In many Mexican and Mexican-American families, a tamalada—the Christmas eve tamales-fest—is as traditional as eating pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”) on Día de Los Muertos. Though tamales are as labor-intensive as Puebla’s iconic mole Poblano and Oaxaca’s celebratory mole negro, they are a delight when done well, with moist masa coddling flavor-packed ingredients like pork, steak, cheese or even bison.
Claudette Zepeda, chef, Latina, “Top Chef” superstar and Chefs’ Collective member, is no stranger to the tradition of the tamalada—a tamale-making celebration she shares with family every year. She and her family prepare tamales in advance of the Christmas holiday, give many away, then celebrate with a big tamale spread on Christmas Eve. On the menu? Her recipe for chile colorado tamales, a molcajete salsa of charred Anaheim chiles, and a dreamy queso fundido. Claudette inspires us with her wonderful recipes and some truly beautiful tamalada memories.
How do you celebrate the holidays with your family?
“Tamales are one of our family traditions; growing up it was a daunting task to be on the assembly line. My abuela ran a tight ship and it was serious business: several fillings, garnishes and the clean-up! Nowadays, I pick three flavors to make, two savory and one sweet tamal. I strategically plan what day to make all the fillings, never the same day as tamales. The day before Christmas Eve, my kids and I enlist my mom’s help and we start the tamal marathon. Three-quarters of the tamales we make end up as neighborhood doorstop care packages. We eat freshly steamed tamales on the 24th, all day. Serve with frijoles charros (pinto beans stewed with bacon) and champurrado (masa flour thickened hot chocolate). The 25th we eat the same thing, except we now fry the leftover tamales, in bacon drippings from the beans.
Are there any other toppings to have on hand for guests to add to their tamales?
Toppings are simple: crumbled queso fresco, a salsa to match the filling (red salsa with red filling), cultured crema, and beans (refried or frijoles charros).
What is your tamale-making strategy?
Assembly line! The stations being: toasted banana leaf for savory with offset spatula; pitted green olives; carrot and potato batons; shredded braised chicken and shredded braised beef or pork; braising liquid. For sweet tamales: soaked corn husks; fruit filing; corn husk ties or twine. I don’t have guests make tamales, I like to enjoy their company and have the food ready to eat. The kitchen is clean and I enjoy myself, too.
Any tips on making the perfect tamale?
Whip the masa until fluffy and seasoned with the braising liquid that the filling rendered, and spoon that liquid over the filling. Masa to filling ratio should be 50/50. Though tedious, wrapping the tamal in a parchment square ensures the filling doesn’t spill out over everything and helps with steam retention when reheating. Ensure your steam pot never runs out of water by adding pennies or small pebbles; when they rattle, hurry and add water! I also add extra leaves in the water and throughout the pot to help slow the evaporation. Do not uncover constantly, check after one hour by removing one and let it cool to room temperature to ensure it sets.
Do you do tamale goody bags for guests? How best to store them for eating later?
Care packages are pre-set for everyone to have on Christmas Day. Best stored in resealable plastic bags, flat-packed and with microwave or stovetop instructions for reheating. They are good in the fridge for two to three days, and after that they should be frozen.