Twelfth Day of Christmas Tamales

I grew up in Southern California in a sleepy beach town halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. And while my winters never included a single snow day, I did have something much better: Holiday Tamales. Sometime between Christmas and New Year’s my Mexican neighbors would always bring tamales. Unsolicited, but greatly appreciated, they would quickly disappear. But as my life  has taken me from place to place, I have lost this delicious holiday tradition. I have not had Holiday Tamales for more than 15 years. BTW, my Mexican friends here in the Northeast do not eat Tamales for the holidays, nor have they even heard of such a tradition (maybe it’s just a Californian tradition). In any case, today is the Twelfth Day of Christmas; Three Kings Day; January 6th; Epiphany, and I intend to break this long drought.

Holiday Pork Tamales

Tamales take at least 6 hours to make, but can be started the day before if you need time to make them after work. Soak the dried corn husks in warm water for 3 hours, so that they are soft and easy to work with. Meanwhile, slow-cook two pounds of boneless pork for 2-1/2 hours until tender. Then shred the pork using two forks, and season it liberally. Make the dough using corn masa flour (such as Maseca; not corn meal) and the pork broth (reserved after cooking the pork). Wrap the tamales and steam for 2 hours until the dough becomes firm. Be careful not to let your pot dry out.


  1. For some reason my supermarket’s pork section was nearly empty. I only had three roasts to choose from, so I bought a 7-pound bone-in pork shoulder; a far cry from the 2-pound boneless shoulder roast I was looking for. By the time I de-boned,  cooked and shredded the roast, I was left with 4-pounds of meat. I used half for these tamales and saved the other half for tostadas for later in the week.
  2. The basic filling recipe I had followed included too much salt. I have corrected the problem in my recipe below.
  3. Traditionally masa for tamales is made with lard, but I substituted corn oil.
  4. “Masa Harina” literally translates to “Dough Flour”, but for 99% of Americans that means Maseca. It is made from corn and used to make tamales and corn tortillas.

Rating: 4-star. (see salt issue above)
Cost: $10 for 2-1/2 dozen.
How much work? Medium.
How big of a mess?  Medium.
Start time 11:00 AM. Dinner time 6:00 PM.

Tamales Filling Recipe:
2 pound boneless pork shoulder
1 onion, quartered
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
1 teaspoon salt
4 springs of thyme
Half package of dried corn husks

  1. 6 hours before dinner start soaking your corn husks. Take them out of the package and put them in a bowl of hot water to soften up. They will need to soak for 3 hours before you can really work with them.
  2. Cut pork into fist-sized chunks, fill a large pot with 8 cups of water, add the other ingredients listed above, and boil for 2 to 2-1/2 hours until tender. Remove the pork and allow to cool in large mixing bowl for 10 minutes, reserving the pork broth for later. Use two forks to shred the pork, after about 10 more minutes the pork will become cool enough to finish shredding with your fingers. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap to prevent the meat from drying out.
  3. Mixed the following ingredients together to form a paste:
    1/2 cup corn oil
    3 tablespoons chili powder
    2 tablespoons cumin
    2 tablespoons garlic powder
    1 tablespoons salt
    1-1/2 teaspoons black pepper.
    Then add to the shredded pork mixing until well incorporated.  Let marinade until ready to assemble the tamales.

Tamales Dough Recipe:
6 cups masa harina
2 tablespoons paprika
1-1/2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon cumin
1-1/2 cups of corn oil (or vegetable shortening)
6 cups quarts of the pork broth (reserved from filling recipe)

  1. Add 6 cups masa flour into a large bowl and whisk together all the spices.
  2. Add 1-1/2 cups of corn oil (or vegetable shortening) and about 6 cups quarts of the pork broth you saved (1 cup at a time), mixing well after every cup of broth.  It should be the consistency of peanut butter.

Roll and Steam Tamales:

  1. Shake the excess water off the corn husks and let them air dry for a few minutes.
  2. Lay the husk flat and spread about 3-1/4 oz masa in a rectangle in the center of the husk. Put a line of the shredded pork in the middle of the masa.
  3. Roll or fold your tamale.  Here are some hints on rolling.
  4. Fill the bottom of the steamer with water, being careful not to let the water get the bottom of your tamales. I used a colander fitted inside my dutch oven.
  5. Cover your steamer and bring the water to a boil. When the water boils, turn the heat down and steam for about 2 hours.
  6. Check the water level every 30 minutes to make sure the pot doesn’t boil dry. When the masa is firm you know you’re done.

2 Responses to Twelfth Day of Christmas Tamales

  1. Jennifer says:

    These look great! I am from SAN, and I found the tamale custom in AZ, and OKC, as well. Homemade are the best, if you know someone who makes them. If I have to buy them in a grocery store, they never are spicy enough for my taste. My family would eat them Christmas Eve as a quick dinner while getting ready for the big Christmas Day Dinner. I may have to try these, because you have such great taste, and I admire your blog so much.

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