Breakfast Tamales

Over the last year, I've learned that I'm not a sweet breakfast person. I much prefer strong savory flavors first thing in the morning. For months, I had been going to Whole Foods for breakfast. I would get a heaping helping of scrambled eggs, 3 strips of crispy bacon, and a little quinoa cereal. One day they started serving Jalapeño & Cheese Tamales. I decided to try a couple, and to my surprise, they were fantastic. The corn dough is nutty and slightly sweet, reminiscent of corn bread. The jalapeño and cheese filling was a good foil to the rich, slightly greasy, dough. And the corn husk was an ideal vehicle. After a couple months of this store-bought breakfast, I started thinking — could I make the tamales a complete breakfast?

After a fair bit of research, I decided I could. My first concern was the filling. I considered soft-scrambled eggs, but I wanted to freeze the tamales and eggs don't do well once frozen. Bacon was an easy choice, but I didn't want to eat just cornmeal and bacon. I chose collard greens as a filling due to their full, savory flavor and abundance of minerals and nutrients. I still worked bacon into the greens. Cheese seemed like a natural addition, and where there's cheese there must be jalapeños. Having committed to a plant-based filling, I thought about how to incorporate more protein. Masa harina, the corn flour used to make the tamal dough, is naturally high in protein, containing about 11 grams per cup. It also contains about 7 grams of fiber, which the collards help to increase. Quinoa is an easy choice for a protein booster, with 8 grams per cooked cup. I had some chia seeds kicking around so I decided to add it and its 4½ grams of protein per ounce to the dough. If you've been keeping track, that's about 66 grams of protein for the dough alone. And so Breakfast Tamales were born.

I've greatly enjoyed these tamales for breakfast and as a snack. The recipe for the dough is very non-traditional. It is adapted from a Cooking Light recipe for Basic Masa Dough that I picked because it contains a low amount of lard. While lard isn't the worst fat for you, most recipes call for multiple cups of it. While this dough is fluffier, it's not quite as succulent as a full-fat dough. This doesn't bother me (I find full-fat doughs to be greasy), but those who grew up on their mother's tamales may notice the difference. To be clear, this recipe is time-consuming. The dough is easy to make, but filling all of the corn husks is tedious, and steaming takes a while. I recommend you turn on Judge Judy, pull up a kitchen stool, and get down to it.

The yield for this recipe is variable. I got 38 tamales out of it, but it's entirely dependent on the size of your corn husks. I had some that were teeny and others that were huge. You may want to pick through them to get at least 30 of the same size, erring on the larger side. 

Masa Dough Ingredients:

  • 14 ounces fat-free, low-sodium chicken broth
  • 2 dried ancho or New Mexico chiles
  • 3 ears corn
  • 3¾ cups masa harina
  • ½ cup lard, divided (¼ cup chilled + ¼ cup melted)
  • 1½ teaspoons salt
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 4 tablespoons chia seeds
  • 2 cups cooked quinoa
  • At least 40 dried corn husks (aka hojas de maíz)

Filling Ingredients:

  • Main filling of your choice, enough for 40 1-tablespoon portions. I used Breakfast Tamal Collards.
  • 16 ounces low-fat pepper jack cheese
  • 12 ounces pickled jalapeños, optional

Hardware:

  • A Colander
  • Three damp towels
  • A baking sheet
  • A tamale steamer or a steaming assembly such as a bamboo steamer set snugly in a stockpot

Make the dough:

  1. Combine chicken broth and dried chiles in a bowl and microwave on high for 2 minutes. Set aside to cool a little.
  2. Shuck the corn and extract the milk. Add to the chile broth. Blend the chile broth and corn until smooth and let cool.
  3. Cut masa harina, salt, baking powder, and ¼ cup chilled lard together using a pastry blender or a fork until mealy. Mix in chia seeds and quinoa. Add broth and melted ¼ cup lard, and mix well to form a soft spreadable dough with the consistency of peanut butter. If it's too thick, add water or melted lard a tablespoon at a time.
  4. Cover and chill until ready to use. Bring to room temperature before using.

Prepare:

  1. Soak the corn husks for at least a half hour before use. Weigh them down so all husks are completely submerged.
  2. When ready to use, rinse off the husks to remove any residue and silk. Drain and keep the corn husks in a colander with a wet towel over them to keep from drying out.
  3. Prepare a baking sheet with a wet towel laid on it and another wet towel at the ready.

Make & Fill the Tamales:

  1. Take one corn husk in hand with the wide end toward you. Spread about two tablespoons of masa dough (first image below) in a thin rectangle on the wide side, about ¼-inch from the bottom edge, ½-inch from each side edge, and a few inches from the narrow top (second image below). Spread the dough evenly but thinly and judge whether you need more or less — the size of the corn husk will dictate the amount of filling necessary.
  2. Sprinkle a pinch of cheese, a scant tablespoon of filling, and a couple slivers of jalapeños vertically down the middle of the rectangle of masa dough, starting and ending at least ¼-inch from the top and bottom edges of the dough (third image below).
  3. Fold one side of the corn husk over so the left and right sides of the dough meet, and lightly push down to seal (fourth image below). Fold the other side of the husk over tightly to form a cylinder (fifth image below). Press down to flatten slightly. Fold the narrow side of the husk over toward the front (sixth image below). Pinch the open front of the tamale closed; it may not stay closed, that's fine.
  4. Set the tamal seam side down on the towel-lined baking sheet and cover with the towel. Repeat until all the dough is used up.

Click each image to open larger

Steam the Tamales:

  1. Prepare whatever kind of steamer you're using. Be sure the bottommost tamales are well clear of the boiling water. You can arrange the tamales in stacks so long as the stacks are stable and don't tip over the pot. If the steamer assembly fits snugly in the pot, you can also stand up the tamales like soldiers; this way is easier and more secure but you can only steam one layer of tamales at a time.
  2. Bring water to a rapid boil with the tamales inside the pot already. This is important as setting tamales inside an already steaming pot is dangerous — the steam can burn your hands badly. Reduce the heat to medium and cover with a tight fitting lid or a lid wrapped in a thin towel.
  3. Steam for at least one hour. To test if tamales are done, carefully remove one with tongs, unwrap, and taste it. If it's soft and fluffy, it's done. Note the time it took, and steam the next batch.