For new traditions, a little shmaltz can go a long way

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When couples intermarry, they need to adapt old traditions and create new ones, including how to merge holiday food traditions.

Dawn Kepler, director of Building Jewish Bridges, an organization that offers outreach to Bay Area interfaith couples, has some examples from families she has worked with. One Jewish woman says her mother-in-law makes her Turkish-style potato pancakes. Another family makes Danish aebleskivers (fried sweet dough balls) served with jam or powdered sugar. One Mexican grandmother makes special non–pork tamales and a piñata in the shape of a dreidel.

The last example inspired my tsimmes tamales, in which I replace the lard with shmaltz (chicken fat) to provide flavor and lightness … and haimishness. Shmaltz also connotes sentimentality, a truly special ingredient in all blended holiday food traditions.

I adapted this recipe from “Rick Bayless’ Mexican Kitchen” cookbook.

Tsimmes Tamales

Makes 12 tamales

8-oz. package dried corn husks

13⁄4 cups masa harina (look for the type labeled for tamales)

1 cup plus 2 Tbs. of hot water

5 oz. chilled shmaltz (chicken fat) or vegetable shortening

1 tsp. baking powder

About 11⁄4 cups chicken stock

3⁄4 tsp. salt

2 cups chopped meat, fruit and vegetable filling*

Put corn husks in large pot. Add water to cover. Bring to boil. Let stand for 1 hour, keeping husks submerged by putting plate on top of them. Separate out 12 unbroken husks for tamales. Tear one remaining husk into 12 long 1/4-inch “strings” to tie tamales. Separate and keep other husks nearby.

Mix masa harina and hot water together. Set aside to cool. Beat shmaltz (or shortening) and baking powder in bowl with electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Add prepared masa mixture in three batches, mixing each one well. With mixer going, add 1/2 cup of the chicken broth until combined; then add 1/4 cup of chicken broth at a time as needed, until masa mixture is soft but still holds shape. Mix in salt to taste.

Spread a corn husk open with the pointed, narrow side at the bottom. Wipe dry with paper towel. Place 1/4 cup of masa mixture about 3/4 inch from top of husk. Spread it into about a 4-inch square, leaving a 3/4-inch margin on each side and at least 1 1/2 inches from bottom point. Place 2 Tbs. of chopped filling* down the center of the masa. Next pick up the two long sides and push them together, making batter enclose the meat filling. Roll both flaps in same direction around the tamale. Flip stuffed husk so the seam side faces you, and fold pointy end of husk up to close off the bottom. Secure by using a torn husk strip to tie. Repeat to make remaining tamales.

Prepare or improvise a steamer at least 4 inches deep. Put several inches of water in the pan underneath. Line steamer with most of the remaining corn husks, but save a few. Place tamales inside steamer with open (top) sides up. Pack them in so they are standing up. If needed, place a bowl or crumpled foil into steamer basket to help tamales stay upright. Top with remaining corn husks and cover. Bring to and keep water at boiling. Add water as needed and steam for about 1 1/4 hours, or until husk peels away easily. Let tamales firm up for a few minutes before serving with salsa.

*Chopped filling: Brown 3 lbs. chuck steak or roast (cut into 2-inch cubes) in 2 Tbs. vegetable oil and set meat aside. Then sauté 2 cups thinly sliced onion; add 1 clove minced garlic and 2 carrots (1/2-inch rounds). Then add 1/2 large sweet potato (1-inch cubes), 1/2 tsp. salt, 1/4 tsp. black pepper and 1 chopped chipotle pepper. Add the meat, 1/2 cup dried apricots, 1/2 cup pitted dried prunes, 1 cup chicken stock and 2 Tbs. tomato paste. Cover, lower heat and simmer for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Add 1/2 cup more of cubed sweet potato. Continue simmering for another two to three hours, or until the meat is falling apart tender.

Faith Kramer
is a Bay area food writer. Her columns alternate with those of Louise Fiszer. She blogs her food at Contact her at [email protected].

Faith Kramer
Faith Kramer

Faith Kramer is a Bay Area food writer and the author of “52 Shabbats: Friday Night Dinners Inspired by a Global Jewish Kitchen.” Her website is Contact her at [email protected].