The success of tamale making depends on assembling the right steamer. Select a container with a lid that is large enough to easily hold all tamales, and use a stainless steel steamer rack, steamer basket or a Chinese metal or bamboo steamer, making sure that the water does not touch the rack. Line the steamer basket with corn husks. Pour 1 inch of water into the container, and add three to five coins to the waterthese rattle during steaming so you know enough water remains in the bottom of the pot. For the corn dough for tamales, buy from a tortilla-making shop if possible. Do not buy masa preparada for tamales because it contains fat. Instead, buy masa harina (masa flour) from a well-stocked supermarket to reconstitute with water into a dough.Tamales freeze well. Place cooled tamales in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Freeze for 30 minutes. Remove from the freezer, and fill plastic freezer bags with cold tamales. Put back into freezer. Do not thaw before resteaming, about 30 minutes. Or wrap cold tamales in heavy-duty foil packages, and freeze. Reheat in a 350F oven, still frozen, for about 40 minutes, but these are best if resteamed. The filling calls for epazote, a popular Mexican herb sold at Hispanic markets.
To prepare Corn Husks: Place husks in large stockpot, and cover with hot water. Weight down with plate to keep husks submerged, and let soften for 2 hours or as long as one day.
Select 24 of largest husks at least 6 inches wide. If needed, select smaller ones, and overlap to make wide surfaces for spreading masa; stick together with daub of masa. Tear smallest husks into 1/4-inch-wide x 8-inch-long strips to tie packets together.
To prepare Filling: Combine filling ingredients, and mix well. Set aside.
To make Masa for Tamales: Beat shortening, salt and baking powder with heavy-duty mixer on medium speed until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Turn mixer to low, and add masa a little at a time. Turn speed to high, and beat 3 minutes more, stopping to scrape down sides of bowl. Turn mixer off, and add herbs, zest and 1 1/4 cups water. Turn speed to low, and slowly mix ingredients. Increase speed, and beat masa mixture at least 3 minutes more. Turn mixer off, and add remaining 1 cup water. Slowly increase mixer speed, stopping to scrape down sides of bowl, and beat 3 minutes, adding more water as needed, until mixture is soft and resembles thick pancake batter.
To assemble tamales, arrange corn husks, corn husk ties, filling and masa in easy reach. Place soft, wet corn husk on work surface. Spoon and spread about 1/3 cup masa on husk, leaving 2-inch border all around. Place scant 1/4 cup filling in center of masa. Fold one long side of husk over filling, and roll to enclose masa. To prevent leaking, roll tamale with second husk if masa is not fully enclosed. Fold wider end under, and tie closed with strip of husk. Leave pointed “top” end open. Prepare remaining tamales.
Stand tamales on their folded and tied bottoms in steamer. Do not crowd because tamales need room to expand as they steam.
Cover tamales with some of remaining husks, and pack empty spaces of steamer with wadded husks or foil to prevent tamales from falling over during steaming. Cover steamer tightly, and, over high heat, bring water to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, and steam for 1 1/4 hours. Uncover after 45 minutes, and add more boiling water if needed.
After 1 1/4 hours, remove one tamale, and check for doneness. Masa should pull away from husk easily. If done, remove from heat and set aside for 5 minutes to firm. Open, peel tamales and discard husks. For maximum flavor, cool tamales, and reheat before serving.
There are few foods that pair so consistently well as do corn and Chardonnay. Adding some cheese, garlic and a little spice to the masa reinforces the match. Try pairing it with Beaulieu Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay.