There's a woman who sells corn-husk-wrapped tamales out of a shopping cart on a street corner near my apartment in Queens every morning. I'm so glad she's there, because I'm rarely inclined to make my own. Individually filling, forming, and wrapping tamales is, to be frank, a pain in the culo. There's a reason it's often a group activity in Mexico, with family members gathering to make tamales for special occasions together: Even proverbial grandmas, toiling away in the kitchen, have their limits.
But there's a solution to this little tamale conundrum, and it's called a tamale pie. Actually, it's called a tamal de cazuela. Not to be confused with the American dish of cornbread baked on top of chili, this one is a real-deal Mexican thing. In short, it's a giant, pie-sized tamale that's baked in a casserole or skillet, then sliced into serving-size portions. I first learned about it from the chef Alex Stupak, and I've been loving it ever since.
The concept is incredibly simple—stuff a skillet-sized corn masa crust with a savory filling, cover it with more masa, then bake it—and the ease of making one of these means it's an excellent idea for entertaining or potlucks. Here's how to do it.
There were a few things I wanted to explore with the masa (nixtamalized corn dough) for this recipe. Note that in all cases, I was working with masa harina para tamales, a dried flour version sold in the Latin or international section of most well-stocked markets, and not with fresh masa, which is much harder to come by in the States.
First, I wanted to see if it was possible to mix the dough by hand and still get good results. Most masa recipes these days call for beating the mixture with an electric mixer. An electric mixer is ultimately what my version calls for, but I am happy to report that if you don't have an electric mixer you can still get good results mixing by hand.
The masa can end up slightly denser that way, but not so much that you wouldn't want to still make this recipe.
Next, I wanted to test amounts of baking powder in the masa. Not all masa recipes call for baking powder, but a lot do. It acts as leavening, forming tiny air bubbles in the dough. I've noticed a pretty big range of baking powder quantities in my research, so I quickly whipped up a few batches to test the difference.
I made four different samples: no baking powder, 1 teaspoon baking powder per pound of dried masa harina, 2 teaspoons per pound, and 1 tablespoon per pound.
As you can see in the photo above, the masa with no baking powder (at left) was the most dense, with each sample getting progressively more airy and crumbly as the baking powder went up (it's worth pointing out that I was still tweaking the recipe ratio and this batch had more lard in it than I ended up with in the final version, hence the oily look). As you get to the higher end of the spectrum, the masa can start to take on a sulfurous baking-soda smell. I found the best balance to be 2 teaspoons per pound of masa flour, which had the most lightness with the least odor.
I had also read in one Rick Bayless recipe that resting the masa before cooking it can improve its texture. To explore this, I made two batches of masa, one that rested for an hour and one that was freshly mixed, and cooked them side-by-side.
As you can see, the masa that rested (on the left) is better hydrated than the masa that was cooked immediately after being mixed (notice the little white spots of still-dry corn flour in the sample on the right). Bayless says to re-whip the masa after the rest, adding more liquid if necessary, which sounds like a good tip to me: no reason not to give it one more spin in the mixer, and correct the consistency if necessary (it should be like soft and spreadable, like a thick hummus).
Making the Pie
To make the pie, I start by mixing the dry masa harina with an equal volume of chicken stock. Water works just as well, but chicken stock helps boost the flavor.
Once fully mixed, the masa should be just soft enough to push a spatula through it.
Then I put cold lard in a stand mixer with salt and baking powder, and beat them at medium-high speed for about one minute, until slightly whipped. It's very important the lard is cold, since it begins to soften and melt at room temperature, which makes whipping it difficult. If you don't want to use lard, an equal amount of Crisco works just as well.
Once the lard is whipped, I start beating in the rehydrated masa until it's fully incorporated. You should get the hummus-like texture now.
I cover the masa with plastic to prevent drying and refrigerate it for one hour, then re-whip it one more time when the hour is up, adding a touch more water to soften it if it's firmed up during the rest.
While the masa is resting, I make the filling. In the recipe we're focusing on today, the filling is more or less refried black beans with some ancho chili added for flavor. The truth is, though, that you can use just about anything, from stewed vegetables (squash or mushroom would be great) to Mexican braises and even chili; just make sure with meat dishes that the meat is either shredded or ground, since big chunks won't make an even layer inside the pie. Obviously, some other fillings will take more time to make and should be prepared in advance of the masa, so you'll have to adjust accordingly.
With my masa and filling ready, I prep my cooking vessel. Here I'm using a 12-inch cast iron skillet, but you can also use a casserole or baking dish (about a 3-quart capacity should work). I start by greasing it lightly.
Then I put about two-thirds of the masa in the skillet, forming an even bottom layer and pushing it up around the edge to make a wall.
The masa is pliable enough to make this a fairly easy task.
Then I add the filling and spread it evenly over the masa.
I take the remaining third of the masa and set it on top of the filling to make a top crust. I've found that flattening portions of it first, then setting them on the surface of the filling and using your fingers to bind them together works well.
Once you've sealed the edge of masa to the top crust, your pie should look like this.
A little cleanup around the edges makes sure nothing scorches as the pie bakes.
I put the pie in the oven at 375°F until cooked through and lightly golden on top, about 45 minutes or so.
Let it cool slightly, then slice and serve.
A little salsa verde and hot sauce can be spooned on top.
Couldn't be easier!