tortillas, not an easy word to make a rhyme with

“The shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from the mere animal biology to an act of culture.”

Michael Pollan
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Santa brought me a tortilla maker. I brought it with me to Germany. I carried it in my backpack and broke a few airline weight maximum rules (I know what I rebel! I probably should not have done it, but I had already paid an outrageous fee for an extra piece of checked baggage. Perhaps not the best justification, but I was bringing half of my very heavy life with me and that life has to include proper tortillas.) It was a rather embarrassing and slow trek through Port Authority and Penn Station that involved 3 overstuffed suitcases with a combined weight of 25 kg more than me, two ropes and a backpack. Maybe next time it would be easier to have Santa deliver directly to me over here in Deutschland. If that is the case, I had better be on my best behavior the whole year. Still, as I put everything away in these ugly ass white German cupboards and felt like I had a bit more of my home with me, I realized that the adventure was worth it – despite the sore shoulders, gawking strangers and sweaty armpits [sorry to the nice German man sitting next to me on the plane].

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As of today, I have made tortillas twice and will soon be making about 150 more of them for the next dinner at the Volkskuche. Well, it is not called that any more. I think they are called Solidarity Kitchen or some other super left-wing nonsense inflicted on the rest of us by the crazy politically correct. It may be a bit crazy to choose such a time intensive item for my next offering at the community kitchen, but I firmly believe that this will help me toward my birthday time goal of learning to make fantastic tortillas by the 5 of May. (I am also making 2015 the year of actually doing S!@#. More on that another time.)

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My first attempt at making tortillas was without baking powder and with lime juice.  The second time I did not use lime juice and I added baking powder. The ones with baking soda came out better, but I think that is because I figured out how to cook them.  The pan has to be hot and very lightly oiled. By doing this, they puff up and do not take forever to cook. I had far too much oil in the pan for my first batch and they were crispy and would not really work for tacos. I also did not allow the dough to rest the first time that I made the tortillas, nor did I salt them as they came out of the pan. Giving them an hour or so did wonders and a little bit of salt makes (almost) everything taste better. The extra time resulted in a dough that was silky smooth and easy to work, whereas the overworked dough was stubborn and a bit sticky. Nevertheless they were tasty both times and each was an informational experience.

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Surprisingly, I also learned that one needs to use plastic bags on the tortilla press, so that the dough does not stick. This conclusion was very hard to come reach, because I found the concept of using plastic bags ridiculous the first time that I read it. I simply could not picture South American grandmas wrapping their tortilla presses in knock-off Ziploc bags. However, after a half-dozen times of the dough sticking to the fresh cast iron, I quickly adapted like a good Borg and wrapped the press in plastic. The more that I thought about, the more I figured that they are traditionally made with a rolling-pin or by hand. A former co-worker of mine from El Salvador told me that his wife could make them just by pinching the dough together. I can quite frankly not see myself developing that talent anytime (soon), so I will have to figure out a way to season the press or reuse the plastic bags because there is no way that I want to replace them every time that I make tortillas.

So, for one half batch of tortillas that makes approximately 8 relatively thick tortillas I used the following recipe:

1 1 /2 cup flour

1/4 – 1/2 cups cold water

1/2 tsp salt

1 TBSP oil

1 TBSP lime juice (optional)

1/2 tsp baking powder (optional)

Mix everything together in a bowl and knead several times until the dough is well mixed and homogeneous. Roll the dough into a large ball and then using your hands flatten it a bit. Use a pastry cutter or a knife to divide the dough into 8 equal pieces and roll the pieces into balls. Cover the balls on a floured surface with a damp cloth for approximately 1 hour. Warm a cast iron pan for 10 – 15 minutes before beginning to cook the tortillas. While the pan warms, press, roll or pinch the dough balls into tortillas. Just before adding the first pressed dough to the pan, lightly coat with oil.

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I used my pasta drying rack in order to optimize my workspace. Just be careful to keep the dough covered, so that it does not dry out.

The tortillas should be done after approximately 30 seconds of cooking on each side. If they are taking much longer, the heat is too low and the tortillas will be relatively inflexible. Turn the heat up. If the tortillas are burning before they appear cooked, the pan is too hot and the heat should be turned down. Be sure to cover the tortillas after they are cooked or they will dry out and become inflexible and dry.

Top with whatever floats your culinary boat. I prepared them three different ways – spicy Mexican chicken, cream cheese coriander, avocado and red pepper and lightly fried strips in tortilla soup that was made from leftover spicy chicken. This was great because this is also going to be a year of waste reduction…so far so good, yet so far to go.

The tortillas will keep for several days in the refrigerator. To reheat, cover in a damp paper towel and microwave for approximately 20 seconds. Alternatively, they can be put in tin foil after being lightly spritzed with water and sprinkled with salt and put in the oven to reheat (175 C) for 10-15 minutes (best if lots of tortillas need to be reheated) or reheated in a lightly oiled pan.

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* Update: I wrote this post a few weeks ago.  Since its completion, I have cooked at the Volkskuche and ended up making 60 empanadas and 170 tortillas. The food I made completely sold out. It was a great experience and I received several compliments on the quality of the dinner. The menu was Potato Empanadas, Beef&Pork/Black Bean Tacos and brownies for dessert. I am crossing flour tortillas and empanadas off my list of things that I want to be able to make and make well by the 5 of May. 2 down, 18 to go!

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