Tamal de Cazuela (Mexican Tamal Casserole)

Tamales are a delicious project to undertake — when time allows. When time is scarce, Mexican tamal casserole is an equally delicious, quicker alternative. Cazuelas date back to pre-Hispanic Mexico, when they were baked in underground pits. Today, a Mexican tamal de cazuela may be lesser known than the Americanized Tamale Pie, but it continues to be a beloved dish for many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. This chile- and spice-infused meat version is inspired by a similar recipe created by Pati Jinich of PBS’ Pati’s Mexican Table. 

Prep
45 mins
Bake
1 hr to 1 hr 30 mins
Total
2 hrs 55 mins
Yield
8 servings
Tamal de Cazuela (Mexican Tamal Casserole) - select to zoom
Tamal de Cazuela (Mexican Tamal Casserole) - select to zoom
Tamal de Cazuela (Mexican Tamal Casserole) - select to zoom

Instructions

  1. To make the masa: Weigh your masa harina; or measure it by gently spooning it into a cup, then sweeping off any excess. In a medium bowl, whisk together the masa harina, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

  2. In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the lard or vegetable shortening on high speed until light and creamy, about 2 minutes.

  3. With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients in a slow, steady stream, mixing until sandy.

  4. Continuing to beat at low speed, add the chicken stock in a slow, steady stream. Once the stock is fully incorporated, beat at medium-high speed until the masa (dough) is light and fluffy, 8 to 10 minutes. Cover and set the masa aside while you make the sauce and filling.

  5. To make the sauce: Place a comal or heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Add the prepared dried chiles to the hot surface and toast for 15 to 20 seconds per side, until they’re soft, supple, and fragrant.

  6. Transfer the chiles to a medium saucepan and add just enough water to barely cover them. Cover the pan and place it over medium heat. Bring the water to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer the chiles until they’ve rehydrated, 15 to 20 minutes.

  7. Transfer the chiles and 1 cup (227g) of their cooking liquid to a blender. Add the oregano, cloves, and cinnamon and blend until smooth. Set the sauce aside.

  8. To make the filling: Set a large skillet over medium-high heat and add the vegetable oil. When the oil is hot, add the onions, sautéing them until they’re soft and just starting to brown, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook just until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

  9. Add the meat, salt, and pepper to the pan and cook, breaking up the meat, until no pink remains, 10 to 15 minutes.

  10. Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir the sauce, stock, raisins, and chopped olives into the meat. Allow the filling to simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, covered, then uncover the skillet and simmer for another 5 minutes or so, until the filling is thickened and fragrant.

  11. Remove the filling from the heat and allow it to cool for 20 to 30 minutes.

  12. Preheat the oven to 400°F.

  13. Place about 15 corn husks in a large bowl and cover them with hot water. Let them soak until they’re soft and pliable, about 10 minutes.

  14. Grease the base of a 4- to 41/2-quart lidded cazuela (or other clay, stoneware, or terra cotta lidded pot) with lard or shortening.

  15. Remove the corn husks from the water and shake them out to remove any excess water. Layer 8 to 10 of the largest husks in the prepared pot, concentrating them in the bottom but covering the sides of the pot as well. Overlap them as necessary and create some overhang around the edge.

  16. Scoop about two-thirds of the masa into the pot and use your wet hands to spread it into an even layer along the bottom and about 1” up the sides.

  17. Spread the filling onto the masa base. Dollop the remaining masa on top, using wet hands to spread it into an even layer over the filling; this will be a little messy, and it’s OK if some of the filling mixes in with the masa.

  18. Cover the top of the tamal with the remaining 5 to 7 smaller husks, layering them as necessary.

  19. Cover the pot with the lid and place it in the oven. Bake the tamal casserole for 60 to 90 minutes, or until a sharp paring knife inserted into the center comes out clean, the top no longer looks wet, and the edges of the tamal are pulling away from the corn husks.

  20. Remove the casserole from the oven and transfer the pot to a rack. Let the casserole rest for about 15 minutes before cutting and serving.

  21. Storage information: Store leftovers, well wrapped, in the refrigerator (in the pot, if desired). Reheat individual slices in the microwave, or reheat the entire casserole, covered, in a 350°F oven.

Tips from our Bakers

  • Masa harina (translation: dough flour) is flour made from corn that’s been soaked in a solution of slaked lime (nixtamalized) to loosen its hull and soften it, which improves its texture and helps release its nutrients. The soaked corn is ground into a paste (masa), dried, and then ground again, this time into a fine flour. Due to the corn’s special treatment, neither cornmeal nor corn flour are good substitutes for masa harina.

  • Tamal casseroles can be made with or without corn husks – we like using husks because they trap moisture, ensuring the masa (dough) stays soft and tender. If you don’t have corn husks, be sure to use a pot with a tight-fitting lid.