I recently read Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses for the first time, and I love love loved it. The writing, the story, the way it made me want to run away to Mexico and work with horses all day…and especially the tortillas. According to Google Books (a source I at least mostly trust), there are 15 mentions of tortillas in All the Pretty Horses. According to me, I wanted tortillas pretty much constantly after I started reading. They just sounded so simple and good, whether the characters were eating them in the morning with eggs and beans before going out to break horses, or with “an anonymous stew” in prison (yes, Cormac McCarthy can make even prison food sound appealing). Descriptions of food in books have been making me hungry for years–the breakfasts Jeeves makes for Bertie when he’s hungover in PG Wodehouse’s stories, the elaborate teas Anne learns to make at Green Gables*, pretty much every food ever mentioned in A Year in Provence–but this was the first time I was actually inspired to recreate something at home. Tortilla descriptions plus Cinco de Mayo was too perfect a combination to resist.
Molly has been telling me for years that it’s easy to make tortillas at home, but I never quite believed her. I don’t make a lot of savory doughs (read: hardly any), and for some reason this just seemed like something outside of the realm of possibility for me. Even on the night I set out to make them, I bought back up rice so I’d have a just in case starch option. I expected to end up with a big sticky mess, frankly, but I was game to give it a go. As luck would have it, I had brunch with Molly on the morning of May 5th and so I was able to get her to review the recipe she’d given me years ago and to reassure me yet again that homemade tortillas weren’t that hard. She was right, as it turns out, tho I can’t say that my first try was entirely perfect.
The ingredient list couldn’t be simpler–just flour, salt, water and oil (I have another friend who is also a big proponent of the homemade tortilla…made with lard. I haven’t braved that option yet, but I’ll report back if I do), blended together to form a sticky dough. Is anyone else as pleasantly surprised as I am when a dough like this actually comes together? It happened much more quickly and easily than I had anticipated, and I was pleased as punch when these four ingredients turned into a solid lump of dough. I pinched off small handfuls and rolled them out using an empty bottle, adding more flour to the surface and bottle with every new tortilla since the dough was really sticky. I…didn’t have great luck getting the dough into nicely round traditional tortilla shapes. Let’s call mine creative instead, to be kind. Happily, the dash to get a new tortilla rolled out as quickly as the one before it cooked added a slight speed racer aspect that enabled me to let go of any hope of tortilla perfection I might have had. They might not have been the prettiest, but they were tasty.
These tortillas were also a little thicker than the ones that come in a bag at the grocery store–I definitely haven’t yet mastered rolling them out as thinly as might be ideal, and I found that even when I thought I had the dough thin enough it sprang back a bit in the pan–but I liked the added texture. I might add a bit more salt next time, but overall the taste was just as homey and comforting as I had hoped and I was really happy with the way these came out. And tho I have a feeling that the ladies making tortilla for John Grady Cole in All the Pretty Horses probably got perfectly lovely uniform results, the fact that these really looked homemade only added to the fun for me. They felt like something I might take with me for a long day on the mesa…even tho Hal and I had them in front of the tv. We ate them with grilled steak and a hearty improvised salsa (chopped tomatoes, black beans, cilantro, lime juice, red onion, chilies, avocado), and I’m already looking forward to making them again.
Whisk together flour and salt in a large bowl. In a separate cup, combine water and oil. Add wet ingredients to dry, stirring til blended. If stirring doesn’t seem to do the trick, get your hands in there to knead the dough together. Roll out onto a floured surface into a thick log-ish shape (you don’t have to be too technical about this, since you’ll be dividing the dough).
Molly recommends cutting the log into 6-8 equally sized pieces–I found that just pinching off a small roughly golf ball sized handful worked just as well. Roll out each piece, using a well floured rolling pin (or bottle, in my fancy case) to counteract the stickiness of the dough, making the tortilla as thin as possible. As I mentioned above I ended up with very free form shapes, but I’m confident that I’ll improve with practice.
Turn your burner on high, and place a pan or griddle–cast iron is ideal but non stick works to–on top. Place the tortillas on one by one, letting each puff up a bit before flipping to the other side. You’ll get a few decorative black spots to let you know that your tortillas are done. If they’re coming out more burnt than decorative, turn down the heat. Keep rolling out pieces as you grill, and try to enjoy the speed challenge nature of this particular cooking project.
You made tortillas! Now, pack up a few for lunch and go ride a horse. Or read a book about a horse. Either way.
*One of my favorite things I’ve ever read about food was a description of making both the Raspberry Cordial Anne accidentally gets Diana drunk with, and the Turkish Delight from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Fantastic, and contains the phrase “radioactive rose-flavored nightmare.” Enjoy.