Week Nineteen: French Breads Happy Cinco de Mayo!
Just so we’re all clear, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day, or any other such equivalent. It’s not even a national holiday in Mexico. In fact, it’s not widely celebrated outside of the state of Puebla. Until you get across that Northern border, that is. For some reason, Americans just love any excuse to eat Tex Mex and drink Margaritas. (By the way, Mexico’s Independence Day is 16 Septiembre.)
And lest you think I’m getting all preachy up in here, I will certainly be eating and drinking my share tonight at a friend’s party. I mean, who can resist? Soft tacos, pico de gallo, and a crisp, cold Margarita in hand? Yes, please. It’s a bit like Mardi Gras: no one knows what the holiday really means, but ever’body love a party!
If you’re throwing your own party, I’ll give you two things you can amaze your guests with. One: that the reason you’re all gathered together is to celebrate the defeat of the French Army by the Mexican Army, at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. The larger and more well-equipped French forces hadn’t been defeated in 50 years! Unfortunately, the French were able to rally back the very next year, and occupied Mexico for the next five years. The observance of Cinco de Mayo began in California during that time, as a way of showing support for Mexico. And two: after you’ve wowed your guests with your brilliance, you can stun them with your incredible tortilla-making skills.
Corn tortillas have been made in the Americas (specifically South and Central America) for millenia. There’s even evidence that Aztecs were eating tortillas (of a sort) as long ago as 10,000 B.C.! One step central to making corn tortillas is called nixtamalization, which happens when corn kernels are treated with an alkaline solution, usually lime water. This produces hominy (if you’re Southern, and know what that means), and the corn is then more easily ground into meal, makes a smoother dough, and crucially, becomes far more nutritious. People whose diets consisted of cornmeal untreated in this manner generally ended up with a nasty little disease called pellagra. Who knew.
Okay, so you can’t make proper corn tortillas with regular cornmeal. Luckily, you’ll often see a bag labeled “Masa Harina” near the regular cornmeal, or maybe tucked away in the “International Foods” aisle. This is cornmeal made from nixtamalized corn, all ready for you to mix it into tortilla dough. And if you haven’t tuned me out completely by this point, let me just tell you how easy it is to make corn tortillas!
I know, the recipe is kind of long. But it’s mostly just description of the best way to roll them out, which is far easier shown than written (why, oh why, didn’t I photograph that?). Come on, it’s only got two ingredients! And since corn doesn’t produce any gluten, you’ll never worry about overkneading, or over-rolling the dough, the bane of every flat wheat bread! It seriously only took me about 1 hour, start to finish, to make 16 of some of the best tortillas I’ve ever had – no joke.
Have you ever tried fresh, homemade corn tortillas? They’re so good! Fresh out of the pan, they’re light years away from those dried-out things they sell in the grocery store, already halfway to being tortilla chips. No wonder I never liked them before. Oh, and another reason they always tasted so flat to me is because corn tortillas are traditionally made without salt. This is because they’re usually paired with highly-seasoned and richly-flavored foods, and provide a nicely muted counterpoint to such flamboyance. You can certainly add salt if you like, but the dough may dry out more rapidly.
Either way, salt or no, I urge you to try these sometime. They’re really quite simple once you get into the rhythm of pressing, rolling, and flipping. Trust me, once you’ve tried corn tortillas, fresh from your own pan, you’ll never go back to the store-bought kind again. And there’s the added bonus of being so easy that you’ll have time to mix up another Margarita or two! Happy Cinco de Mayo!
Adapted from The Joy Of Cooking
Makes 16 five to six inch tortillas
2 cups masa harina (do not use regular cornmeal)
1 1/4 cups + 1 tablespoon warm water, about 120 degrees F
1. Mix the masa and water together in a bowl until it comes together. Knead either in the bowl or on a surface until smooth and soft. You may need to add additional water if the dough is crumbly, or additional masa if the dough is sticky. Return to the bowl, and cover with a piece of plastic wrap placed directly on the surface of the dough. Let rest for 30 minutes.
2. Place two heavy pans on two burners of the stove. Heat one over medium-low heat, and the other over medium-high heat. Divide the dough into 16 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball, keeping the unused pieces tightly covered (see note 1 below).
3. Cut a gallon-sized plastic zip-top bag down two of the sides, leaving only one side attached. (Conversely, you can use two sheets of any other similar plastic material, but this is perhaps the easiest and most effective method.) Place one ball of dough between the pieces of plastic, and press with a flat surface (another pan, or a flat-bottomed plate) until flattened out. Using a rolling pin, roll until the dough is as thin as desired, or the disc is 5 or 6 inches across. If you happen to have a tortilla press, use that instead of the plastic bag.
4. Peel the plastic from the dough. Transfer the rolled-out dough to the cooler of the two pans on the stove. Cook for 20 seconds, then flip over into the hotter pan. (If the edges of the tortilla start to curl within 20 seconds, turn the heat a little lower.) Cook in the hotter pan until lightly browned in spots, about 20 to 30 seconds. Flip over again, still in the hotter pan, and cook until the other side browns in spots, another 20 to 30 seconds. The tortilla will probably puff up.
5. Transfer the cooked tortilla to a clean kitchen towel (not terry cloth), and cover while cooking the remaining tortillas. When cooked, stack each tortilla on top of the others, and cover with the towel to keep warm. Serve warm, or wrap and freeze. Tortillas will reheat beautifully in a warm oven, wrapped in aluminum foil; or in a microwave, wrapped in wax paper.
1. This dough will dry out easily. If it becomes too crumbly, sprinkle with a little water, and knead until smooth again. Overkneading is not a problem with this recipe.