A napkin is just like a tortilla, at least if you were me as a toddler, enjoying dinner on my dad’s lap, as apparently I ate all my meals at that age, pinching food off his plate with a bit of tortilla. On one occasion, with no more tortillas nearby, I simply reached for the nearest foldable, flat and pale object nearby and happily began making a napkin taco. I would have eaten it too, had my mom not stopped me. Being from Nortern Mexico, I grew up on wheat flour tortillas: lard-based wonders, slightly powdery, and best when slightly toasted and slathered with butter and a sprinkle of salt.
I suppose you could think a tortilla is just an easily a replaceable eating utensil, the way my toddler brain did; but a tortilla is so much more than an eating utensil, or an eating utensil/food hybrid. In the case of corn tortillas, they’re part of a 6,000 years-long codependent relationship between people and maize. Colonization brought wheat with it, and the long exchange of culinary traditions across the Atlantic.
All seriousness and history aside, good tortillas are an essential part of Mexican food, the baguette of Mexican cuisine, and just like its crusty French cousin, something that is not frequently made at home. Oh sure, Mexicans on both sides of the border have stories of their abuelita or a tia making stacks of perfectly round tortillas in the blink of an eye on a daily basis; but growing up in a big city meant that tortillerias doled out still-hot, paper-wrapped columns in plentiful fashion, and homemade tortillas became less of a necessity and more of a social occasion.
My own family’s tortilla making stopped with my maternal great-grandmother, a tiny fortress of a woman and a tortilla-making machine, making buñuelos (crispy dessert tortillas fried in lard and drizzled with piloncillo syrup) for my very lucky cousins into her 90s – leading my non-tortilla, non-buñuelo making mother to say “why did she never make ME any?!?” Growing up with a non-tortilla making mother did have its benefits in my neighborhood; occasionally, on a cool desert evening, the ladies of the neighborhood would gather around a fiery cast iron comal, to gossip and churn out the large, paper-thin flour tortillas that Hermosillo is known for–and my sister and I were the only kids given hot and fresh tortillas. Poor niñas, with their non-tortilla making mother.
I suppose my “big-city Mexican,” stubbornness had to give out at some point, as just a few days ago I spent an afternoon with a friend and his grandmother’s tortilla recipe. Armed with flour, lard, and a $4 rolling pin, I rolled out my first flour tortillas, some of them even turning out round; I never did say I was good with a rolling pin. I realized I share my mother’s lack of coordination in doing the hand-to-hand tortilla flip, but I can sure make a great Frisbee out of a tortilla.
Buñuelos with piloncillo syrup
Buñuelos are a sweet tortilla, similar to fry bread, and a deliciously light and crunchy motivator for practicing tortilla making. Piloncillo, a dark brown lump sugar cone, used to make a honey-like syrup to accompany the buñuelos, is easily found in the spice section of Mexican grocery stores. Dark brown sugar may be substituted.
For the buñuelos
450 grams unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 cup warm water
2 whole large eggs
1 egg yolk
Lard to cook buñuelos
For the syrup
250 grams piloncillo
1 cup water
2” stick of Mexican cinnamon, broken in half
Placing a damp towel under the bowl when mixing the dough will make the mixing process easier. It is helpful to have a small quantity of extra flour on hand to add while mixing as necessary, as well as some lard to lubricate your hands with while kneading. This makes the rather sticky process go a lot easier.
Place dry ingredients in a deep bowl, mix together and form a well in the center. Lightly beat the two eggs and egg yolk together and pour into well. Slowly incorporate eggs into flour with circular motions with clean fingers while drizzling water into the bowl. Work the dough until liquids are fully incorporated and continue to knead dough, working it against the sides of the bowl until all the flour has been picked up and the dough is smooth. Do not be gentle with it, the dough can take it, and needs it. Add a bit of flour if necessary during the kneading process. The dough will be ready when it bounces back when pressed with a finger.
Cover the dough with a slightly damp, clean kitchen towel and allow to rest for 15 minutes. While dough is resting, place one cup of water, piloncillo and cinnamon in a small saucepot. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until reduced to a syrup. Strain and keep warm. Portion dough into egg sized balls, kneading lightly until smooth, and once again allow to rest, while covered, for 15 minutes. This process is easier if hands are slightly lubricated with lard. Slightly flatten each ball into a disk, place in a lightly floured surface and roll into an oval. Turn oval 45°, and roll again. Continue to turn and roll until you have a smooth, round disk. Repeat until all the dough has been rolled out. The buñuellos may be stacked if they are slightly floured so they do not stick.
Melt enough lard over medium heat in a large cast iron skillet to get about ¼” deep of fat. Carefully place the buñuellos in the lard and cook until the surface bubbles and the bottom is golden. Turn with a spatula, carefully, and cook the other side. Repeat until all the buñuellos are cooked.
Drizzle some of the piloncillo syrup on still warm buñuellos and enjoy.
Check www.haydenflourmills.com for retail locations of Arizona grown and milled wheat flour. Visit The Meat Shop at 202 E. Buckeye Road in Phoenix for lard, rendered in house.