For Hispanic families, it’s not Christmas without tamales. The tradition has been embraced by many non-Hispanic families as well, especially those living in the Southwest.

But tamales have been important to celebrations dating back to the Incas in South America.

“Corn was a very important crop in Mesoamerica, and it was believed that people were created from corn,” said Cortney Smith, co-owner of Gather Food Studio and Spice Shop, who teaches classes on making tamales. “Throughout history, tamales were used during celebrations and special occasions because of their religious importance. Over time, Christmas became one of these important celebrations, and now tamales are eaten for the holiday, which extends from the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12 through Three Kings’ Day on Jan. 6. They are a culinary requirement, like Christmas cookies.”

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Making tamales is an opportunity for extended families — especially the women — to gather and split the duties for getting the job done.

Tamales are a traditional Mexican dish made with a corn-based dough mixture that is filled with various meats or beans and cheese. Tamales are wrapped and cooked in corn husks or banana leaves, but they are removed from the husks before eating. Try them served with pico de gallo on top and a side of guacamole and rice.

“Tamales are cause for celebration, so I would always encourage making them in groups. After a tamales class, students understand why buying them might be an easier choice,” Smith said. “This year may make getting a group of friends together challenging, so if you can’t get together, I would make it a two-to three-day event.”

If you’re a solo cook, pre-making the fillings and sauces will help immensely. As for fillings, there are many ways to go.

“The basic fillings that I teach are pork and red chile sauce, green chile and cheese, and chicken and pineapple raisin,” she said. “The pineapple raisin is for special occasions and perfect for Christmas.”

Another tradition is putting an olive in the tamale, according to Smith.

“The olive is placed in the middle of the filling for the holiday, which symbolizes the Holy Virgin and Christ being born,” she said. “One of the most unique tamale fillings I teach is a Mexican chocolate, which is a recipe that was given to me by the grandmother of a friend. It’s one of my favorites, but not everyone else’s. It’s less sweet than a brownie, with chocolate masa and chocolate chips in the middle. I only teach it for special occasions.”

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When it comes to making the masa (the tamale dough) mixture, some cooks use lard while others prefer vegetable shortening. For Smith, it’s always lard.

“It gives the masa a light and fluffy texture rather than it being dense, heavy and dry,” Smith said. “I use a float trick to determine if you have the right amount of lard in your masa: Drop a ball of dough into a glass of water, and when it floats your mix is ready.”

Lorena Jakubczak, owner of Azteca Gourmet Foods, specializes in making vegetarian and vegan tamales, which are lard-, dairy- and gluten-free. Instead of using lard in the corn masa, she chooses from a variety of oils, such as avocado, rice bran, coconut and olive. And she blends vegetables into the masa for more nutrition.

“My masa is green instead of pale yellow,” she said. “I process jalapenos, leeks, spinach and celery until it is chopped very fine. Then I mix it with the corn flour.”

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Jakubczak grew up in Oaxaca, a region of Mexico known for traditional tamales. After coming to the United States — where she met her husband and settled in Colorado Springs — she wanted to marry the traditional, savory flavors of the South American culture with American flavors.

Her savory tamales are wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks. The green leaves look festive and add a fruity flavor to the tamales. Her dessert tamales are wrapped in corn husks. And for her vegan fans, she substitutes tofu cream cheese for sour cream.

She also makes several types of meat tamales using Oaxaca’s seven classic moles, or sauces, which range from black mole with chicken to Coloradito mole with beef and a combination of red dry chiles, roasted almond, cinnamon and Oaxaca chocolate.

Visit aztecagourmet.com to order online. Visit gatherfoodstudio.com for information about cooking classes.

Contact the writer: 636-0271.

contact the writer: 636-0271.

Food editor

Food writer for features life section and columnist for Go! Entertainment - Table Talk column

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