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    Stonewall Kitchen, LLC

    Pfaelzer Brothers

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    Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen: Recipes and Techiniques of a World-Class Cuisine
       excerpted from Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen: Capturing the Vibrant flavors of a World-Class Cuisine


    ... more great recipes by Rick Bayless on our GREAT CHEFS page!

    (...) Cut 2 squares of medium-heavy plastic (at our restaurant, we cut up a medium-weight garbage bag) to fit over the plates of your tortilla press (a little bigger than the plates is fine). Open the press (if you're right-handed, you'll want the opened top plate to your left, the pressure handle to your right) and lay 1 square of plastic on the bottom plate. Center a ball of dough on the plastic, flattening it a little with your hand to make it stick, and cover with the other square of plastic. Close the top plate, then fold the pressure handle over onto the top plate and press down somewhat firmly. (Knowing just how hard to press will take a little practice — too light and you'll have an uneven, thick tortilla; too heavy and it'll be too thin to get off the plastic.) You're looking for a round that is 5 to 6 inches in diameter and less than 1/8 inch thick.

    Fold back the pressure handle, open the top plate, and, while the plastic-wrapped tortilla is still lying on the bottom plate, take hold of the top piece of plastic and quickly pull it off. Now, pick up the tortilla by the plastic with one hand, and flip it over, uncovered side down, onto the slightly separated fingers of your other hand — it'll cover your fingers and half your palm. (If you're right-handed, I suggest that you pick up the plastic and tortilla with your left hand and flip it onto your right. As you get good at all this, work to align the top of the tortilla with the top of your index finger, with the circle extending just slightly past the tip of your middle finger; this will leave an inch or two of tortilla hanging down below your littlefinger.)

    Starting at one edge, quickly peel the remaining plastic off the tortilla (go too slowly and you'll risk ripping the tortilla), leaving the raw, flattened disc of masa on your hand. If the dough is too soft, you'll have difficulty peeling off the plastic; to correct the problem, work a little masa harina into the dough and continue.

    3. Baking the tortillas. Lay the tortilla on the cooler end of the griddle (or cooler skillet). Now, the practiced hand of most Mexican señoras will get that tortilla on the griddle in a flash with a deft, swift move that seems just the opposite of what you'd expect. Rather than turning her hand over to release the tortilla onto the griddle, she moves her hand (held at a 45-degree angle to the griddle) away from her, letting the overhanging portion of the tortilla go down first, then quickly rolling her hand out from underneath the tortilla (the movement looks as though she's brushing something off the griddle with the back of her hand), letting it smoothly fall flat. It looks easy, but practically all of us North Americans get to the "sweeping" part, think we're going to burn the backs of our hands (especially the backs of our little fingers), and jerk straight up rather than away from us, leaving behind a ripped or folded-over tortilla. You simply need to summon your courage — realize that feeling the heat on the back of your hand isn't the same thing as burning yourself — and just learn to do it. Turning your hand over to release a tortilla this size onto the griddle usually gives you a rippled tortilla that's impossible to cook evenly. (A word of advice: Try pressing, unmolding and laying the tortillas on your countertop before you start with the griddle. You can scrape up the dough, roll it back into a ball and do it all again. You'll notice that once you have that unmolded tortilla on your hand, you need to get it off and onto the counter or griddle quickly or it will start to stick to your fingers.)

    When you lay the tortilla on the griddle, it will immediately stick. If you have your temperature right, it'll release itself within 15 seconds, at which point you should flip it (with your fingers a la mexicana or with a spatula) onto the hotter surface. (If the heat is too low, the tortilla will dry out before it releases itself; if too high, it'll blister. Both translate to "not great texture.")

    In 30 to 45 seconds, the tortilla should be speckled brown underneath. (If it browns faster, the temperature's too hot.) Flip it over, still on the hotter surface, and brown the other side for another half minute or so. A perfect tortilla is one that balloons up like pita bread after this second flip — something you can encourage by lightly pressing on the tortilla with your fingertips or spatula. Or, you can encourage ballooning, as many Mexicans do, by stacking a finished tortilla or two onto one that's just been flipped.

    Always taste your first tortilla: If the dough is too dry, the texture will be heavy (it'll probably have cracked around the edges when pressed, too).

    As tortillas are finished, collect them in a cloth-lined basket. They're best after they've rested together for about 10 minutes (and steamed from their own heat), but still have the original heat of the griddle.

    Tortilla Presses

    Some writers will tell you that it's possible to press out the dough for tortillas between two flat plates or to roll it out with a pin, and I suppose either is feasible if you're determined and dexterous. Then again, Mexican cooks, for millennia, have been patting out tortillas by hand or on leaves, so why would I even suggest a press? Simply put, without years of hand-patting experience, the easiest way for most of us to get a consistently flat tortilla is to press it out between the plates of an inexpensive tortilla press.

    Tortilla presses are generally made of cast iron or aluminum. I prefer the cast-iron ones simply because their weight makes them less likely to move around. Either will get the job done with ease, as will the massive wooden ones that you find around Mexico (18-inch-square ones are used in Oaxaca for making tlayudas), though the wooden are probably better suited to those whose production is high and relentless (like for every meal). In the States, tortilla presses are sold in many cookware stores and most all Mexican groceries.

    Corn — Center of the Mexican Culinary Universe

    Corn is used to make tortillas and tamales, of course, but first that corn has to be transformed into masa. And to understand what masa is, I think it best to talk first about what it is not. It is not "cornmeal dough," as so many American writers call it, since using the word "cornmeal" easily conjures up visions of a dry powdery something that's mixed with liquid.

    And masa is not dough made from sweet corn, that delicious, tender vegetable that most Americans think of as the only corn. Rather, it is dough made from dried, starchy, decidedly unsweet field corn, the same that is used for cornmeal, hominy and grits.

    To make masa from the dried field corn, you first have to boil the kernels briefly with calcium hydroxide (known as pickling or mason's lime, cal in Spanish), a process that dissolves the difficult-to-digest outer hull of the kernel and remarkably increases its nutritional potential. The boiled corn, which is called nixtamal in Mexican Spanish, is rinsed thoroughly.

    At this point, the corn can be returned to the fire for several hours of gentle bobbing over the heat, until it becomes tender, puffy pozole — the Mexican word for what we call hominy.

    Or, the briefly boiled, rinsed corn (the nixtamal) can be made into masa: the damp kernels — they're still chalky at the core — are stone-ground into a dryish paste. For eons, the stone grinder has consisted of the metate (the three-legged lava-rock grinding stone) and mano (the rolling-pin-like crusher), powered by a strong back and biceps. Since the mid-1800s, motorized mills have helped relieve the physical work of that chore, and what they turn out is very good because they all use stone burrs (metal ones, they tell me, heat up the corn too much, cooking their starches and yielding an unworkable dough). The finest ground masa makes what most people consider the best tortillas; coarse-ground masa is often preferred for tamales.

    The fresh-ground masa is patted between palms (less common these days), pressed out between metal or wood, or squeezed out between metal rollers (then die-cut) to become the flat disc that's griddle-baked into a fragrant tortilla.


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