Week Seven: American Breads
When I mentioned to a coworker that I was planning on making flour tortillas as part of my American-Bread-themed week, he gave me a strange look. “Are tortillas American?” he asked. And it gave me pause – I had simply added them to the list, and not given it a second thought. Weren’t they actually Mexican? Well, yes and no. Thinking on it, I realized that not only were flour tortillas American, they’re just about up there with apple pie. (Keep in mind that I’m only referring to flour tortillas; corn tortillas are a bit of a different beast.)
First, as the world’s leading exporter of wheat, we have a lot of flour on hand to deal with. Mexico, on the other hand, grows considerably more corn than flour, which gives America the edge on claiming the flour tortilla as its own. Second, there is not really a history of flatbreads as made by American Indian tribes in the plains region of the USA (where wheat now grows best). Their sustenance came more from ready-to-eat (as it were) plants and animals, since most of these tribes were nomadic hunters, and were never in one place long enough to cultivate wheat properly. So while the idea of a flatbread did originate in South and Central America and spread North, those regions used corn almost exclusively in making those flatbreads. A flour tortilla didn’t become widespread until wheat production and Mexican cooking crossed paths, in the Southwest US, near the North Mexican border, where it is now inextricably linked with the cuisine. Third, there can hardly be another bread quite as prevalent in American grocery stores as the flour tortilla. In every region, you’ll certainly find a package or two in the refrigerated section. And with the recent popularity of wrap sandwiches, they’re still more available, and in every imaginable different size, shape, and flavor.
So yes, Virginia, flour tortillas really are American. Anyone who tells you any different is selling something. And boy, they sure couldn’t be easier to make. Do you have thirty minutes and a hot oven? Then you’re all set! There is one strange ingredient in the short list, however; and it’s one that inspires all sorts of fear in the hearts of health-conscious Americans: lard. Yes, lard. Lard, lard, lard.
Let me be one of the first to tell you (assuming you’re under the age of 65 or so) that lard is not bad for you! Did you know it has much less saturated fat than butter, and far more of the good fat (monounsaturated)? I’m not saying you should go eat a bucket of it, but it’s actually better for you than butter! And have you ever tasted chicken fried in lard? Heaven! A word of caution, though: don’t just go and pick up that one-pound container from the shelf of that little Hispanic grocery store. Yes, it is lard, but that stuff at room temperature is very hydrogenated, and is just as bad as Crisco. If you’re up for rendering your own, that’s the best route, since un-hydrogenated lard is quite rarely sold in this country. If you can’t be bothered (I certainly couldn’t, this time around!), use the more readily available vegetable shortening. I found an organic, un-hydrogenated shortening at Whole Foods that works very well in these applications. Substituting butter won’t really work; you’ll end up with tough tortillas. All the rolling and shaping requires the ductility of shortening.
So now you know. Lard is good. Flour tortillas are definitely American. And yes, you can buy these in the grocery store; but just try making them once. The dough is very simple to make, and they roll out very easily. And just wait until you try them – they’re so subtle and good, you’ll hardly believe that they came out of your own oven! They’re warm, and chewy, and a little crispy, and just wonderful. Pick up a rotisserie chicken, some good guacamole, and some tomatoes and cilantro, and you’ve got dinner covered! Now get out there and make some soft tacos!
From The Joy of Cooking
Makes eight 6-8 inch tortillas
2 cups bread flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup vegetable shortening or lard
3/4 cup warm water (105º – 115º F)
1. Mix all ingredients by hand or in an electric mixer on low speed until the dough comes together. Knead on a lightly floured surface, or with the mixer’s dough hook, until smooth, about 4 to 6 minutes.
2. Divide the dough equally into 8 pieces, and roll them into balls. Cover and let rest for 10 minutes.
3. Place a baking stone or an inverted baking sheet in the oven and preheat to 450º F. Roll out each ball of dough into a 6 to 8 inch round. If the dough is resistant, move to the next piece and return later to finish rolling.
4. Place as many dough rounds as will fit directly on the baking stone and bake for about 3 minutes. When the tortilla puffs or balloons, remove it to a rack to cool. For crisp tortillas, flip them over and bake on the second side as well.
1. Feel free to mix in any herbs or other flavorings you like. Try mixing in some cinnamon, and use them in sweet or savory applications like these: fill with pork and slices of grilled (or broiled) peaches; spread with Nutella and just roll and eat; or serve with grilled chicken and a good mole sauce.
2. I was a little worried at first about the mixing order in step 1 – the recipe just says to mix it all together, with no rhyme or reason! Don’t worry about it; the warm water helps melt the shortening a little, so it disperses pretty evenly throughout the dough. If you’re doing it by hand, though, I do suggest either adding the water or the fat first, then the other; it’ll blend into the flour more easily that way.