For many years, Thanksgiving weekend was punctuated by our family gathering to make and freeze tamales to enjoy on Christmas Eve.
We bought the dough from the ‘tamale lady’ who sold it from her house in a nearby town. My brother-in-law slow-cooked a pork shoulder with chiles, garlic, and onions to shred for the filling. It was a family effort; without a large cast of cooks (at least eight), it would be impossible to accomplish such a feat.
That’s why this tamale pie is such a revelation!
Layers of cheese, canned green chiles, scallions, and shredded chicken from a rotisserie bird are tucked between two blankets of dough in a skillet to make a pie. No more spreading and filling and folding and steaming! No, a pie is not quite as charming as little packets of corn husks filled with treasures, but it does require far less time. I’ll take it!
What Is Tamale Dough?
The ‘tamale lady’ who supplied us with the dough ground her own soaked corn, so it was still wet when ground. Then she mixed it with lard, the traditional ingredient of tamale dough.
Because few of us are going to find corn kernels that have been soaked in slaked lime and grind them ourselves, I use masa harina (the easily available corn flour) in this recipe and reconstituted it with water to make the dough. You could also reconstitute masa harina with chicken stock if you want an even greater flavor boost, but the dough is good made with water, too.
Instead of lard, I used vegetable shortening, which is more easily available. I also added butter for extra flavor.
Masa Harina vs. Masa
Masa harina can be found in most supermarkets that carry Latin American foods. This is the special flour used to make the dough for tortillas and tamales. It is not the same as corn flour or corn meal. For masa harina, dried corn is first soaked in calcium hydroxide (slaked lime) and the tough coating of the kernels is removed. The kernels are then finely ground and dried again to make the flour (masa harina).
Masa and masa harina are not the same. Masa is the actual dough, and masa harina is the flour it is made from. To make corn tortillas, you must reconstitute masa harina by adding water to make a soft dough. Masa (dough) for tamales is reconstituted masa harina with fat added to it to lighten it and impart flavor, so the tamales are not leaden.
How to Freeze and Reheat the Pie
The pie can be frozen after baking. Let it cool and then remove it from the skillet in wedges rather than freezing the pie in the skillet itself (so your skillet isn’t out of commission).
If you freeze the wedges in a container with a tightly fitting lid, you can pull out as many as you like at a time. They will keep well for about three months. Reheat them in the microwave.
Leftover pie can be refrigerated for up to three days and reheated in the microwave.
How to Save Time Making This Recipe
Laboring for hours over a dish has its merits, but so do does finding ways to go easy on yourself when making dinner is a nightly obligation. I used a few short cuts to make this an easy weeknight meal.
- Use a rotisserie chicken: You won’t need a whole chicken, but leftovers can be turned into soup or chicken salad for another meal.
- Use chopped, canned green chiles instead of roasting, peeling, and chopping fresh ones.
- Use grated cheese: I probably should buy stock in grated cheese companies.
Need More Tex-Mex Dinner Ideas?
- Chicken Tortilla Soup
- Salsa Verde Chicken Enchiladas
- Slow Cooker Mexican Pulled Pork Tacos
- Red Chile Chicken Enchiladas
- Pressure Cooker Green Pork Pozole
Tamale Pie with Chicken, Green Chiles, and Cheese
- 3 cups masa harina
- 2 3/4 cups hot water
- 4 tablespoons (2 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into thick slices
- 1 cup (about 7 ounces) cold vegetable shortening
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced
- 2 (4-ounce) cans of chopped green chiles, mild or hot
- Vegetable oil spray (for the skillet)
- 1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
- 1/2 cup sliced cilantro leaves
- 2 cups grated Monterey jack cheese
- 2 cups shredded, cooked chicken
- 1 cup green salsa, homemade or store-bought (for serving)
Hydrate the masa harina
In a bowl, mix the masa harina and hot water together to combine them.
Make the dough
In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment on medium-high speed, beat the butter, shortening, salt, and baking powder for 1 to 2 minutes, or until light and fluffy.
Reduce the speed to low and add the reconstituted masa harina in three additions, beating after each addition until it is incorporated. Once all the masa has been added, continue to beat on medium-high speed for another minute.
Leave the dough in the bowl and refrigerate it while you prepare the filling.
Preheat the oven
Set a shelf in the middle of the oven and preheat it to 375oF.
Prepare the filling
In a small skillet set over medium heat, add the oil. When the oil shimmers, add the scallions and cook, stirring for 2 to 3 minutes, or until softened. Stir in the chiles. Set aside 1/2 cup for the topping.
Finish the dough
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and beat it for another minute. It should look like thick cake batter and spread easily. If it seems dry, gradually beat in a little more water, one tablespoon at a time.
Remove the mixer from the stand, and with a silicone spatula, fold in the reserved 1/2 cup chile-scallion mixture, the corn, and 1/4 cup of the cilantro.
Assemble the pie
Spray a 10-inch skillet with vegetable oil spray. Wet your hands with cool water to keep the dough from sticking to them, and press half the dough into the bottom and up the sides of the skillet. You can also use an offset spatula to do this.
Spread 1 cup of the grated cheese over the bottom of the pie. Top with all of the shredded chicken. Spread the remaining chile-scallion mixture over the chicken. Top with the remaining 1/4 cup cilantro. Spread the remaining 1 cup grated cheese on top.
Dollop large spoonfuls of the remaining dough close together all over the pie. Use the back of the spoon or an offset spatula to smooth the dough slightly, leaving a few nooks and crannies to give the top some texture.
Bake the pie
Set the skillet in the oven and bake for 45 minutes. Set it under the broiler for an additional 3 to 5 minutes, or until it's browned in a few places. Remove and let rest for about 10 minutes. Slice into wedges, and serve with green salsa, if you like.