As at most holiday functions, there’s no escaping your kin at a tamalada, or tamale-making party. For generations, Latinos have gathered at Christmastime to cook, assemble, and eat the age-old dish (tamales date back to pre-Columbian times). “A tamalada is a multifamily, multigenerational event,” says Sylvia Cásares, who owns Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen, in Houston, and has been teaching tamale-making classes for four years. “Everyone, from children to grandparents, pitches in.” At these all-day fiestas, each person is assigned a task—cooking fillings, kneading masa, preparing wrappers—in the sort of assembly line that would make Henry Ford proud.
When it comes to a tamale’s insides, no ingredient is off the table, so to speak (chicken and tomatillo salsa, cinnamon and sugar), but you can’t go wrong with the classic pork in red chile sauce: (1) Boil a 5-pound pork butt roast with 4 whole garlic cloves, 1 quartered onion, and a palmful of salt for at least 90 minutes. Reserve the stock; cool and shred the meat (to save time at the tamalada, have your designated cocinero do this a day in advance). (2) Seed, boil, and purée 10 to 12 ancho chiles to make a paste (for heat, prepare a guajillo chile paste in the same way). (3) In a deep skillet over medium flame, heat 2 tablespoons of lard with 3 teaspoons of ground cumin, some minced garlic, and some of the chile paste. (4) Stir in 2 cups of the stock, all the meat, and salt to taste. Yields roughly 5 dozen tamales.
“The masa is the star of the show,” says Cásares—and for this recipe you’ll need at least a pound of it. You can use dry corn flour (masa harina), but for a more authentic approach, head to any Hispanic supermarket to buy fresh masa (keep it chilled) and rendered lard, or manteca (more flavor, fewer preservatives). To prepare: Combine one part lard to two parts masa in a stand mixer, adding small amounts of the ancho chile paste, salt, and pork stock. Mix until smooth. (Traditionalists prefer to knead the dough manually; this labor-intensive task is best suited to a strong primo.) Test the masa by dropping a small ball in a glass of water: If it floats, it’s ready.
Most tamales are wrapped in corn husks (banana or avocado leaves also work), which must first be softened so that they’re pliable. Submerge them in hot water for 45 minutes, then get to packaging: (1) On the smooth side of the husk, spread a thin layer of masa 1/4 inch from the flat end to just before the tapered end. (2) Add 2 tablespoons of filling, fold in the sides, then the tail to meet the flat end. (3) Stack the tamales upright in a steamer, lay some unused husks on top, cover, and cook about 1 1/2 hours. Finally, allow your family to clock out, turn up Freddy Fender’s “Blanca Navidad,” and serve the fruits of your labor alongside some spicy salsa, creamy guacamole, and a heapin’ helpin’ of chisme.