So, Seis de Mayo. You might be thinking: Why not Cinco de Mayo? It's a perfectly reasonable question. As it turns out, Cuatro de Mayo was unreasonably busy for my coworkers and I, but we still really wanted an excuse to cook and eat a Mexican-themed potluck.
As far as potluck themes go, you really can't go wrong with Cinco de Mayo. I mean, c'mon... it's got the tasty built right in. Mexican and Tex-Mex foods are some of the most popular dishes in the nation. Salsa has surpassed ketchup as our national condiment of choice (judged via per-capita consumption). And nearly every American city now features excellent Mexican and Central American specialty foods.
Here in NYC, it's a cinch to walk into the Essex Street Market and pick up a stack of soft corn tortillas for practically nothing. Corn husks for making tamales are just a couple of dollars for a hearty fistful. There's baffling varieties of dried chilies. There's exotic sauce brands. The papayas, fresh tomatillos and cactus paddles await your salad-making pleasure.
Cheese quesadillas done up on the George Foreman grill seemed like a quick-and-easy winner for our slightly belated department holiday picnic this week, but I also wanted to try out something a little more ambitious.
I found a delicious-sounding candidate in Rosa's New Mexican Table by Chef Roberto Santibañez, formerly of NYC's Rosa Mexicano restaurant... Brownie Tamales.
Having been burned by an unfortunate barbecue sauce recipe over the weekend, I was a little recipe-shy, but this one was actually created by Nick Malgieri, the many-times-published pastry chef who created the curriculum at my cooking school. Since I love Santibañez's instincts and I've had great success with all of Malgieri's recipes, I figured I couldn't lose.
I've doubled the recipe and made a few tweaks — I just can't leave anything alone — but it's pretty close to the original. You might want to plan for a little loss. I had a couple of blowouts. The failed tamales were still edible... just not very pretty.
Speaking of which, I highly recommend a sauce or ice cream to serve with these. They're quite tasty, but they're sort of homely on their own. Cinnamon ice cream would make an outstanding addition.
Brownie Tamales (Makes 12-14)
6 6-inch corn tortillas
3/4 cup butter
2/3 cup brown sugar
13 oz bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled
8 large eggs, at room temperature
2 2/3 cups ground pecans (8 oz)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
Grated zest of 1 orange
1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
12 large dried corn husks, soaked (7" across the bottom by 7" long)
1. Tear each tortilla into small pieces and grind them in a food processor (you may have to do this in batches). The texture should resemble coarse cornmeal. Set aside.
2. Beat together the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add in the melted chocolate.
3. Beat in four eggs, then blend in half the pecans and half the ground tortillas.
4. Add the remaining eggs, followed by the rest of the pecans, tortillas, cinnamon, nutmeg and orange zest. Fold in the chocolate chips.
5. Drain the corn husks. While they're still damp, flatten out a husk on the surface before you and stuff with 1/2 cup of the brownie filling in the center of the husk. Fold the sides over the filling. I find it helpful to gather up the bottoms and tie them with a few inches of twine. (The top end will remain open. Just fold it over.) Repeat to form 12 tamales.
6. Place two or three dimes in the bottom of a large pot (while it boils, they'll jingle, letting you know there's still water in the pot) fitted with a steamer basket and water that meets the basket's base, but doesn't rise above it.
7. Stand the filled husks (open-end up) in the basket, keeping them upright, but not cramped.
8. Bring the water to a boil, then cover the pot and reduce the heat to keep the water simmering gently. Steam the tamales this way for about 30 minutes, carefully adding more water if the level runs low.
9. After 30 minutes, carefully remove a tamale, unwrap it and cut into it. It should be moist and semi-firm. If the tamale is still overly soft, return it to the basket and steam a bit more. If it's done, turn off the heat and let the tamales stand for 5 minutes.
10. Serve hot in opened husks with a scoop of ice cream, caramel sauce or whipped cream.