flour tortilla recipe

It’s as though Jon saw me writing yesterday afternoon. This one is for him.

* * *
My grandmother’s kitchen, despite its gas stove and running water, is essentially pre-modern. What it lacks is literacy. And so I’ve taken her impressionistic method for mixing masa and reduced it, like a good, science-fearing modern girl, to a formula. For two dozen Tex-Mex tortillas (not burrito behemoths), “this much” white flour becomes three cups, “some” baking powder and salt become one and a half teaspoons of the former and two teaspoons of the latter. The lard that half fills the palm of a small and golden hand measures out to six tablespoons.

I use my hands—they being the only proper utensil in this process—to cut the fat into the dry ingredients, then make a well and pour in a little more than three-quarters of a cup of warm water. I mix that quickly, careful not to overwork the masa. Now I cover it with a slightly damp (my innovation) dish towel and let it rest while I clean up, get out my rolling pin, and lightly flour my work surface. Then I separate the masa into appropriately sized bolas that will also stay under the towel until I’m ready for them.

More tentatively than I should, with too many passes of the rolling pin, I roll each bola out to the right thickness. It feels springy, like the rolled-up hem of a favorite t-shirt; it’s maybe an eighth of an inch thick, still, and floury to the touch. Then I begin slapping the half-formed tortilla back and forth between my hands. It unfolds like a tossed pizza dough.

If I were patient, or if anyone were watching, I would keep on slapping until my tortillas became bien delgadita and ready for the pan. The heat will puff the tortillas back up to a pleasant chewy thickness. With neither patience nor audience, I resort to the expedient of grabbing each tortilla by an edge and letting its own weight stretch it out. I dangle them by their longest edges, hoping for roundness. My hope is rarely fulfilled.

Conquistadores and chroniclers reported that the Mexica shaped their (corn) tortillas to look like butterflies and leaves. If I were to declare that one a butterfly and this other one a leaf, my grandmother would get a kick of my desperate justifications. The exchange might be performance art, but my tortillas would still not be culinary art.
* * *

Whatever their shape, cook your tortillas in a skillet over medium heat until both sides have golden brown spots.

Jon–I don’t know my grandmother’s (other than long practice) secret for consistent roundness, nor her secret for keeping these pliable overnight. But as long as you use these proportions and don’t overwork the dough, you should get a good batch for a meal. Some of them will even still be good for breakfast tacos in the morning. I’ve found that re-heating a stack over low heat in a skillet with a lid on effectively steams the ones in the middle, keeping them flexible.

If you’re feeling particularly unlucky, you can do what my sister does–make them with a photo of our grandmother watching over you. She says it helps. There are plenty on my flickr page, if you get that desperate.


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