Patting them out

So Yo-Yo and Miss Beccaboo and I went to see The Malcontent. We got to sit on stage, and a shirtless, black leather jean-clad man with rippling muscles got slain right at Miss Beccaboo’s feet. (Though I don’t believe Miss Beccaboo noticed the rippling muscles—that was more my thing. I think she was more concerned about the gigantic sword that was getting waved around right in front of her nose.) To say the least, it was quite entertaining.

I did worry that the kids might be getting bogged down with all the language—it was a little slower and less humorous than some plays. I had trouble keeping straight which duke was which. Plus, two and a half hours (with just a 15 minute intermission) is a long time to sit on hard stools on best behavior, but the overflowing booze-ums, surprise resurrections, and Michael Jackson impersonation did a fine job of keeping them fixated. Back home, over hot chocolate, cookies, and cinnamon toast, we retold the tale to Papa, and Miss Beccaboo begged to be allowed to go back the very next night. No, I said, but we will definitely be going back. For sure, and again and again and again, amen.

In other news, I made corn tortillas. I don’t usually like to make corn tortillas because there is no way I can make them like the Nicaraguans do. I got spoiled on Nicaraguan tortillas and nothing else stands a chance against them.

And in case you didn’t know, Nicaraguan tortillas are different from Guatemalan tortillas which are different from Salvadoran tortillas which are different from— You get the point. And Nicaraguan tortillas from the countryside are different from Nicaraguan tortillas from the city. It can be confusing.

In the northern reaches of Nicaragua where Mr. Handsome and I built our home (out of mud and with our bare hands, might I add), the tortillas were gigantic. They were the size of dinner plates, and thick. Never made from the prepacked maseca flour, these tortillas came directly from a pot of field corn that had been simmered with lime (or ash) and then washed most meticulously with water drawn up from the well. (And we, we of the Kitchen Aids and electric coffee grinders and food processors, we dare to complain that cooking takes a lot of time. Ha! Of all the baldy nerve!)

The corn was ground down (by hand) and then egg-size portions of masa were broken off and laid on—um, I’m not sure what, come to think of it. A piece of wax paper comes to mind, but where did they get wax paper? Anyway, the dough was laid on something and then the one hand started smack-smacking the dough and the other hand guided the edges and, with a quick flick, turned the paper a fraction. Smack-smack, ffipt. Smack-smack, ffipt. Gradually the tortilla got bigger and bigger. A pause to wet the hands, a gentle turn-over of the tortilla, and then the smack-smack, ffipt, smack-smack, ffipt would resume. Several free-hand whacks to finish it up, and the tortilla was ready for the hot comal, or a piece of broken tin, depending on the economic status.

While living with families, we ate those tortillas morning, noon, and night. In the early morning we’d wake up to the sound of the women aggressively palmeando-ing (Spanglish alert!) out the day’s bread. Sometimes they made them twice a day, and other times we just ate the reheated leftovers for the later meals. The dogs got the stale ‘tillas.

I learned to love those country tortillas—the smokey flavor, the almost-crispy outside, the tender-creamy insides, the profound corny-ness. I loved to dip my fingers in the salt bag (in those parts, the salt was quite wet and came in little bags) and smear my tortilla with the sandy grains. I loved to scoop up my red beans and bits of scrambled egg with the thick tortillas, washing down each bite with a swig of sugary coffee. I loved to eat my tortillas with a generous slice of cuajada, the local salty soft cheese. Basically, any way you looked at it, I loved to eat those tortillas.

So anyway, I’ve taken to making myself corn tortillas. They’re different from the Nicaraguan tortillas (no smokey fire flavor, no fresh lime-simmered field corn), and they’re quite different from bought corn tortillas (not thin, not uniform). Plus, they’re not dinner-plate huge.

These tortillas are made from maseca flour, with a bit of salt for flavor and baking soda for heft (though no heft is actually visible, so I don’t know if it’s really worth it to crack open the tin of baking soda that sits perilously high atop a tin of cornstarch that sits atop a tin of cocoa powder) (what? that’s not how everyone organizes their spice cabinet?), and I pat them out kind of like the Nicaraguan women but without the smack-smack, ffipt sound since I lack the necessary coordination, training, and confidence.

However, my humble tortillas are thick, crispy on the outside and a creamy on the inside. Hot from the comal, and with some salt spread on top, I take a bite and chew meditatively. If I shut my eyes, I can almost smell the wood smoke, feel the dirt floor underneath my sandal-ed feet, and hear the smack-smack-smacking sound of a Nicaraguan country morning.

(Oh, darn it. Now I’ve gone and made myself all melancholy.)

Corn Tortillas

It’s imperative that this dough be wet enough. It should feel like play dough. Add more water whenever you feel like it, and wet your hands frequently.

2 cups maseca flour
1/4 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/4 cups hot water

Stir together the dry ingredients. Mix in the hot water. Using one hand, knead the dough while it’s still in the bowl, adding more water as necessary.

Break off bits of dough of whatever size you choose—ping-pong, golf ball, egg—and shape it into a disk. Set the disk on a piece of wax paper and, using one hand as the smacker and the other hand as the guide, smack-pat your masa into the desired shape and thickness, rotating the wax paper and tortilla as you go.

Peel the tortilla off the paper and lay it on a hot skillet, comal, or pan. Let it cook for a minute or two, until the underside is flecked with black-brown spots. Flip and cook on the other side. Stack the finished tortillas in a thick towel. They will keep each other warm and stay soft till it’s time to eat.

Yield: 8-12 tortillas

Serve these with beans and rice, scrambled eggs, or hunks of braised beef. Use them to make quesadillas or a tortilla-enchilada pie.

Tortilla-Enchilada Pie
Lightly fry the finished tortillas, dip them in enchilada sauce, and arrange them in the bottom of a giant pie pan. Top the tortillas with a filling made from sour cream, cheese, green onions, cumin, cayenne, chicken, beans, etc. Finish off the pie with another layer of sauce-dipped tortillas and sprinkle the whole thing with more cheese before baking.

Serve with a flurry of fresh cilantro, and pass the sour cream and salsa.

This same time, years previous: my ten favorite things, capturing the moment, baked Brie, movie night (i.e. how I traumatize my kids)


  • Jennifer Jo

    Hi Margo, yes, I think that's a good description of enchilada sauce. You can use either red or green (which would be based on tomatillos, I assume)—the enchiladas in the pictures were made with a green sauce.

  • Margo

    I've tried making tortillas following a recipe in Recipe from the Old Mill. But they were more like Indian chapatis.
    I might try yours – but golly, frying those suckers made my house smell for days.

    Your enchilada pie sounds GREAT. When you say enchilada sauce, are you basically talking about pureed salsa mixed with a bit of tomato sauce? I mean, that's not how I make it, but that's what the flavor and texture ends up like.

  • Marie M.

    Oops. I didn't read this post before I commented on the more recent post. (Got it?) So I didn't know you had talked about "The Malcontent". Sorry. Love the tortillas.

  • Jennifer Jo

    Renwicks, We were in Nicaragua with Mennonite Central Committee from 1997-2000. I've talked about it here and there on the blog, but I've never actually written about it, at least not in any deep, process-y sort of way. Maybe some day when I want to do more than just prattle about the day-to-day, I'll write a longer tale.

    Dr. P, Are you making fun of my left hand? Huh?!

  • Anonymous

    Love the description of the tortilla making women, it is exactly how it sounds and it makes me want to walk the streets of Guatemala and listen for the homes of the community tortilla shops (homes). I passed at least two on my way to the bus stop every morning. I have been experimenting with Maseca as it is a wheat free product. I made pan fried empanadas and an "empanada cassarole" where I spread the dough out on the bottom and up the sides of a 9×12 pan and pre-baked it for 10 minutes. Then added ground beef, salsa, sour cream and cheese and baked it till hot and melted. I thought it was okay, my husband loved it. I would add some extra creamyness or spices next time. Thanks for the inspiration and more recipes!
    L in Elkton

  • Zoë

    These look so good. I once tried making corn tortillas with my home-ground corn meal. Obviously didn't work. I'll need to get some of that maseca flour.

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