Not so much regional, but certainly ethnic, tortillas are likely to become a larger presence in American cuisine. What formerly was a specialty item has taken a regular place in everyday grocery items.
While the convenience of store-bought tortillas assures their place in homes, the difference between homemade and store-bought tortillas is a welcome change — freshly made just tastes better. The main drawback being most folks would be limited to cooking one tortilla at a time, and even though they take about a minute to cook that mounts up when making a dozen or so.
Making tortillas is very simple, and with practice takes about as much effort as breaking open a can of biscuits, although it might take a couple of tries to get it right.
A breif survey of flour tortilla recipes showed little variation from the basic formula of flour, salt, shortening and water. Adding polvo para hornear - baking powder, or baking soda, seems to be the main variation. After trying both ways I am in the no-baking-powder camp. But using baking powder and making the tortilla thicker will produce a puffy pita-bread-like result. Try both. It is what experimenting is all about.
The liquid could be anything, well … liquid. Milk, beer, broth were mentioned in several recipes; buttermilk is on my list to try next.
Another decision point is shortening. Use what you will — butter, vegetable shortening, whatever — any will work, but I think lard is best for tortillas.
Here is what I came up with for a basic, four taco-size tortilla recipe (adjust as needed for quantity or size):
1 cup flour (plus about 1 tsp. for dusting for each tortilla)
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tbs. shortening
1/4 cup warm water (adjust as needed)
Mix the flour and salt together, and then cut in the shortening, as for piecrust, until well blended.
Add the water at about a tablespoon at a time, mixing to blend it evenly.
Turn out on a breadboard and knead it smooth. If the mixture will not hold together - add water until it will hold shape. If too sticky, add a few tablespoons of flour.
Put the dough in a plastic bag and let it rest about five minutes.
Divide into four equal pieces (or however many the recipe is increased for).
Use a rolling pin to roll out the dough into six- to eight-inch disks, about 1/8-inch thick
Heat a skillet or griddle (cast iron is best, but any heavy-bottom skillet will do) until a drop of water dances in it (about 400 - 450 degrees)
Lay in the tortilla - if the skillet is hot enough, tortillas cook in about 30 to 45 seconds per side.
Put the tortilla in a covered container to keep warm and soft while cooking the remaining tortillas.
As simple as flour tortillas may be, corn tortillas are easier still - only masa harina and water are needed. Maza harina is specially prepared corn flour and is carried by an increasing number of grocery stores, either in the baking section near the cornmeal, or in the Hispanic aisle.
To make 16-18 corn tortillas:
2 cups masa harina
1/4 tsp. baking soda (optional)
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 to 2 cups of very warm water
In a large bowl, combine the masa harina, salt and baking soda (if used).
Add the water, work the masa several minutes with your hands to form the dough, kneading as with bread.
If the dough seems dry or wet, add some water or masa. It should be damp enough to form a clean ball.
Divide the dough into 16 to 18 equal-size portions.
Place a dough-ball between sheets of waxed paper or pieces of plastic wrap and press into shape using a tortilla press or rolling pin. Another option is to use the bottom of a dinner plate. Use a plate that has a bottom ring no more than 1/8-inch deep; press in the middle of the plate rather than on the edges to avoid breaking the dish (lighter folks might not have a problem with this, but plates have snapped when I leaned into it while pressing on the edge).
Cook the same as for flour tortillas.
Store-bought will never be more than just adequate once you have made your own tortillas. But what to do with them once they are ready?
Here is one casserole I tried, that passed the church potluck test, on the Food Network Website:
Chicken Tortilla Casserole - from Trisha Yearwood
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Chicken Gravy, recipe follows
1 cup canned green chiles, chopped and drained
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Twenty-four 6-inch corn tortillas
3 cups shredded Cheddar
6 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup milk
Salt and pepper
Add the chicken to a large stockpot, cover with water and add a large pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and cook until tender, about 30 minutes. Remove the chicken from the pot and set aside to cool. When cool enough to handle, shred the chicken and set aside. Reserve 3 1/3 cups of the broth (1 cup is for the chicken gravy, supplement with boxed stock if you don’t have enough.)
To make the chicken gravy: Melt the butter in a medium saucepan and whisk in the flour to make a roux. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture bubbles and the flour turns light brown in color. Gradually whisk in the stock and milk and continue to stir while cooking over medium heat. When the mixture thickens, after about 5 minutes, whisk in some salt and pepper; set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 13- by 9-inch baking dish with cooking spray.
In a large saucepan, combine 2 1/3 cups of the reserved broth, the Chicken Gravy, green chiles, onions, garlic, sour cream, cumin, salt and pepper. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat.
Spread 1 cup of the mixture into the prepared baking dish. Arrange a layer of 6 tortillas over the mixture, and then top with 1 cup shredded chicken and 1/2 cup of the Cheddar.
Repeat this layer three more times, ending with cheese. Spread any remaining mixture over the cheese. Make sure all of the tortillas are covered or they will get very hard during baking.
Bake uncovered for 30 minutes.
Another casserole, but quite a bit simpler…
4 chicken breasts, or 1 fryer, cooked
1 can condensed mushroom soup
1 can condensed tomato soup
1 1/4 cups chicken broth
18 corn tortillas
2 cups shredded cheese (your choice of type)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Shred or dice the chicken into bite-size bits; divide into three portions.
Combine the soups and broth.
Lightly oil a 9- by 13-inch baking dish
Lay six tortillas in the baking dish; layer in one-third of the chicken, pour in one third of the soup mixture.
Repeat the layers ending with chicken and soup mixture on top.
Bake 55 minutes; take out of oven, sprinkle the cheese on top; return to oven for 5 minutes to melt the cheese.
And, for dessert:
1 21-oz. can apple pie filling
6 8-inch flour tortillas
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/3 cup butter or margarine
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
Spoon pie filling along the center of each tortilla; sprinkle with cinnamon.
Roll up, and place, seam side down, in a lightly greased 2-quart baking dish.
In a saucepan, bring the butter, water, sugar and brown sugar to a boil.
Reduce heat, and simmer, stirring constantly, for three minutes. Pour over filled tortillas - let stand 30 minutes.
While the enchiladas are standing, heat oven to 350 degrees.
Bake 20 minutes.
4 to 6 servings.
Here is an original enchilada sauce to use, found in the California Mexican-Spanish Cook Book, by Bertha Haffner-Ginger, 1914. Just remove the cloves and then use a blender instead of going through the effort of straining the sauce:
”Prepared Spanish Sauce
Take equal parts red and green chile peppers, same amount green and red sweet peppers, split, remove seed from all, soak in water, drain, add enough water to barely cover, boil tender, mash in water, press through sieve, heat half cup olive oil, fry in it one-half cup onion, one-half parsley, three garlic buttons, tablespoon oregano, two cups raw tomatoes, six cloves, two cups of the pepper pulp, salt to taste, cook, strain, may heat and bottle larger quantities, very fine.”