Tortillas are about as fundamental as you can get in Mexican food. It’s both bread and utensil – a cheap, filling staple that let’s you sop up the last of the beans or chile sauce. They are so basic, they even appear in a verse of the song “La Cucaracha.” My mom, who grew up in Mesilla, N.M., taught me how to sing it:
Las muchachas de Mesilla
No saben a ser tortillas
A la hora de la cena
Puro pan con mantequilla
The lyrics chide Mesilla girls because they don’t know how to make tortillas – so every day at supper time, there’s only bread and butter.
I got to thinking about that song after making numerous attempts to duplicate the flour tortillas my grandmother made every day for 50 years or more. (As she got older, she relied on the quite-decent Albuquerque brand tortillas available in grocery stores where she lived). When I was a teen, she showed me how to make tortillas — when she did them, they were tender, flaky and perfectly round. I remember her correcting my misshapen tortillas with a few thwap, thwap, thwaps of her palote, a short, thin rolling pin that my grandfather probably cut from a broomstick and which I inherited when she passed away in 2007.
Making tortillas that can compete with memories is tough. Since I couldn’t ask my grandmother for a recipe, I checked cookbooks and online sources, figuring I could get close enough and tweak the recipes from there. Some call for using baking powder, others for letting the masa – or dough – rest for an hour or two. My grandmother used shortening, but I figured I’d skip the trans-fat and try some good old-fashioned lard. My first attempts were pretty greasy and I scaled back on the fat. Then I switched to a baking-powder recipe, which looked closer to my grandmother’s version but came out tough and unpliable. I was starting to get desperate, adding and subtracting baking powder, salt, fat – each version worse than the last. I made some desperate calls to my Aunt Socorro, who is a master baker and cook but hadn’t made tortillas in years, and we tried to figure out where I was going wrong. We finally narrowed it down to the water – really hot and enough to make the dough slightly sticky. That’s where I was going wrong: I was so used to pie dough, where you add just enough water to make it come together, that my tortilla dough was tough and dry.
The final version was a revelation: a warm, soft and slightly sticky dough with a floury scent that reminded me of sitting in my grandmother’s tiny kitchen, listening to that knock of wood on wood as she rolled out perfect little rounds of heaven.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup lard or trans-fat-free shortening, room temperature
3/4-1 cup hot water
Blend the flour, baking powder and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Add the fat and rub in with your fingers until it resembles a crumbly mixture. Add very hot – nearly boiling – water until the mixture forms a soft, sticky ball of dough. Depending on the humidity, the flour should absorb between three-quarters to one cup of water. Knead the dough for three to five minutes, until the flour has come off your hands but still clings a bit. Squeeze off 2-3 inch rounds of dough, called testales, and form them into a slightly flattened ball, then use your fingers to make a small hollow in the dough.
Allow to rest about 15 minutes. Heat a flat griddle pan or comal, a traditional cast iron tortilla warmer, to medium-high heat. Begin to roll out a testale with a dowel-shaped rolling pin. If you don’t have a traditional, narrow palote de masa a french style pin works well. The soft dough is a little tricky to work with but it helps to roll from the center outward, turning by a quarter after each roll until it is round and about 1/8 inch thin.
Place on hot griddle and cook until air bubbles begin to form, about one to two minutes, then flip and the press second side into the griddle with a folded tea towel. This will encourage the air bubbles to expand and the tortilla to puff up, creating a flakier, lighter tortilla. Cook for another minute on second side then nestle into a tortilla warmer or between a folded tea towel. You can usually roll out the next tortilla while the first is cooking.