Sunday, 13 January 2013

Sweet Tamales and Champurrado

Tamales are probably my favourite ever Mexican dish.

Like chiles rellenos, they take forever to make. But they are totally worth it.

Tamales (the singular is tamal) are dumplings made of corn dough (masa) and steamed in a corn husk or a banana leaf.

They are usually filled with something delicious and, especially in restaurants in the United States, can be accompanied by a sauce.

The filling can be savoury or sweet, and they can also have no filling at all. These are called tamales sordos, which means "deaf tamales".

Deaf tamales are the classic accompaniment to mole.

In Mexico you can buy tamal dough (masa para tamales), which is like tortilla dough but more coarsely ground. Here in the UK you have to improvise using masa harina.

I first made tamales from the recipe in Two Cooks and a Suitcase, and this is still the recipe I trust most.

Before this post, I had made tamales twice and "tamale pie" twice, going savoury each time, but I really wanted to give sweet tamales a try for two reasons:
  • I could have tamales for breakfast
  • I could eat them with champurrado (more on that below)
Tamales are at least a two-day affair.

The day before you plan to eat them, put all you corn husks in cold water to soak. Weigh them down with a plate so each one is completely submerged.

You can buy corn husks, masa harina, and everything else you need for tamales at Lupe Pinto's or from the Cool Chile Company, by the way.

Then you need to decide on a filling and make it. For the sweet tamales I just used dried cranberries, so I got to skip this step.

On the day you plan to serve, you need to mix up your tamal dough. This is a combination of masa harina, melted fat, liquid, and a half teaspoon of baking powder to keep the tamales light.

For savoury tamales, you might use melted lard (or butter), and the liquid would be a stock of since kind.

Two Cooks and a Suitcase only gives a recipe for savoury tamal dough, so I had to improvise a sweet version.

I used melted butter for the fat and dissolved a cone of real Mexican piloncillo in some warm water in place of stock.  

Sweet tamal dough


  • 200 g masa harina
  • 100 g melted butter
  • 250 ml water
  • 1 small cone of piloncillo (about one ounce)
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder


Put the water into a pan over a very low heat and add the piloncillo. You might want to bash it up in a mortar first so it dissolves more quickly.

Or you could substitute a little less than an ounce of demerara sugar, brown sugar, or caster sugar mixed with molasses.

Also, they sell cones of unrefined sugar in many Jamaican/Caribbean food shops. This is very similar to piloncillo.

Sift the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl.

Add the melted butter and water (once the piloncillo has dissolved) and mix into a batter. Two Cooks likens this to cake batter, but I find it's much stiffer and less pourable than that.

This is stuff you can scoop up with a spoon and spread with a knife.

Which is basically what you have to do next.

Spread a corn husk on a plate, wide side facing away from you.

Take a tablespoon or so of the dough and spread it over the husk in a square-ish shape like this:

Put a spoonful of you filling on the dough (how much filling depends on how big your tamales are).

Fold them up so that the filing is completely enclosed by the dough and the dough is completely enclosed by the husk.

You will find some husks have holes or rips or are otherwise unusable. Tear these ones into thin strips. They tear easily along the grain.

Use these strips to tie up the tamales into little parcels.

Traditionally you leave the wide end of the husks open, but I usually tie them at both ends if I can. Don't ask me why. It's just the way my mother taught me. Presumably she learned it from her grandmother.

Once all your tamales are wrapped, place them in a steamer, wide side facing up (especially if it's open at that side).

Put the lid on the steamer (not pictured).

These need to steam for an hour, 45 minutes of which has to be on full steam. So while you're waiting, make some champurrado.

Champurrado is atole flavoured with chocolate.

Atole is a traditional Mexican hot drink thickened with masa. It is the classic drink to have with tamales.

I stole this champurrado recipe from Rick Bayless so the measurements are in American.  



  • 1/2 cup masa 
  • 2 cups milk 
  • 3 ounces Mexican chocolate 
  • 2 ounces piloncillo 
  • Some aniseed (I used a star anise) 


If you live in Britain, you have to make your own masa.

Mix 1/2 cup masa harina with 1/4 cup hand-hot water and you're done. No resting or kneading like when you make tortillas.

Put the milk in a pan and add the masa. Stir it up. Little darlin'. Stir it up.

Next add the piloncillo. About two small cones will do, but weigh them first to make sure.

You'll also need to chop or grind them up so they dissolve better.

Two cones of piloncillo waiting to get bashed to fuck.

Then add the chocolate. I used half a block of Willy's Cacao, ground up with 20 g of toasted almonds and a 5 mm cinnamon stick.

Pop in your aniseed, if you're using it, and bring the whole thing to a simmer, whisking whisking frequently.

When the chocolate and piloncillo have dissolved and the champurrado is nice and thick, it's done. It will look like this:

By the way, the longer you cook it, the thicker it gets. Eventually you will be eating chocolate porridge.

Now your tamales should be done. Remove them to a serving plate so people can help themselves.

A pile of sweet tamales.

Ladle some champurrado into mugs and serve.

The champurrado was so thick we often dipped our tamales into it, sort of like chcolate con churros.

But the tamales were so fecking delicious they didn't really need any accompaniment. The cranberries had gone all plump and moist, and the sweetened tamal dough was delicious even before it was cooked.

An unwrapped tamal. Don't eat the corn husk, whatever you do.
I had been nervous about the tamales, because a friend of mine had recently made them and reported that they fell apart, even though she used the same recipe.

I did some research and found this is one of the ways tamales often go wrong. Another is that the dough is too dense and stodgy.

My friend is an excellent cook, better than me, in fact. So now I was really worried.

But once again, my tamales were perfect. Having now made tamales or a variation of them five times, I can report that they have never gone wrong for me.

I have no idea why. It ain't pure talent, I can tell you. And it ain't because tamales are easy to make (they aren't). It must be luck. Or maybe the spirit of my great grandmother Eva guiding me or something.

If you have a half-Mexican great grandmother, you should really try this; in fact, even if you don't you should. Tamales are one of the culinary wonders of the world.

Hell, if you're afraid of all the work. I'll come over and make them for you. One of my New Year's Resolutions is to make more tamales.

As for the champurrado, it was absolutely delicious. The only thing is, it tasted a helluva lot like Mexican hot chocolate, which is much easier to make.

Therefore I doubt I will make champurrado again. In the very near future I will make a more basic atole to see if I like it (starting with a variation probably wasn't the best introduction to this drink, but I found the concept of masa-thickened hot chocolate impossible to resist).

Once again, you can get everything you need to make tamales from Lupe Pinto's or the Cool Chile Company (if you don't live in Edinburgh or Glasgow).

Also, the restaurant Mestizo in London has tamales on the menu, and as Mestizo is easily the best Mexican restaurant in the UK, I'm sure they are delicious. Have some chiles rellenos for a starter.