It is the simple, humble tortilla.
Which is why I don’t make enchiladas with store-bought tortillas anymore. To put it bluntly, they suck. They taste like soggy cardboard and have a mealy texture. There is nothing about them that evokes the flavor or aroma of corn.
And corn is the essence of tortillas.
So, I make them fresh. At the moment, I do it with pre-ground masa that can be bought in five pound bags in Latin American markets; I do have some dried corn and slaked lime to use to make them really from scratch, following the directions put forth by Diana Kennedy. (I appreciate her a great deal; she is a woman after my own heart–dedicated to the point of obsessive when it comes to matters culinary.) I am just lacking a corn grinder; my Sumeet -can- grind the corn, but in the amounts needed for masa dough, I suspect it would be tedious to use the Multi-Grind to do the job. So, I am scouting around for a corn grinder of some sort in order to take up full-scale tortilla making. (After the corn grinder, my next step is to find a farmer to grow the proper kind of corn for me, so I can have locally made tortillas. At that point–who knows–maybe I wil start a tortilla factory.)
The first time I made tortillas from scratch, I was surprised at two things. One, at how simple the process really was, and two, how -good- the tortillas tasted. They smelled like freshly parched corn–if you have ever smelled that–or stoneground cornmeal fresh from the hopper. They were heavenly to eat, too—the corn flavor comes through the highly seasoned sauce, the cheese and meat and really gives a structure not only to the enchiladas themselves, but to the layered flavors.
But making them–it was utterly foolproof. They are made with two ingredients: masa flour and water. You follow the directions on the package (I use Maseca brand) and add 1 1/8 cups of water to 2 cups of masa, and then knead it into a smooth dough by hand. You know it is ready when it takes on the texture and pliability of Play-Doh. Yes, Play-Doh. (That was my favorite toy as a kid–I was always “baking” things with it. Are we surprised? No, I suspect not.)
At that point, it is time to divide the dough into sixteen equal balls.
I do this by rolling into one ball and then cutting it into quarters. These I roll into balls and cut in half, which gives me eighths. Each eighth, I roll into a ball and cut in half, and voila! Sixteenths, which I roll into equal sized, smooth balls, pile back into the mixing bowl and cover with a damp towel while I start pressing and cooking the tortillas.
Now, we need to talk about tortilla presses.
I know that there are a lot of very practiced abuelas out in the world who eschew tortilla presses and pat the masa out by hand into beautiful, flat, thin cakes. Well, I am not one of them. I am a gringa who didn’t grow up eating real, live corn tortillas and watching my mamma pat them out by hand, so I have no clue. Hell, I went to culinary school and can’t toss pizza dough without endangering the ceiling, so patting tortillas by hand is not going to happen.
And if you are anything like me, and I bet that you are, you need a tortilla press.
You can get cheap aluminum ones anywhere it seems, and my first one was one of those.
I ended up hating the damned thing, and gave it away to the Salvation Army. Who knows what someone picked it up to use it for, but there we are.
The kind of tortilla press you need is a cast iron one that is nice and heavy. They are made in Mexico and you have to use very little pressure to make nice thin tortillas. You can get them in various sizes, and they aren’t very expensive, and from what I can tell, they will last until the world ends, so if you get one, expect to pass it down to your great-grandchildren. I bought mine here.
To use the tortilla press, you want to line both the top and the bottom with plastic. Some folks use plastic wrap, but I sacrificed a nice heavy Ziploc bag by cutting it apart and have used that for months now. You just wipe it clean with a damp cloth and put it away with the tortilla press. The plastic keeps the tortillas from sticking to the press and making a godawful mess.
What you do is just put one piece of plastic on the bottom, put the ball of dough slightly off-center on the press, flatten it slightly with your palm, place the other piece of plastic over it, and then close the press. Bring the lever down with mild pressure, then lift up, and voila!
You have a tortilla.
Pick it up with the sheets of plastic, and peel off the top sheet, then the bottom sheet, and flip it into your preheated cast iron pan.
Ah, the pan.
You can use a traditional flat Mexican griddle called a comal, but you don’t have to. I just use the well-seasoned lid to a deep cast iron skillet, turned upside down. (This particular piece is meant to be used as griddle anyway.)
Just remember not to grease your cooking surface in any way, and get it nice and hot before you lay a tortilla down on it.
I use high heat and cook it for about forty-five seconds to a minute on the first side, then flip it once, and cook it about the same on the other side. When you flip it, there should be some browned freckles on the cooked side, as shown at left.
Unlike leavened pancakes, tortillas don’t really give you any visible sign that they are getting cooked, except they smell like nice toasty corn. But there are no bubbles, no sizzling, nothing. They just bake silently and stealthily on the smooth cast iron, which means the first ones you make, you will flip them more than once, maybe more than twice, until you get a feel for how long they need to cook.
I have found that if I am cooking alone, that if I take a tortilla out of the press, and lay it on the hot pan, I have enough time to lay the plastic down, put out another masa ball and play with the upper sheet of plastic and press it, before I need to flip the cooking tortilla. After I flip it, I open the press, peel the plastic away, then scoop up the first tortilla and lay down the second one into the its place on the hot iron.
If I am cooking by myself, I usually put the tortillas into one of those big heavy plastic tortilla keepers to keep them nice, warm and pliable.
However, if you are working with a second person, you can toss the cooked tortillas directly on a work surface, and they can fill and shape them, then lay them in a pan to await the drizzle of sauce and sprinkle of cheese.
I always put cheese -in- my enchiladas as well as on them, along with whatever shredded meat I have, some black or pinto beans, and lots of cilantro. Sometimes I add strips of fire roasted bell or poblano peppers as well, particularly if I am making vegetarian enchiladas.
Then, I fold them up into half-moon or taco shapes, rather than roll them. Unless I am in a mood for stacked enchiladas–then I layer sauce on the bottom of the pan, then tortillas to cover it, then cheese, fillings and sauce and tortillas, sauce, fillings, cheese and tortillas, then sauce and cheese. It is kind of a Mexican casserole thing–sort of a New World lasagne.
Whether I fold or stack them, I always spray my baking pan with some canola oil spray and then spread a couple of tablespoons of sauce in the bottom to keep the enchiladas from drying out or sticking. Then, I layer them in whatever fashion until the pan is full, then ladle sauce over them in strips. I don’t completely inundate them with sauce; I generally leave some edges of the tortillas out in the open to brown and get nice and crispy for a textural contrast. Then, I sprinkle cheese over and bake them–and when they come out of the oven, a bit of roughly chopped cilantro goes over it all.
32 freshly made corn tortillas
1 pound of shredded cheese, preferably a mixture of queso blanco and sharp cheddar
1 pound of shredded meat filling
2 cups or so of sauce (verde or Colorado)
1-2 cups of cooked black or pinto beans or strips of fire roasted sweet or poblano peppers, or grilled corn cut from the cob, or caramelized onions or sauteed bitter greens such as kale or collards (or all of the above)
1 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro
1 cup sliced scallions (optional)
canola oil spray or canola oil
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Spray three 9″X9″ glass baking pans with canola oil and spread the bottom with a couple of tablespoons of sauce.
Lay a tortilla flat on work surface, and sprinkle with a tablespoon or so of cheese, then the fillings of your choice. I like to make certain to include some fresh cilantro and/or some scallion slices in the filling.
Fold the tortilla into a half-moon shape over the filling, and lay half-upright in the baking dish. Continue with all other tortillas, fitting about ten or eleven or so enchiladas per pan. When they are all fitted in, pour a ladleful of sauce down each row of tortillas and top with more shredded cheese.
Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until cheese is melted and bubbly and the sauce is molten, and the exposed bits of tortilla are crispy. As soon as you remove them from the oven, sprinkle with more cilantro and/or scallions, to allow the garnish to wilt slightly.
Garnish with fresh salsa, guacamole and sour cream, if you wish.
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