Originally printed in November 2015
According to legend 12,000 years ago a Mayan peasant created the tlaxcalli for his beloved and hungry king. It quickly became a staple of the local diet and when Hernán Cortés (Hernando Cortez) and his men arrived in 1519 they too fell in love with this versatile flat bread.
Thankfully they gave it a simpler Spanish name which translates as ‘little cake’ and it is the name by which we still call it.
Often mispronounced the tortilla (tor-tee-ya) is one of the oldest breads that we know of and not only is the modern version quick and easy to make but can be used to make a wide range of products. They are so popular in America that it is estimated that 85 billion of them are eaten every year which translates to around 5 tortilla each week for every person. They are even eaten on the International Space Station.
The traditional corn based version requires soaking dried corn in a lime solution before dehusking and schmudging into a paste called a ‘masa’ and if you wish to go to that effort then all power to you. In the meantime I’ll be making the much simpler wheat based version.
Such a simple dough to make and the tortilla can then be cooked in a frypan, on a BBQ or even on a hot rock from the fire.
- 450g (3cups) flour
- 5g (1t) salt
- 3g (1t) baking powder
- 70ml (1/3 cup) oil
- 250ml (1 cup) warm water
- Mix all ingredients until a dough forms. You really don’t need to mix for long, just until the flour has all been incorporated. Try and resist the urge to add more water as the resulting tortilla will not be as good.
- Divide into 16 pieces (approx. 45g) and shape into balls. Make them as smooth as you can without spending ages on them
- Cover with plastic or a damp cloth for at least 20 mins. At this point you can also cover them with cling film and put them in the fridge overnight.
- Pin each ball into very thin discs. The thinner the better, I make mine so thin that I can see the bench through them.
- Fry in a dry pan for around 1 minute on the first side. It will take a few attempts to get the ideal temperature of the pan. What you are aiming for is for bubbles to form on the top between about 30-45 seconds. Any longer and the pan is too cold and will dry the tortilla out, any shorter and the pan is too hot and it will burn.
- Once the bottom is splotchily browned flip the tortilla over and cook for 20-30 secs.
- If you aren’t using them straight away, pop them into an airtight bag to keep them soft and pliable.
These are sort of like the Mexican version of a toasted sandwich. As you place the tortilla into the pan cover half of it with a savoury mixture of your choice then fold over the other half. Complete the cooking as normal, flipping over when the underside is cooked. There is a great variation here – I go straight for the ham, cheese and spring onion, spinach and feta is great or just cheese are also firm favourites in our house.
If you don’t want to make the tortilla yourself you can even make quesadilla from ready-made tortilla that are then heated/fried in a pan to make them soft again before you fill them.
Other variations using the tortilla
You can use the humble tortilla to make a range of meals, snacks and accompaniments. Here are some of the obvious ones as well as a couple of my favourites.
- Depressingly this is both the name and use that they more increasingly known for. A simple and generally healthy option for lunch especially when you make everything yourself.
- These are great for BBQs as you can have most of the prep done way in advance and everyone makes their own so there should be no complaining. Sliced, grilled meat is wrapped up in the tortilla along with things such as lettuce and fried onions and peppers. They’re even better when topped off with guacamole, sour cream or a tomato salsa.
- Mince, refried beans, salad and chilli sauce wrapped up in a tortilla.
- Tortilla chips. If you’ve cooked your soft tortilla for a bit long and it goes crisp don’t panic - just snap it into pieces and serve it with dips or salsa and sour cream .