My go-to version of a tamal casserole: The masa dough is set in two thick layers that hold a rich and baroque filling, typical of the Mexican colonial era, when nuns used to combine Spanish and Mexican ingredients in their convent kitchens. The filling has a sauce made with my preferred pairing of dried chili peppers: sweet, almost chocolaty and prune-flavored ancho and mild, bright-tasting guajillo. It’s seasoned with onion, garlic, oregano, cloves, cinnamon and a pinch of cumin, then made hearty with juicy ground meat that is sprinkled with crunchy almonds, chewy raisins and salty manzanilla olives.
For the dough:
- 1 1/4 cups vegetable shortening or lard
- 1 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 1/2 pounds (about 5 cups) corn masa flour for tortillas or tamales, such as Maseca brand
- 4 1/2 cups homemade or no-salt-added chicken broth, may substitute water
For the filling:
- 8 dried guajillo chiles, stemmed, halved and seeded
- 8 dried ancho chiles, stemmed, halved and seeded
- 2 cups hot water, or as needed
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 5 whole cloves
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Pinch ground cumin
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for the baking dish
- 1 medium white onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
- 6 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 1/2 pounds ground meat, such as veal, turkey, beef, pork or a combination
- 1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups homemade or no-salt-added chicken broth, may substitute water
- 1 cup raisins
- 3/4 cup slivered almonds
- 3/4 cup pimento-stuffed manzanilla olives, chopped
For the dough:
Place the vegetable shortening or lard in the bowl of a stand mixer; beat on medium speed for about 3 minutes, until it is light and airy. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Add the salt and baking powder; on low speed, gradually add the corn masa flour and the broth in alternating additions, making sure each time that the addition is well incorporated. Beat for about 10 minutes to form a masa dough that is homogeneous and fluffy. Let the dough sit at room temperature while you make the filling.
For the filling:
Heat a comal (tortilla griddle) or skillet over medium heat. Add the guajillo and ancho peppers; toast them for about 15 seconds per side, until they become more pliable, lightly toasted and fragrant and their inner skin turns opaque. Transfer to a medium saucepan and cover with at least 2 cups of hot water. Cook over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes, or until the peppers have rehydrated, plumped up and softened.
Transfer the peppers and 2 cups of the liquid to a blender and add the oregano, cloves, cinnamon and cumin. Remove the center knob from the blender lid and cover the opening with a dish towel to contain splash-ups. Puree to form a smooth sauce. The yield is 2 1/2 to 2 3/4 cups.
Heat the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring continuously, until the onions are cooked through and beginning to brown at the edges. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, less than a minute, then add the ground meat, salt and black pepper. Cook for 12 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally and using a spoon to break up the meat, until it has lightly browned. Add the sauce, the broth, raisins, almonds and olives, stirring to combine; reduce the heat to medium-low, cover the skillet and cook for 20 minutes. Uncover, stir and cook uncovered for 5 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Use a little vegetable oil to grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or the equivalent.
Spoon half of the prepared masa dough into the dish, forming a bit of a lip on the sides and gently leveling it out; don't press hard. Spoon all of the meat filling on top. Cover evenly with the remaining dough. Cover the dish tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour or until the masa is completely cooked and the top appears to be firm. Remove from the oven and let it sit, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.