Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Kids, Don't Try This at Home

Have you ever tried a cookbook recipe that was so wrong you wondered if anyone ever tested it before it went to the publisher?

I'm making tamales with the kids in my "food appreciation" classes. I approached the subject with some fear and trepidation, for, although I love Mexican food, and although I'm quite good preparing some Mexican foods, making tamales had somehow eluded me all these years.

I thought they'd be just the thing for Easter.

For a recipe, I sought a book exclusively about tamales. The author's bona fides appeared to be in good order. But something about the recipe didn't seem right: 12 cups of Masa, or corn flour mix; 7 cups of chicken broth; two cups of lard; 1 tablespoon salt.

Not that the ingredients or proportions sounded off. It was the quantity. Just mix in the blender with a paddle attachment, the author advised.

Against all my better instincts, I followed the directions. I was a bit alarmed as the 12 cups of masa dough piled higher and higher in the mixing bowl, finishing just short of the rim.

Something bad is going to happen here, I thought.

Trust me
, I heard the author saying.

I turned on the blender--slowly--and began adding chicken broth.

Sure enough, the masa started to grow. And grow. And grow. Soon I was the main character in an I Love Lucy episode: Balls of masa were spillling out of the bowl. Balls of masa were leaping out of the bowl. And still the masa continued to grow. And grow. And grow.

I didn't know whether to curse or laugh outloud. I'd made a complete fool of myself and I had one hell of a mess to deal with. There was masa everywhere. Not what I needed first thing in the morning.

Finally, I'd had enough. Screw the blender. I dumped the whole thing on the counter top and started kneading it by hand.

I looked back at the recipe to see if I'd missed something. Had the author perhaps called for the use of a commercial-type blender, something much bigger than my household Kitchenaid? But the only guidance was this: "In the bowl of a heavy duty mixer...."

There were other things about this recipe that were just plain off. I looked at the huge pile of masa dough on the counter and started thinking this was going to make way more than the "2 or 3 dozen" tamales the author claimed. More like 5 or 6 dozen, it turns out.

The recipe also called for a 1/2-cup scoop of dough in each tamale. The author must have been using some kind of giant, Chernobyl-type corn husks to wrap her tamales. I'm finding that 1/4 cup of dough per tamale is more like it.

Too much chicken, not enough tomato in the filling. Quarter-inch slices from "large Russet potatoes" to be added to the filling, but no indication whether this meant a slice from the whole length of the potato, or something smaller. On and on...

"Did you look at other recipes?" my wife asked. "Usually when I'm researching something, I look at all my recipes before I start cooking."

Duh. Of course I hadn't. What was I thinking? I have volumes by Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy, as well as other Mexican cookboks I've collected over the years. I could easily have checked. In fact, a little voice had told me to check and I had ignored it. Whatever made me think that a cookbook, simply because it was devoted exclusively to tamales, would be more authoritative?

Lesson learned: There really are some crappy cookbooks out there, even the ones (maybe especially the ones) with all the gorgeous photos. Even the ones with glowing editorial reviews at I must say, though, this one does have some dynamite illustrations on the many different ways to fill and tie the finished tamales.

Tomorrow, we put this episode into our memory bank and begin to actually assemble and cook our tamales.

To be continued....


MA said...

oh gawd, Ed. What a mess! Better you than me to clean it up. I am telling you what I told my husband. From age 50 on, the trick is to ALWAYS listen to those little voices. Always.

Ed Bruske said...

Yes, but sometimes being reckless makes a better story...