Why It Works
- Using your own blended spices instead of a pre-packaged chili powder gives better depth of flavor.
- Ingredients are added in sequence to build up layers of complex flavor.
- Browning the butter for the cornbread crust gives it a rich, nutty aroma.
Tamale pie holds a place in the lexicon of Americanized foods somewhere in the same chapter as American Chop Suey, and like that pseudo-Italian casserole, this one bears some resemblance to its cousin across the border, but it's a superficial one, and it's not even clear if Mexican tamales are actually its origin.
The history is somewhat hazy, though the recipe appeared as early as the 1931 edition of the Joy of Cooking. Made by covering up a simple ground beef chili with a corn batter and baking it until crisp, it's one of those all-in-one dishes that sounds so damn appealing on the pages of a cookbook, but generally ends up being more meh, I guess I'll eat this in real life.
The version of tamale pie I grew up on came from a book called California Cooks! by Rowena McLean and Betty McDermott Marks under the heading "Calexico Tamale Pie." I believe it is the only recipe with such a title in existence (at the time of writing, a Google search returned exactly four results, all of them identical to the one printed in the book). It was one of those archetypical 1970's cookbooks that tried to capture the American love affair with cosmopolitan, exotic-sounding ingredients and recipes. You know, modern ingredients like corn canned with red and green peppers or canned roasted Mexican chiles.
My mom picked it up when she was living in Palo Alto in the '70s and has kept it ever since. But what was once exotic is now just a meal of convenience and comfort. Chili powder and canned olives are about as fancy as the average tamale pie recipe gets. I've even seen some made with creamed corn and muffin mix!
Now I liked the stuff as a kid to be sure, but it doesn't do you any favors in the "I feel like I just cooked real food" department. I can do better than that, I thought to myself.
Classic Tamale Pie Flavors
If you're familiar with any of my chili recipes, then you probably know where this is going: Ditch the jarred chili powder. For this quick and easy version, I'm using a mixture of ground ancho chile, cayenne, cumin, and coriander.
For this recipe, I'm keeping it real simple: a diced onion and some thinly sliced garlic are all it really needs. Some folks like to add diced red pepper, and I'm not against that in any way, but the dish doesn't need it, and here we're all about expediency.
Normally I'd advocate for only getting corn that's been recently picked from the farm and cooking it on the same day in order to maximize its flavor, but who are we kidding? There's no such thing as really great sweet corn in the winter and this is a decidedly winter dish. In past experiments, I've found that at least for cooked applications like this one, frozen corn can actually fare quite well. It's been blanched before freezing so its sweetness is locked in.
Classic tamale pie wouldn't be tamale pie without tomato sauce. I don't really dig on the canned stuff—it never tastes like fresh tomatoes to me—so instead, I'm using whole peeled canned tomatoes that I crush by hand between my fingers. Some canned black beans also go in to bulk it up.
We used to have a running joke when I was working at Cook's Illustrated that in order to make something "Southwest," all you needed to do was add corn, black beans, and cumin. Ta-da! It's kinda like those restaurants that add peanuts and coconut milk to second-rate Chinese food and call it Thai.
But as much of an aversion as I have to that particular combo, in this case it's a classic, so I'll let it slide.
How to Make a Classic Tamale Pie in 45 Minutes or Less
In an episode of America's Test Kitchen (warning: pay wall), Chris Kimball and Bridgett Lancaster make the bold claim that their skillet tamale pie can be made start to finish in half an hour. Which is true. If you've got every single one of your ingredients pulled together and prepped, your butter melted and cooled, and your running shoes on. I'm not going to make quite so bold a claim, but I do think that you'll be able to make this version start to finish in just about 45 minutes—maybe an hour tops if you're in a more casual mood or get distracted by dogs or beer (I don't blame you).
We start by preheating the oven and browning the butter for the cornbread crust. As soon as the butter is out of the pan, I add my ground beef to the same pan without wiping it out (no reason to throw away any flavor here).
I like to use my potato masher to break up the ground beef. It's faster and easier than trying to do it 100% with a spoon.
We're looking for meat cooked enough that it's just starting to brown (you should hear a definite sizzle instead of a steaming sound), but not so browned that the meat gets pebbly or tough. Once it's there. I add the diced onion and sliced garlic, cooking just until it's softened.
Next up, the spices. Ancho chile powder, cumin, coriander, and a pinch of cayenne, which I cook in the hot beef fat and browned butter to help bloom and develop their flavors. Remember: This is a quick-cooking dish, so you won't get much flavor development after you throw it in the oven. Every little layering step is important.
Once the spices are bloomed, in goes my corn, my rinsed black beans, my tomatoes (crushed by hand), and about a cup of chicken stock—just enough to keep it moist. The filling may look a little soupy at first, but it's okay—I found that as it bakes, the cornbread sucks up a lot of that moisture, so you have to make the filling much looser than expected if you want it to remain moist and juicy when serving.
The last three ingredients are perhaps the most essential: Cilantro and scallions add a touch of brightness to an otherwise extremely rich and savory dish. Cheddar cheese appears in many, many recipes (though not in California Cooks! or Joy of Cooking), and while some recipes have you add it as a layer between the filling and the crust, or perhaps as a sprinkle on top of the crust during the last few minutes of baking, I like to take the approach they use in the America's Test Kitchen version: stirring the cheese right into the filling. It helps to bind it and add richness and complexity. Use the sharpest cheddar cheese you can find for this.
All that's left now is to throw together the cornbread batter and spread it over the filling.
If you try and just pour the batter out over the top you'll end up with disaster: The filling is moist enough that the batter will end up just sinking in a big pool in the center and become impossible to spread without mixing. Instead, I spoon the batter in small dollops all over the surface...
...before carefully spreading out the dollops until they touch each other and form a solid crust. Into a 425°F (220°C) oven it goes, and 20 minutes later, you've got dinner.
Pretty, and pretty easy, right?
Sour cream, cilantro, and scallions are my toppings of choice. To be honest, I'm pretty darned pleased with this simple, quick version, but if you want to turn this into a dish that can blow the minds of your guests, check out our recipe for tamale pie with braised skirt steak and charred corn.
6 tablespoons (90g) unsalted butter
1 pound (455g) ground beef chuck
1 medium onion, diced (about 1 cup)
4 medium cloves garlic (20g), thinly sliced
2 tablespoons (18g) ancho chile powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
1 tablespoon (9g) ground cumin
1 teaspoon (3g) ground coriander
1 cup frozen or fresh corn kernels, thawed if frozen
1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, drained and crushed with your hand through fingers to roughly break up
1 cup (235ml) homemade chicken stock or low-sodium broth
4 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese (about 1 cup; 115g)
3 scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves and fine stems, minced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the Brown Butter Cornbread Crust:
1 cup (5 ounces; 140g) fine yellow cornmeal
1 cup (4.5 ounces; 128g) all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons (60g) sugar
1 teaspoon (3g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half by volume or the same weight
2 teaspoons (8g) baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 large eggs
6 ounces (about 3/4 cup) sour cream
4 ounces (about 1/4 cup) cultured buttermilk
Sour cream, for serving
Adjust oven rack to center position and preheat oven to 425°F (220°C). Heat butter in a 12-inch cast iron or stainless steel skillet over medium heat until melted. Continue to cook, swirling pan gently until butter is nutty-smelling and solids are a toasty brown. Transfer to a heatproof cup or bowl and reserve for Brown Butter Cornbread Crust.
Return pan to high heat. Add beef and cook, stirring and breaking up with a wooden spoon or a potato masher until starting to brown, about 8 minutes. Add onion and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until softened and fragrant, about 4 minutes. Add chile powder, cayenne (if using), cumin, and coriander. Stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Add corn, black beans, tomatoes, and chicken stock. Bring to a simmer, then stir in cheese. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened into a rich stew-like consistency, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in scallions and cilantro. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
For the Brown Butter Cornbread Crust: In a large bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, sugar, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, baking powder, and baking soda. In a second bowl, combine eggs, sour cream, and buttermilk and whisk until homogenous. Whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in reserved browned butter. Whisk wet ingredients into dry ingredients until homogenous.
Using a large spoon, place small dollops of the cornbread batter mixture on top of the beef filling, then use the back of the spoon to spread it into an even layer. Transfer the skillet to the oven and bake until pale golden brown and a skewer inserted into the cornbread comes out clean, about 20 minutes.
Let cool 15 minutes, then serve with sour cream.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 42g||53%|
|Saturated Fat 20g||100%|
|Total Carbohydrate 77g||28%|
|Dietary Fiber 12g||44%|
|Total Sugars 17g|
|Vitamin C 23mg||117%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|