A hand-written note in a family cookbook from Camille Botello’s abuelo Sunny. The note serves as a cheat code for knowing when the masa is the right consistency. Photo courtesy of Camille Botello

In my family, cooking traditional dishes is cornerstone to our holiday traditions. Ever since I could sit upright at the table on my own, I remember being a part of all the action on every Dec. 24, which is the day my Dad’s Mexican and Italian side of the family celebrates Christmas.  

And one of the dishes we look forward to (and labor over) every year are traditional Mexican tamales. Originally my great tía Lydia Botello’s recipe, it has now been modified by my abuelo Sunny Botello and my dad Anthony Botello. ¡A comer!  

Tamale masa (dough) 


2 pounds Masa Herdina (Mase- ca) 

1 1⁄2 pounds, or 3 cups melted lard (manteca) 


5 cups pork broth 

Corn husks 

3⁄4 cup cornmeal 

2 teaspoons cumin 

3 teaspoons chili powder 

3 teaspoons paprika 

Salt and pepper to taste 

3⁄4 cup reserved chili paste 

Directions: The night before tamale making, clean and soak the husks. You will need a large bowl and a saucer or something heavy on the husks so they are completely submerged. Mix masa with all dry seasonings, and then add broth, chili water and melted lard equally a little bit at a time until you reach the desired consistency (similar to the consistency of peanut butter) and refrigerate overnight. Legend has it that you’ll know when the masa is ready when you put a small dollop into a glass of water and it floats. Make sure the masa is warm or room temperature before spreading. Drain and dry husks. 

Tamale meat 


8-pound pork shoulder, bone-in or pork butt 

8 dried ancho chiles 

8 tablespoons of cumin 

2 tablespoons oregano 

2 tablespoons chili powder (optional) 

6-8 cloves of garlic 

1 yellow onion quartered 

4 tablespoons of olive oil 

2 cups of water (from rehydrating chiles) 

Salt and pepper to taste 

Directions: Cube pork into two-inch pieces. Season with cumin, oregano, salt and pepper, and garlic. In a hot Dutch oven, pour in oil and sear pork on all sides. Once pork is browned, add water until the meat is just covered and add the onion. Bring water, with the pork and the onion to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30-45 minutes or until pork can easily be shredded. Remove from heat and set aside. In a small saucepan, cover dried chiles with water. Simmer covered until the chiles are soft, about 45 minutes. When very soft, remove from water, clean stems and seeds and put into a food processor with the onion from the meat broth, 1⁄2 cup of chili pot water at a time. Puree chiles until they become a thick paste. Add just as much pork broth to make the paste very smooth and the consistency of ketchup. Once meat is cooled enough to handle, shred by hand into a bowl. Mix well with chili paste. Only add enough chili paste to fully incorporate with the meat.  

Now we put it all together  

Spread masa thinly, (less than 1⁄4 inch) from the top of the corn husk down, leaving two to three inches bare near the point of the husk. Put a line of pork meat in the middle, wrap to cover the meat, and then all the way over into a roll. Fold the tail up and stack in preparation for steaming. In a very large pot, like one used for canning, place three inches of water in the bottom with a screen or cage to keep the tamales out of the water. Stack upright, place a towel over top, simmer covered for one to two hours until masa is firm. Cook time varies depending on batch size.