In a Sea of Standard Pies, These Pecan Pie Tamales Will Stand Out

In a Sea of Standard Pies, These Pecan Pie Tamales Will Stand Out

I grew up in Southern California, a place where my Mexican-American culture blends together so seamlessly that mixing food traditions from both sides of the border is as common as apple pie (actually, and in this instance, pecan pie—a dessert staple at my Thanksgiving table just as much as the tamales I learned to make as a child). And my recipe for pecan pie tamales goes to show that embracing differences can give us a lot to be grateful for.

Wait, Sweet Tamales Are a Thing?

No doubt savory tamales stuffed with meats are among the most well-known. But, yes, sweet tamales are a thing. The corn-based dish can be traced back to the Aztec empire. Though because the ancient civilization didn’t use processed sweeteners like we do today, tamales dulces (sweet tamales) were introduced much later in Mexican history. Popular varieties include those stuffed with dried fruits, pineapple, and sweet corn.

What Ingredients Are in Pecan Pie Tamales?

For this recipe, I’ve opted to leave out the eggs and corn syrup that most pecan pie recipes call for, substituting them with cornstarch and piloncillo (similar in taste to brown sugar) so that when you bite in, your mouth says this is pecan pie.

Don’t shy away from trying this recipe just because you may have heard how difficult tamales are to make. The truth is, they’re a bit time-consuming, depending on how many you plan to serve, but the technique is straightforward once you get a handle on the basic dough that requires just a handful of ingredients.

So whether you’re looking to change up your go-to tamale recipe or simply want to wow your guests with a celebratory dessert that really stands out, these pecan pie tamales might be exactly what you’re looking for.

Tips for Making Pecan Pie Tamales

  • Where to source the ingredients—Masa harina, corn husks, and piloncillo can be found at most specialty Hispanic markets.
  • Choose the best corn husks in the pack—Not too big or small, with no rips or tears, and consistent in size and shape. Soak some extras just in case. You can also use two overlapping corn husks to wrap one tamale if needed.
  • Use lard or shortening—Lard is what gives the tamales their signature fluffy texture but you can substitute it with vegetable shortening, if preferred.
  • Spreading the masa on the husks—Using the back of a tablespoon is the easiest way to spread the masa onto the corn husks. Use a gentle back and forth motion.
  • Checking for doneness—The cook time can vary slightly, so the best way to measure doneness is partially peeling the husk away from the tamal. If it peels away with no residue, has risen, and has a medium-firm texture, then they’re likely done. If you’re unsure, give them an extra 2 to 3 minutes of steam time.

Make Ahead

These tamales are best enjoyed fresh. Soaking and air drying the husks for a couple of hours ahead of time can save you time during the preparation. Tamales can be kept warm in a slow cooker set to warm with a little water in the bottom. Set the tamales on a rack inside the slow cooker to keep them from being waterlogged.

“I’ve made tamales a few times, but these were my first sweet ones. The pecan pie tamales were well-cooked and tasty, and the filling was delicious. The piloncillo gave the filling rich brown sugar-molasses flavor. All-in-all, this recipe was fun to make and delicious!” —Diana Rattray

Pecan Pie Tamales/Tester Image A Note From Our Recipe Tester

Ingredients

  • 14 dry corn husks, plus a few extras

For the Dough

  • 2 1/4 cups masa harina

  • 3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar

  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

  • 1/4 teaspoon fine salt

  • 1/2 cup lard or vegetable shortening

  • 1 3/4 cups water

For the Filling

  • 1 1/2 cups pecan halves, coarsely chopped

  • 4 tablespoons (2 ounces) unsalted butter

  • 1 (8 ounce) piloncillo cone, finely chopped

  • 1/4 teaspoon fine salt

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

  • 3 tablespoons water

  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Steps to Make It

Make the Tamale Dough

  1. Gather the ingredients. Fill a large pot with 1 inch of water and place a steamer rack or basket inside. Adjust the water if necessary so that the water does not touch the steamer insert. Set aside.

    Ingredients to make tamale dough

    The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

  2. Separate, then soak 14 dry corn husks, plus a few extras in a large bowl filled with warm water until the husks are completely submerged. Place a plate on top to keep them beneath the water. Set aside.

    A large bowl with 14 dry corn husks in water being weighed down with a smaller bowl

    The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

  3. Add 2 1/4 cups masa harina, 3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, and 1/4 teaspoon fine salt to a large bowl and combine using your fingers until there are no clumps. 

    A large glass bowl of masa harina, dark brown sugar, baking powder, and salt

    The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

  4. Add 1/2 cup lard or vegetable shortening to the masa mixture, then gradually incorporate 1 3/4 cups warm water (1/4 cup at a time), mixing until a smooth dough the consistency of very soft play dough forms.

    A large glass bowl with masa harina dough being stirred with a wooden spoon

    The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

  5. Divide the dough into 12 balls (they will be shaggy), roughly 1 1/4 inches in diameter. Place them back in the bowl and cover with a moist kitchen towel. Set aside.

    A glass bowl with 12 balls of tamale dough being covered with a kitchen towel

    The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

Make the Filling

  1. Gather the ingredients.

    Ingredients to make pecan pie tamale filling

    The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

  2. To a large nonstick skillet on low heat, add 1 1/2 cups pecan halves, coarsely chopped, 4 tablespoons (2 ounces) unsalted butter, 1 (8-ounce) piloncillo cone, finely chopped, and 1/4 teaspoon fine salt. Stir frequently until the butter and piloncillo are melted, 5 to 7 minutes. 

    A large pan with chopped pecans, chopped piloncillo, butter, and salt being stirred together with a wooden spoon

    The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

  3. Stir together 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch and 3 tablespoons water in a small bowl until combined.

    A small bowl of water and cornstarch mixture with a spoon

    The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

  4. Slowly add the cornstarch mixture to the pan and mix well. Continue stirring the mixture until it thickens, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract. Set the mixture aside and let cool until thickened, 10 to 15 minutes. 

    A large pan of pecan pie tamale filling

    The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

Assemble and Steam the Tamales

  1. Remove the husks from the water and pat each one completely dry with a kitchen or paper towel. Tear or cut 12 long thin strips from the imperfect or extra corn husks. 

    A cutting board with whole corn husks and thin corn husk strips

    The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

  2. To assemble, add a dough ball to the widest point of the upper third of the corn husk. With the back of a tablespoon, spread the dough in a uniform layer—approximately 1/4 inch thick, leaving a 1/2-inch border at the top and sides, and a 3-inch border at the bottom. Place approximately 2 tablespoons of pecan mixture into the center of each.

    A cutting board with an open corn husk, with a small rectangle of masa harina dough towards the top, topped with a thin portion of pecan pie filling in the middle

    The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

  3. Fold each tamal in thirds, beginning with one side and folding it over halfway, then folding the other side over. Fold the bottom (empty) edge up. Secure the tamal with a long thin strip of husk by wrapping it around the tamal and tying a small knot. Repeat this step until all of the tamales are formed.

    A cutting board with 12 sealed and tied pecan pie tamales

    The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

  4. Place the tamales into the steamer basket in the pot so that they are standing up, with the open end facing upwards.

    A large steamer basked with tamales standing upright

    The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

  5. Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid and heat over high heat. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 1 hour, or until the masa is fully cooked.

    A steamer basked of pecan pie tamales with a lid on

    The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

  6. Carefully remove the tamales from the pot, let them cool for 3 to 5 minutes, and serve. Remove the husk before eating.

    A plate with a pecan pie tamale with the husk removed and cut open to show the pecan filling

    The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

How To Store

To make this recipe ahead of time, follow all of the steps, let cool, and then refrigerate the tamales (in their husks) in an airtight container for up to 3 days. When ready to enjoy, reheat the tamales by steaming them on low until heated through.

Feeling Adventurous? Try This:

If apple pie is more your thing, try stuffing the dough with a classic apple pie filling. Just be sure to let the filling thicken and cool before using.

Comments

No comments yet. Why don’t you start the discussion?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *