The great tortilla adventure
September 1, 2009
I will never forget my first home made flour tortilla. My neighbors in Death Valley had 4 boys and 2 girls. One of the girls was my age, and her brothers were cute, so I spent a fair amount of time at their house. Petra made tortillas every morning. I watched and I listened and I ate. I asked her for a recipe and her answer was the kind born of routine: a couple of handfuls of this, a pinch of that.
When we left Death Valley for West Texas, there was no shortage of fresh, soft, delicious tortillas. I grew spoiled.
Then came Tacoma. And the dreaded “store bought” tortillas. What a disappointment! I had a few years of joy when I found Molinar’s Tortilla Factory on South Tacoma Way. Julian Molinar was from a town just down the road from where I spent high school, so the tortillas were lovingly familiar. Sometimes I would take the kids there to have tender, moist West Texas brisket, and sometimes I would just buy a dozen tortillas to eat at home.
As part of my recent culinary explorations, I got it into my head to make tortillas. I had great luck with biscuits, and I was full of the confidence born of success. I bought a bag of masa flour and followed the recipe on the bag. It was the same ingredients Petra had used (flour, baking soda, salt, lard, water) but when I made them, they had no flavor. (And I had over floured the board when rolling them out, so they were dusty, to boot.)
Onto the internet I went. I looked at a what seemed like a million recipes and they all fell into two camps. Either lard & water or milk & oil. Try as I might, I could not get the lard versions to work. I tried two of the milk versions and while the first one was a disaster, the second one showed promise. I put on my thinking cap and tried again. After batch upon batch of failure, this morning we had success!2 cups all purpose flour 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder 1 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons olive oil or melted bacon drippings 3/4 – 1 cup hot half & half Mix flour, baking powder & salt with your hands. Add in oil, tossing flour around it so as to keep it off your fingers. Drizzle in half & half (it is hot, so try to keep it off your fingers) and bring the dough together. Stop adding the half & half when the dough is sticky, but comes together and looks like dough. Knead for two minutes on a LIGHTLY floured surface. Dough should be soft and pliable. Form into a ball and return to bowl. Cover with a damp towel and rest for 20 minutes. Portion into 8 balls and lay them on your work surface making sure the balls do not touch. Cover with damp cloth and let rest 10 minutes. Heat griddle or cast iron skillet over medium/medium high heat (I used 7 on a scale of 10). Use hands to form into flat disk about 4 inches round and with very little flour on board, roll out to about 8 inches. Flip and turn as needed to get nice and thin. Place flat on the pan until it begins to turn opaque and lots of bubbles form. (about 30 seconds) Flip and cook about 30 seconds on other side. Place in the folds of a towel and place a sheet of foil over the top of the towel. A good tortilla should be tasty all by itself, but feel free to spread a little butter & honey or use it to make a breakfast burrito, or do like Petra’s family and tear off hunks and use them to scoop up chorizo & potatoes. No fork needed!
I did decide on a recipe using solid fat that I did enjoy. It is a hybrid of the traditional and the recipe above.3 Cups flour 1 tsp baking powder 1 tsp salt 1/2 Cup cold solid fat (butter or lard) in small bits 1/2 – 1 Cup hot milk or half & half Mix the dry ingredients. Cut in the fat. Add the milk. Knead on a generously floured board until smooth and elastic (2-3 minutes). Cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap and let rest 10 – 20 minutes. Break into 8 balls. Cover and let rest 10-20 minutes. Roll thin and cook in dry cast iron pan over medium heat. Flip when top has lots of bubbles and bottom has brown dots. Cook until it matches the other side. Stack between kitchen towels or hand each one to a waiting family member.