Corn Tortillas: Or, The Female Valentino

She was billed The Female Rudolph Valentino, the dark exotic beauty from Hollywood's Silent Film Era. Orson Welles, ten years her junior, fell deeply in love with her and called her the "most exciting woman he had ever met." And yet I doubt that the fabulosa Dolores del Río knew how to make homemade corn tortillas.
As I see these vintage publicity shots of her wearing the fine gowns that the best designers of the day created just for her, I cannot see this daughter of an aristocratic Mexican family mixing the ground corn, lime and water with her lady-like hands or rolling the masa (dough) into balls or flattening them in a tortilla press. It is hard to imagine her standing over a hot fire while she heats up those homemade corn tortillas on a cast iron comal and serving them with beans and rice to her family. And why would she? Leaving behind a Mexico that had been ravaged by a bloody revolution that left at least a million dead, she came to Hollywood and gained international acclaim as a singer, dancer and actress. And yet, despite her extraordinary talents and undeniable beauty, the advent of Talkies revealed her foreign accent and so her star gradually began to fade. By the 1940's she returned to her native country and made some classic movies that are a part of the canon of The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema.

Who can forget María Candelaria with Dolores in the title role, which won Mexico The Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or Award for Best Picture in 1943? Her portrayal of Maria Candelaria, the beautiful but doomed Indian girl is heartbreaking to watch, so much so that is hard to believe that Dolores did not understand how it felt to be poor and dark and misunderstood. In other films, hers is the tragic but stoically dignified face of the rural woman who loses a husband or son to war. Watching her films as a young girl, I think I finally found a window into the world that my mother spoke about but is no more.
Perhaps I was wrong about Dolores del Río. Could it be that her world was not as rarified as I thought? Maybe, just maybe, this beautiful and fine artist knew a thing or two about making corn tortillas after all.
Homemade Corn Tortillas
It is difficult to image Mexican food without corn tortillas for their history goes back thousands of years to Pre-Hispanic times. Once you make them at home, you will see tacos and tortillas in a whole new light—like homemade bread, its flavor is irresistible. No dried out, store-bought corn tortilla can compare. Besides being lots of fun to make, those friends of yours who have never tasted a homemade tortilla will forever rave about your cooking. It's true!
Depending on how hard you press your tortilla press, your tortilla can be thin or as thick as you want. I like mine a little thick. I like to buy my flour at the Mexican foods market in my neighborhood, but you can find corn tortilla flour at almost any grocery store, especially in the Western part of the United States.They are absolutely no trouble to make. Just make only as much as you need, because if you make a lot, you are going to eat way too many of them, and what will happen to your waistline?
(Note: I couldn't help but notice that that corn tortilla flour that I buy at my Mexican market makes the softest and flexible corn tortillas I had ever tasted. Their secret? Just add a bit of Harina La Pina flour to your corn tortilla masa as I have done in this recipe. This is especially nice if you have to save a few tortillas for later but you don't want them to harden. Still, an all corn tortilla is more flavorful.)
2 cups corn tortilla flour
1 1/3 cups hot water water
To make soft corn tortillas (optional): Add 2 to 3 heaping tablespoons of Harina La Pina white flour that is made especially for making flour tortillas. Add 1 tablespoon water for every tablespoon of white flour. Please do not use all purpose flour.
Pre-heat your griddle to medium-high heat (cast iron is best, but any griddle will do). When a drop of water sizzles and dances on the griddle, you are ready to heat the flattened corn tortilla.
While the griddle is heating, take the corn flour and water and mix them together. Knead the masa (dough) until it is no longer sticky. (If you have added Harina La Pina flour, the balls will be somewhat sticky.) Form into small to medium size balls and put each one between two plastic sheets and press flat it with a tortilla press as shown.
Carefully peel the plastic sheets away from the flattened tortilla and carefully lay it on the griddle. Heat the tortilla on the heated griddle for about 30 seconds or so, and, using a steel spatula, flip it on the other side. Flip the tortilla once again, and put in a tortilla warmer or wrapped in a cloth. Put any unused corn tortilla masa in a plastic bag and store in your refrigerator. It will keep for about a week. Before making the tortillas, bring the masa to room temperture so they will not come out stiff.

Enjoy corn tortillas with any kind of Mexican food, or do as I and most Mexicans do: eat them with everything, even with a hotdog and mustard!


JodieMo said...

Fascinating! I can't wait to see the pictures. I would love to try to make some tortillas myself, and since I am an enormous fan of old movies I will have to check out this silver screen Mexican beauty. Thanks so much!

Wanda said...

Dolores del Rio certainly was a beauty, and old movies are my fave.
I have one question, do you need a press to make the tortillas.
If you have the time I am having a give away.

jesse said...

She is so beautiful! I've never heard of her before, but after reading your post I stalked her pictures for a looooong time. Hahah, this is all your fault!

cindylu said...

I loved to watch my grandma do this. Maybe one day I'll try my hand at this. I'm still trying to master the basics.

La Traductora said...

Hi Cindylu!
Why not start now? You'll be glad you did (and so will everyone else)!

Tammy Lessick said...

I'm going to have to try to make my own.

La Traductora said...

Hi Tammy!
Making homemade corn tortillas is the easiest thing in the world--easier than flipping a pancake!

Anonymous said...

The title of the movie was "Maria Candelaria"; perhaps you were thinking of the chain restaurant Marie Callender?

Clementina aka "La Traductora" said...

Oops--my typo is showing! Silly me. Of course I meant Maria Candelaria, but seeing that this is a food blog after all, my little faux pas is hardly surprising. Thanks for the correction!

Colleen said...

We can buy these tortillas called sprouted corn. They make the don pancho ones taste like caca. They are pretty good but my home made ones are better when I use the right masa. BTW tamal masa does not make good tortillas I found out the hard way when I grabbed the wrong one by mistake from the pantry. I donno why or what the difference is. do you?

I saw an apparition in my tortilla press yesterday. It was really weird, clearly a face. I was lucky and I snapped a picture & blogged it.

BTW Wanda u can make tortillas w/o a press but its much easier if u have one.

Clementina aka "La Traductora" said...

Dear Colleen,
I believe that the difference between corn tortilla masa and tamale masa is this: The tamale masa is coarsely ground, while the masa of the corn tortilla is not only of a finer ground, but sometimes white flour is added to the dry masa as I did in the variation of this recipe.
Thanks for asking!

Sara said...

I'm curious about Harina La Pina... You're saying don't use all-purpose white flour. Is this a low-gluten flour, for example, or another animal entirely?

I haven't made tortillas since last year, and can't wait to pull out all the cast iron pans and get cracking again. I tried making pupusas, too, but cannot master putting the stuffing directly into the ball of dough and then flattening that, alas. So, I press out two small tortillas and then seal those together like ravioli...

Clementina aka "La Traductora" said...

Hi Sara,
Hmm, that's an interesting question: I called Pillsbury Flour Co. that manufactures Harina La Pina Flour. It is a different animal from all purpose flour. With a gluten content of 10%, it is made from a much softer wheat. Its texture is lighter and fluffier than all-purpose flour, which results in a lighter tortilla than if you use all-purpose. I suppose that if there is no Harina La Pina Flour available in your area, I would try cake flour or a certain flour whose name escapes me that Southerners use to make those light as a feather dinner rolls. I cannot assure you that the results would be the same, but I think it is worth a try. (I have a feeling that they be just fine.)
As for pupusas, it is a Salvadoran dish and I have never made them, but I will call my friend who The Divissima of All Things Salvadoran, and I will get back to you. Please check the comments section of the this post in the next week or so.
Gee, you put me to work!
Take Care!

Sara said...

Ah! I'm sorry I put you to work :) I am thinking that my white wheat flour from King Arthur might be good. It's made from soft wheat with low gluten. It makes less than spectacular bread, so maybe this is an ideal use to get rid of it...

As to the pupusas, yep! One of my Salvadoran friends was really determined to make these and I loaned the kitchen space for reverse-engineering them last year. We figured out a touch of fat helps the dough keep its moisture and makes for a more tender product, lard preferably. I think we need to work with slightly softer dough and just practice practice practice with the filling. They're great 'fast food' once you have a couple stacks to pack away in the freezer, assuming they make it that far :)

Clementina aka "La Traductora" said...

Hi Sara,
It was no trouble, really! If anything I learned a thing or two. Once I learn all I can of pupusas, I'm going to do a bit of "investigating" of my own!