved.

Once this is complete, you have your atole! If you feel it’s a bit thick, stir in some more milk until it reaches your preferred consistency.

If you’d like to make this treat even sweeter, make it champurrado by shaving up your chocolate disk and stirring it into the mixture.

If you missed out this year, make sure to stop by our Presidio Pastimes by Candlelight event next February!

Sources:

Cleveland, Bess Anderson. California Mission Recipes. Rutland, VT: C.E. Tuttle, 1965. p.34.

Perissinotto, Giorgio ed. Documenting Everyday Life in Early Spanish California: The Santa Barbara Presidio Memorias y Facturas, 1779-1810. Santa Barbara, CA: Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, 1998: p.353-363.

For more photos of Presidio Pastimes by Candlelight, visit our Flickr set here.

Brittany Avila is SBTHP’s Office Manager and is enjoying pursuing her dream to be a maestro de la cocina

Cooking with a Pinch of History: Buñuelos

by Brittany Avila

Winter has arrived (or sort of, in Santa Barbara) and for everyone enjoying hot cocoa to warm up their post-holiday spirits, I’ve created a complementary treat that is sure to leave your stomach happy! Buñuelos are a traditional Spanish and Mexican dessert cooked around Christmas time and often paired with atole, a Mexican hot beverage. Although the holidays have passed, you can still enjoy this delicious fritter by following this easy recipe from my favorite, the California Mission Recipes cookbook.

Ingredients

4 eggs

½ cup shortening

2 ¼ cup sifted flour

1/2 cup milk

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

Vegetable oil for deep frying (or fat, which is the traditional way)

Sugar

Stick cinnamon or ground cinnamon

***This recipe makes appx. 30 buñuelos

Begin by beating the eggs until they are light in color and thickened. Melt your shortening by microwaving for about 45 seconds. Add the shortening and milk to the eggs.

Milk was often obtained from goats raised as livestock, as cows were typically raised for tallow and hides.

Combine the sifted flour, sugar and salt.

Sift into the egg mixture and blend well. This should make a soft dough that is easily handled without sticking to the hands.

Shape into balls the size of a walnut and roll on a lightly-floured board into a round-shaped cake similar to tortillas.

While shaping your dough balls, you can begin heating up your vegetable oil or fat for frying. This can be done in a deep pot on the stove. I filled my pot up about half way with oil and allowed it to heat to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. You can measure the heat of your oil with a sugar thermometer.

**Note: This method of frying can be used for other recipes if you are without a deep fryer!

Using a spider spoon, or another utensil that can withstand the heat and drain out the oil, submerge your dough balls into the hot oil. Allow the balls to fry about 30-45 seconds on each side.

Place the dough balls on a drying rack (preferably with something underneath to catch excess oil) and immediately sprinkle with your mixture of sugar and ground cinnamon. Allow them to cool.

From receipts from supply ships sent from San Blas Mexico, we know that sugar and cinnamon were both imported to the Santa Barbara Presidio.

The more sugar and cinnamon on top the better! Photo by Brittany Avila.
The more sugar and cinnamon on top the better! Photo by Brittany Avila.

Grab some hot cocoa or atole and enjoy!!

Sources

Cleveland, Bess Anderson. California Mission Recipes. Rutland, VT: C.E. Tuttle, 1965. 34. Print.

“La Purisima Livestock.” In La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, 1970, p MIS 36

Perissinotto, Giorgio ed. Documenting Everyday Life in Early Spanish California: The Santa Barbara Presidio Memorias y Facturas, 1779-1810. Santa Barbara, CA: Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, 1998: p.353-363.

Brittany Avila is SBTHP’s Office Manager and is enjoying  pursuing her dream to be a maestro de la cocina

Cooking with a Pinch of History: Pork Tamales

by Brittany Avila

‘Tis the season for tamales! Tamale-making around the holidays is a familiar tradition to many that dates back to colonial Mexico, when parents would gather to eat tamales after putting their children to bed on Christmas Eve. This was celebrated as symbolically “putting the baby in the manger.”  Unfortunately, the process of making the tamales can be intimidating for those who may not be familiar with this custom in their household. But since people of all origins enjoy eating tamales, I’m here to present this simple how-to on making this savory holiday treat. I’ve combined steps and ingredients from California Missions Recipes cookbook, family recipes, and online how-to’s to make a simple, yet authentic and delicious tamale recipe that everyone can make!

Tamale Filling

Ingredients:

4 lbs. pork loin

2 lg. onions (quartered)

4 cloves garlic (minced)

6 pasilla chiles

1 tsp salt

1 tbsp vinegar

4tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp flour

4 cloves mashed garlic

Place pork in a pot, cover with water and add onion and minced garlic. Simmer on low heat for 2.5-3 hours or until pork is tender enough to shred. Use a meat thermometer to check that the pork is cooked to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit, to be safe. A crock pot can also be used for the cooking.

Although the pork looked ready, I used my thermometer to be sure it was cooked all the way through. Photo by Brittany Avila.
Although the pork looked ready, I used my thermometer to be sure it was cooked all the way through. Photo by Brittany Avila.

The Aztecs created the tamale, and treated tamale-making as an art, in which simple ingredients were used and put into elaborate designs on or in the tamale. They were considered a delicacy for the elite.

Set the pork aside to cool and keep broth. Once cool, shred the pork with a fork.

I used two forks to shred my pork—one to hold the pork down and the other to pull it apart. Photo by Brittany Avila.
I used two forks to shred my pork—one to hold the pork down and the other to pull it apart. Photo by Brittany Avila.

The typical meat used in Aztec tamales was Moctezuma frogs—very different from the pork, chicken or beef commonly used today.

Remove the stems and seeds from chile pods. Caution: Use rubber gloves or a spoon when doing this as the excess exposure to the chile seeds can burn your fingers (which is what happened to mine). Throw chiles, salt and vinegar in a pan and simmer uncovered for about 20 minutes.

You’ll hear hissing noises as the chiles simmer on the stove, but don’t worry, this is just the chilies’ way of saying they’re cooking! Photo by Brittany Avila.
You’ll hear hissing noises as the chiles simmer on the stove, but don’t worry, this is just the chilies’ way of saying they’re cooking! Photo by Brittany Avila.

Over time, tamales became a food associated with the conquered masses when native foods of Central America became unfashionable with Spanish colonizers.

Transfer chiles, pork broth and mashed garlic to a blender and puree.

I chopped up my chillies a bit before I threw them in the blender just to be sure they got mixed through thoroughly. Photo by Brittany Avila.
I chopped up my chillies a bit before I threw them in the blender just to be sure they got mixed through thoroughly. Photo by Brittany Avila.

The elite in colonial Central America would still indulge in tamales when they traveled outside of the cities into nearby villages.

Heat olive oil on the stove, and add flour. Add pureed pork broth and simmer slowly for 30 minutes. Let this chill when done.

Use a bigger pan than I did for this part so it’s easy to mix your puree and pork together. I unfortunately lost some meat filling overboard to the stove top. Photo by Brittany Avila.
Use a bigger pan than I did for this part so it’s easy to mix your puree and pork together. I unfortunately lost some meat filling overboard to the stove top. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Tamale Dough

I must confess, I did not prepare my own masa as I was short on time. To make this process simpler for yourself, some grocery stores and most Hispanic markets carry masa dough already prepared for tamales. But if you are feeling adventurous and would like to create your own, here is the recipe below.

Ingredients

2/3 cup butter (or lard)

1 cup chicken, pork or beef broth

3 cups masa baking powder (found at Hispanic markets and some grocery stores)

½ tsp. salt

Mix one cup of pork broth and butter.

Combine masa, baking powder, and salt.

Stir into butter mixture, adding more broth as necessary to create a spongy dough.

Finishing the Tamales

Place corn husks in a bowl of hot water for 30 minutes. Drain water and pat corn husks dry with a cloth.

Tamales can be made in a variety of ways with many different types of ingredients. Sometimes the ingredients can provide evidence as to the region the tamale came from. For example, tamales using banana leaves instead of corn husks come from the South and East regions of Mexico, since corn is not as prevalent there.

Make a small slit at the top middle of the corn husk. Spread dough underneath the slit over to the sides of the corn husk to ¼ to ½ inch thickness. Leave space at the bottom of the corn husk. Place 2 tbsp. of filling in center of dough.

Fold sides and bottom of husk in toward center, using the masa filling to hold the sides together. You may also have to add some masa in the hole of the top of the tamale to hold the top shut.

Tamales are not just associated with Christmas celebrations. White tamales are offered to dead relatives on All Saints Day, and the tamalada is a celebration held in Mexico’s countryside specifically for eating tamales.

Place in steamer and simmer for 1 ½ hours.

Place the tamales standing upright, with the slitted top facing upwards. I began by lining my pot with them, and worked in a circle with them towards the middle of the pot. Photo by Brittany Avila.
Place the tamales standing upright, with the slitted top facing upwards. I began by lining my pot with them, and worked in a circle with them towards the middle of the pot. Photo by Brittany Avila.

After steaming, you may remove corn husk and drizzle any remaining warmed chili sauce over tamale.

That’s it! You have officially mastered one of the oldest culinary traditions in the  history of the Americas!

Our Associate Director for Business Affairs Sally Fouhse, SBTHP Intern Mika Thornburg and Associate Director for Historical Resources Anne Petersen all immensely enjoying the final product of this recipe at our Docent Holiday Potluck! Photo by Brittany Avila.
Our Associate Director for Business Affairs Sally Fouhse, SBTHP Intern Mika Thornburg and Associate Director for Historical Resources Anne Petersen all immensely enjoying the final product of this recipe at our Docent Holiday Potluck! Photo by Brittany Avila.

Bibliography

Cleveland, Bess Anderson. California Mission Recipes. Rutland, VT: C.E. Tuttle, 1965, p. 34.

Foster, Nelson, and Linda S. Cordell. Chilies to Chocolate: Food the Americas Gave the World. Tucson: University of Arizona, 1992, p. 26.

Pilcher, Jeffrey M. Que Vivan Los Tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1998.

I also received tips from SBTHP Genealogy and Descendants Committee members and Santa Barbara Presidio descendants  Suzi Calderon Bellman and Debby Aceves, as well as AllRecipes.com.