‘Tis the Season to Smear

Grandma Grace doesn’t care for slowpokes. “Andalé,” she commands from behind the kitchen counter, waiting for another cornhusk smeared with a layer of paste-like dough called masa.

“More, more,” she demands with a laugh. Of course she’s kidding but her back does ache, and we’re nearing three hours of steady preparation. (Minus the one-hour break that included a quick trip through Pier One Imports to check out throw pillows.)

I dig into the roasting pan that serves as a basin for the 10 pounds of mixed masa, a corn-based dough, with my spatula and plop a scoop of the stuff onto the next husk. As repetitious as smearing is, I listen, and continue. Deep down, I’m having a blast.

It’s apparent that I love food and appreciate its many forms, especially at Christmas time. But, there’s nothing more magical, and humbling, than learning the technique behind a dish you are a fan of but never dreamed you could ever prepare – or would.

Tamale production resembles an assembly line: the least inexperienced spread the masa across each cornhusk, the more senior cooks get to stuff those husks with meat and fold them into neat rectangular packages that we know as tamales.

After two stints wielding the spatula, I am still as Grandma Grace would say “slow” in my post.  Jonathan smears two husks, maybe three, to my one.  Instinctively, he knows the desired amount of dough to spread on the husk (his family prefers less) and where to leave the husk clean. He’ll probably perfect this part of the process, as he will remain a smearer for many more years to come since Grandma Grace has yet to even pass the torch of filling and folding the tamales down to his mother. It’s a sensitive topic to discuss.

As much fun as I had, I’m not going to attempt a post about how to make tamales. I’ve barely got the smearing part under my belt. Instead, I want to tell you about these mini black-and-white cookies that are also a laborious production but are quite the showstoppers.

This year, I stayed away from your typical sugar or gingerbread cookie for something more elegant. The black-and-white (they drop the “cookie”) is New York City’s signature cookie, and there isn’t a bakery or convenience store there that doesn’t carry it. Heck, it’s even made an appearance on “Seinfeld.” (“Look to the cookie,” Jerry famously advises.)

Aesthetically, it’s striking with its black and white contrast, resembling the yin and yang symbol. But, it’s not overwhelmingly sweet, especially when it’s reduced to a miniature size, which is what I did. I’m no New Yorker but was inspired by their sophisticated simplicity as an admirer of classic beauty as well as my trip earlier this year to the big city. I love NYC and can’t wait to go back.

I used Gourmet’s recipe for these drop cakes (they’re not really a cookie, just look like one). I would go to it again, but as some of the comments left by others recommend, I might pipe them onto the cookie sheet as the dough is quite sticky and difficult to make smooth. Also, I’m not sure if there is a need to butter your baking sheet because they are usually a tad greasy from previous use.

Others gripe that it’s a lot of work, which it is for a first attempt. But, I can’t tell you how many people enjoyed them – even my picky boyfriend who only has eyes for chocolate chip cookies. They vanished before lunchtime. To please such a large range of people is a true testament of what a great recipe this is. Of course, you can try this one or even this one.

And, if you’re feeling doubly ambitious, you can craft handmade gift tags for your treat bags using this toadstool/mushroom template from Design*Sponge. Designed for wrapping paper, I used pieces of brown paper grocery bags and glued them to index cards, which I later cut in half to create two tags per card. I promise that unlike tamales and black-and-white cookies, these are a breeze to make but will touch recipients all the same. Promise.

Feliz Navidad! God Jul!





One response to “‘Tis the Season to Smear

  1. Melanie

    I’m excited that you chose to write about two of my FAVS!!
    Would love to get together sometime and attempt tamales; perhaps tamale party?!?[dibs on spreader as you would fall on the more experienced side])
    The B&W cookies look divine!!
    Merry Christmas to you both :o)

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