This recipe makes about 18 tamales but I usually triple or quadruple it for a family as large as mine, and here, to start, are a few tips to help you out:
Start with a pork stock: Start by buying about two pounds of bone-in "country-style" spare ribs and cut out the bones. You can either roast the bones until they're brown and then drop them in a stockpot or just put them in the stockpot. Chop up an onion and put it in with some smashed garlic cloves and maybe a chopped carrot and a stalk of chopped celery. Cover with cold water and simmer gently until you have a flavorful stock. Strain and let it cool. (This can be done in advance and even frozen well ahead of time as long as you thaw it before use.)
To set up the steamer: Steaming 20 tamales can be done in batches in a collapsible vegetable steamer set into a large, deep saucepan (if you stack the tamales more than two high they will steam unevenly) but it's a balky process. To steam the whole recipe at once, I recommend something like the kettle-size tamale steamers used in Mexico (available inexpensively at Latino markets) or you can improvise by setting a wire rack on 4 coffee or custard cups in a large kettle with plenty of water underneath.
It is best to line the rack or upper part of the steamer with leftover scraps of corn husks to protect the tamales from direct contact with the steam and to add more flavor. Make sure to leave tiny spaces between leaves so condensing steam can drain off.
- 8 large (about 2 ounces) dried guajillo chilies, stemmed, seeded and each torn into several pieces
- 8 large (about 2 ounces) dried ancho chilies, stemmed, seeded and torn into pieces
- Pork or chicken stock, as needed
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground cumin
- ¼ teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 ½ pounds boneless pork (those country-style spare ribs you deboned earlier), cut into ½-inch cubes
- Salt, to taste
- 10 ounces lard (or vegetable shortening, if you really have to. But bear in mind, you should try to live without regret), slightly softened
- 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
- 2 pounds (4 cups) fresh coarse-ground corn masa for tamales (If you can't find fresh ground masa, try looking at markets that cater to a Latino clientele but if you still can't find it, use 3 ½ cups dried masa harina for tamales mixed with 2 ¼ cups of your hot pork stock or water if you have to.)
- 1 to 1 ½ cups pork stock or chicken broth (I prefer the pork, but you can use purchased chicken broth if you need to.)
- 1 package dried corn husks (also available in Latin markets) Place about half the package of husks in a large bowl or pot and cover with boiling water and let them soak until the water has cooled down
- Prepare the filling: Toast the chili pieces in a hot dry pan until they become fragrant and curl up slightly. Soak them in a bowl with just enough boiling-hot stock or water to cover (put a small plate over them to keep them submerged in the stock). After about 20 minutes, they should be hydrated.
- Put them in a blender with the soaking liquid, garlic, pepper, oregano and cumin. Blend to a smooth purée, adding more stock if needed to keep everything moving. Strain the mixture through a medium-mesh strainer into a medium-size (3-quart) saucepan. Really try to push everything you can through the strainer. I even pour a little more stock through the strainer to make sure I get everything out of the chilies I can.
- Add the meat to the strained chile purée, 3 cups of pork stock and 1 teaspoon salt. Simmer, uncovered, over medium heat, stirring regularly, until the pork is fork-tender and the liquid is reduced to the consistency of a thick sauce, about 1 hour. Use a fork to break the pork into small pieces. Taste and season with additional salt if necessary. Let cool to room temperature.
- Prepare the batter: With an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat the lard or shortening with 2 teaspoons salt and the baking powder until light in texture, about 1 minute. Continue beating as you add the masa (fresh or reconstituted) in three additions.
- Reduce the speed to medium-low and add 1 cup of the stock. Continue beating for another minute or so, until a ½ teaspoon dollop of the batter floats in a cup of cold water (if it floats you can be sure the tamales will be tender and light).
- Beat in enough additional broth to give the mixture the consistency of soft (not runny) cake batter; it should hold its shape in a spoon. Taste the batter and season with additional salt if you think necessary (the batter won't taste very good at this point. Don't worry about it. Just try to gauge the salt). For the lightest-textured tamales, refrigerate the batter for an hour or so, then rebeat, adding enough additional broth to bring the mixture to the soft consistency it had before.
- Form the tamales: One at a time, lay out a large pre-soaked (and cooled) corn husk and spread ¼ to 1/3 cup of the batter into a rectangle over it (be sure to spread the filling on the "cupped" side of the husk). Spoon 2 tablespoons of the filling over the center of the rectangle of batter, then fold over the sides of the tamale so the batter encloses the filling. Fold the thin end of the husk up and set aside while you repeat.
- Steam the tamales: Set tamales in your steamer open end pointing up, making sure there's plenty of water underneath. When all the tamales are in the steamer, cover them with a layer of corn husks. Set the lid in place. Bring water to a boil and then turn down, steaming over a constant medium heat for about 1 hour. Watch carefully that all the water doesn't boil away and, to keep the steam steady, pour boiling water into the pot when more is necessary. Tamales are done when the husk peels away from the masa easily. Let tamales stand in the steamer off the heat for a few minutes to firm up. For the best textured tamales, let them cool completely, then re-steam about 15 minutes to heat through.
To do this in stages:
Both filling and batter can be made several days ahead, as can the finished tamales; refrigerate, well covered. Resteam (or even microwave) tamales before serving. For even more flexibility, batter, filling or finished tamales can be frozen. Defrost finished tamales in the refrigerator overnight before re-steaming.