Come Celebrate Las Posadas
For this Latina cook, the Christmas season begins by gathering friends and family for homemade beef and red chile tamales, a mug of warm ponche Navideño, and crispy cinnamon-sugar buñuelos
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Above: Buñuelos Enmielados, Beef and Red Chile Tamales, and Ponche Navideño (Mexican Christmas Punch). Recipes and photos by Ericka Sanchez.
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Growing up in Mexico, one of my favorite Christmas celebrations was Las Posadas, the tradition to reenact the nativity pilgrimage with plays, parties, and special food beginning nine days before La Navidad. Some years we hosted, other years we attended as guests, and every year I looked forward to the company of my family, friends, and neighbors. It was a wonderful way to begin the Christmas season.
Now that I live in California, we seldom spend the holidays in Mexico. To avoid missing that joyful celebration, I’ve been hosting my own posada at home. I invite friends over, serve tamales and other traditional foods, and act out the nativity story. Up to a few weeks before, I also invite my relatives and friends over for a tamalada, a tamale-making gathering. We all look forward to it just as much as Las Posadas to catch up, cook together, and celebrate another year.
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Las Posadas Q&A
The posadas celebration runs deep in Mexico. The festivities are not only about food and drink. It’s a religious tradition, passed down from generation to generation.
What is Las Posadas?
Las Posadas is a beautiful Catholic tradition that takes place for nine days prior to Christmas. Children and adults take to the streets to be part of a “pilgrimage,” visiting one of nine participating homes per day. Each of the nine days is dedicated to a life value. They include generosity, humility, charity, strength, detachment, purity, justice, happiness, and trust.
What does Las Posadas celebrate?
Las Posadas celebrates the life values and also commemorates the journey that Joseph and Mary made from Nazareth to Bethlehem, in search of refuge before the birth of baby Jesus.
What does Las Posadas mean?
Las Posadas means “the inns.”
When does Las Posadas take place?
Las Posadas takes place from December 16 through Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) — December 24.
Las Posadas traditions
Each evening of Las Posadas begins with a prayer inside the host’s home, in front of nativity figurines for Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus, if the host has them. Guests divide into two groups, the pilgrims and the innkeepers. Outside, they reenact Joseph and Mary traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem to await the birth of Jesus Christ. Some hold candles and luces de bengala (sparklers), and they sing lyrics to the posada villancicos (carols). Some families take the tradition so seriously that they dress up in costumes and use props and sets.
The two groups sing the pilgrimage dialogue back and forth until the innkeepers open the door and welcome the pilgrims inside. That’s when the celebration begins.
The host welcomes the guests with a clay mug filled with Ponche Navideño, a piping hot Christmas punch made with fruit and piloncillo (unrefined cane sugar, or dark brown sugar) and spiced with cinnamon, star anise, cloves, and hibiscus. Sometimes adults ask for a “piquete,” or a sting, meaning an ounce or two of tequila in their drink to keep them extra warm and cozy.
Once the pilgrims make their way inside the “inn,” the children break a 7-point piñata. The piñata points represent each one of the deadly sins. The piñata holds fruits or sweets to represent the goodness of God that rewards those who overcome sin.
When the Christmas time celebration concludes, each guest goes home with a bolo, a brown paper bag filled with peanuts, cookies, an orange, and some dulces de colación, a traditional Mexican hard candy.
Traditional Las Posadas foods
As with all Mexican celebrations, food is a big part of the festivities. Hosts set out extra chairs around the living room and kitchen for guests to sit and enjoy a plate of tamales, buñuelos (fritters coated with cinnamon-sugar), and other traditional dishes and beverages. Sometimes people also serve red pork or green pozole with a mug of creamy champurrado (a warm corn flour-based chocolate drink), atole (a fruit drink made with cornstarch), or hot chocolate.
How to make tamales
Of all the special foods for Las Posadas, my family looks forward to eating — and making — tamales the most. When we plan our posada, we make tamales days, even weeks, ahead in a gathering called a tamalada. During our tamalada, each family member takes on a job. Kids under 13 soak the corn husks, and the matriarch of the family (that's me, here in California) makes the red chile sauce or green tomatillo sauce for the meat fillings. My tias churn the masa and monitor the steamers and my older cousins spread soft masa on husks. The day is long and fulfilling with lots of laughter, gossip, and loud chatter. It’s an event that evokes excitement that the holidays are near.
One of my favorite tamale recipes is the one I’m sharing with you for red chile and beef with potato, pickled jalapeño, carrot, and green olives. What I love most about them is that the masa is flavored with the same dried red chile sauce as the filling, giving them a deep, complex flavor inside and out. You end up with a delicious spicy masa and a wonderful combination of flavors everyone will enjoy.
1. Gather your ingredients
Before you begin cooking, head to your local Latin grocery store or online to get special ingredients for the recipe:
Dried chiles. The filling sauce calls for five different types of chiles, including guajillo, New Mexico, mulato, pasilla, and puya. Their complex flavors of smoky, bitter, spicy, and sweet create a well balanced sauce. If they aren’t all available, you can substitute with more of pasilla, New Mexico, or guajillo chiles, but always include a dark chile such as mulato, ancho, or chile negro to balance out the bitterness of the others.
Corn husks. When purchasing corn husks, look out for holes, tears, bugs, or small husk pieces. Make sure the husks are large with minimal imperfections.
Piloncillo. Made with unrefined whole cane sugar, cone-shaped piloncillo has a caramel taste similar to dark brown sugar or molasses. (Note that some Latin American countries call this sugar panela, but in Mexico, that's the name of a type of cheese!) If piloncillo is not available, dark brown sugar makes a great substitute.
Instant corn flour. Also called masa harina, instant corn flour is available in the baking section or Latin foods section of your grocery store. Instant corn flour comes in two textures. Finer instant corn flour is mostly used to make tortillas. Instant corn flour for tamales is ground into a thicker, grittier flour. You can use either type of instant corn flour to make tamales.
Lard or shortening. The fat in these tamales can be lard or vegetable shortening. If you’re buying lard, make sure it’s fresh, firm, and with no unpleasant odors. Ask the butcher at the grocery store for the freshest lard.
You’ll also need beef chuck, onions and other vegetables, spices, green olives, beef broth, and pickled jalapeños.
Tamale steamer or large pot. Finally, you’re going to need a big pot that’s at least 10 qt., but if you have a 32-qt. tamale steamer, the steam will have more space to circulate and cooking will be much faster and more even.
2. Line up some friends and family to help
Call up your family, friends, and neighbors and invite them to a tamale-making party. The more the merrier and the faster you will have a tamale feast for your posada.
3. Make the filling
Prior to gathering for your tamalada, prepare the filling one to two days ahead. This will save you a few hours on assembly day. It’s also easier to assemble tamales with a cold, thick filling.
4. Soak the corn husks
Rinse corn husks prior to soaking and remove any debris and loose fibers. Soak them in warm water for at least one hour.
5. Make the masa
After beating the lard and adding masa harina and other ingredients, beat the masa with a stand mixer until it's soft and spreadable. Then add some of the chile sauce you've made. To check if the masa is ready to spread, drop a nickel-sized piece of masa in a glass filled with cold water. If the piece of masa floats, its ready to spread. If it sinks, continue mixing and repeat the test every 5 minutes.
6. Set up an assembly line
Assign each of your tamalada attendees a job and lay out each tamale section on an extra-large table or on separate tables. Start out with corn husk soaking, move on to masa spreading, filling, folding, and arranging in a steamer. Don’t forget to have someone monitor the husks, in case they run low, and someone to monitor the boiling water level in the steamer, once you start cooking.
7. Steam the tamales
My family likes to work ahead of time. We wrap the tamales in their husks and then in parchment paper, label them with a permanent marker, steam, and freeze to get them ready for the holiday season. Other families choose to just freeze the raw tamales and steam them on the day they will eat them.
8. How to store tamales
Tamales can be stored up to 4 months, cooked or uncooked, wrapped in parchment paper and in freezer bags. Make sure you label each bag with the date and type of tamale and freeze them in small batches of 6 to 10 tamales each. This will make it easier to thaw the tamales without having to thaw a large quantity all at the same time.
Beef and Red Chile Tamales recipe
Here’s my special tamale recipe made not only with red chile and shredded beef, but also potato, carrot, green olives, and pickled jalapeños for a kick of flavor.
Ponche Navideño (Mexican Christmas Punch) recipe
Whether you’re hosting a posada or having friends over for an intimate Christmas gathering, warm and cozy Ponche Navideño always sets the holiday mood. This traditional drink may include a variety of seasonal fruits such as yellow guavas, quince, tejocotes (Mexican hawthorn), apples, pears, oranges, peeled sugarcane, prunes, and tamarind. The recipe is flexible and you can use what is in season and available in your area. Serve the ponche in large mugs with small forks to enjoy the fruit in your drink as you sip.
In addition to the fruit, this hot beverage gets its signature aroma and flavor from piloncillo, cinnamon, star anise, and whole cloves. To turn the flavorful drink into a cocktail, add a splash of tequila or rum.
Mexican buñuelos pastry recipe
Mexican families cook Buñuelos Enmielados — crispy, cinnamon and sugar-coated fritters served with piloncillo syrup — year-round. But there’s something special about seeing them stacked on a holiday table with syrup by their side.
You make a dough with flour, baking powder, cinnamon, sugar, and salt and roll it out in rounds like tortillas. Then you fry it until golden and crisp and coat it with cinnamon-sugar. The piloncillo syrup is optional and can be substituted with your favorite honey. Whichever you choose, just drizzle and crunch away.
I hope you get to experience a posada this holiday season. It’s a beautiful and unforgettable experience, not to mention a delicious one, too.
In the mood for Mexican food
Keep reading to explore additional Mexican recipes to add to your holiday traditions.