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Hallacas: These Venezuelan Tamales are a Christmas Favorite

Cuisine: Venezuelan
Hallacas are the traditional dish for the holidays in Venezuela. This tamale-style dish is more than the center of the Christmas table in Venezuela -- it is the dish every family finds a way to afford. Enjoy the Real Magic of the holiday season with friends, family, and refreshing Coca-Cola.

Hallacas are prepared in groups and are led by one person who usually gets the rest of the family together for the celebrations. Since moving to the U.S., the various family recipes -- my mother’s, my mother-in-law, the friends we shared the cooking with -- have all influenced this recipe.


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  1. Chop the meats into very small bits, mixing in a portion of 2 parts beef, one part pork, and seasoned to taste.
  2. Cut all other ingredients, either in a food processor or by hand, combining all ingredients on the list from 3 to 12 and half of the onions.
  3. In a big, deep frying pan, heat olive oil to sear onions, tomatoes, and ají until half cooked then start adding the meat and vegetable mixture in alternating lumps.
  4. Use the wine and broth to keep the mixture wet and saucy. Add salt and pepper to taste, sprinkle a bit of sugar too.
  5. Once the meat is cooked, turn off the heat and let it cool. When possible, I like to mix the raw meat mixture with half the condiment mix, wine, and seasoning, and keep it in the refrigerator overnight to be cooked as above the following day before assembly.
  6. The assembly process can last 6 hours or longer, depending on the experience and amount of helpers.
Assembly of the hallacas
  1. Once you're ready to proceed, there are 4 big steps to follow: cook the stew, make the dough, clean the leaves and assemble the hallacas. Once the stew is cooked, start on the dough.
  2. Heat the vegetable cooking oil with onoto (annatto/achiote) seeds until the oil turns deep orange/red from the annatto. Add 2/3 of that oil to half the chicken broth, and about 2 cups of water, and 1 package of cornflour. Add salt to taste and keep adding more flour, broth, water, and oil until achieving a soft consistency that can be molded easily.
  3. Separate the dough into fist-size balls and keep them covered with a damp cloth. Even if you have access to fresh plantains leaves, it is much better to use frozen ones. These are usually available at the frozen food section of most supermarkets. Defrost them outside the refrigerator, rinsing them with a clean, damp cloth. Separate the covers by size since you will need to wrap them at least in two layers. Keep them moist by covering them with a damp cloth.
  4. In different containers, place ingredients 6-15 from the assembly list. Arrange people helping with the hallacas to work in stations around these ingredients. In a clean plantain leaf, drop some annatto oil and spread the dough very thin, add a big spoonful of stew and a bit of each decorative ingredient from list 6-15; fold the dough with the help of the leaf. Close the hallaca; cover it with another leaf and tie it with several lines of string, finishing with a knot.
  5. Once all hallacas are tied, bring them to boil in a big pan with water and salt for about 1 hour. Repeat as needed until all the dough and stew are used. Depending on the size of the leaves, dough, and generosity of the assembly line workers, the result would be about 4 to 5 dozen hallacas.
  6. When there is leftover dough, is customary to combine some stew and other ingredients and make what is called “bollitos.” Everything is mixed together and wrapped into smaller hallaca size items, tied, and boiled in water for about 45 minutes. Now the tradition is to open a few hallacas from the first batch to taste and try among the cooks and to share some with those who helped to make them, as well as with family and friends.

Chef Notes

Since making hallacas is time-intensive and ingredient-intensive, make sure to read through the recipe thoroughly before starting!

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