Hallacas From Caracas


December 23, 1990|By Gail Forman

Because of a copy editing error, an incorrect cooking tim was given for the Sunday Gourmet recipe the Sun Magazine last Sunday. The packages of hallacas should be simmered for 1 1/2 hours.

The Sun regrets the error.

For a unique, last-minute Christmas treat, consider the traditional culinary specialty of Venezuela: hallacas. Cousin to Mexican tamales and Puerto Rican pasteles, hallacas consist of white cornmeal (masa) dough filled with bits of beef, pork and chicken stewed with spices, onions, tomatoes, raisins, olives and more, then wrapped in smoked plantain leaves.

In Venezuela several years ago I learned that hallacas are so much a part of the holiday table that newspapers report on the availability of ingredients. And I heard the history of these dough cakes from a local resident, Marula Zubillaga.


Long ago, the legend goes, wealthy families ate enormous meals of roast pork and beef, stewed chicken and hard-boiled eggs on Christmas Eve. Leftovers went to the slaves, who tucked the bits of meat inside thick cornmeal dumplings and wrapped the whole concoction in the leaves of the bananalike plantain tree that grows abundantly all over the country.

Nowadays, all Venezuelans eat hallacas on Dec. 24 when, like other Latin Americans, they celebrate Christmas with a midnight supper. Every family has its own favorite version of the food.

Ingredients for hallacas are sold at Spanish grocery stores, but for convenience we have listed some substitutes that can be found at supermarkets. Parchment paper or aluminum foil work as substitute wrappers but will not impart the smoky flavor banana leaves contribute. Instant precooked white cornmeal makes preparing the dough easy.

Hallacas keep for a week in the refrigerator and can be frozen. While full-size hallacas make unusual last-minute Christmas gifts, hallaquitas, the cocktail-size version, become interesting holiday nibblers.


1 1/2 cups plus 3 tablespoons oil

1 cup cubed pork, chops or shoulder

1 cup cubed beef, top round or flank steak

1 onion, chopped

1 small green pepper, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped

2 tablespoons chopped chives

1 1/2 cups chicken broth

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1/2 cup raisins

3 tablespoons chopped green olives

2 pimentos, chopped

1 teaspoon oregano

salt and pepper to taste

1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce, optional

2 cups shredded cooked chicken

cup annatto (achiote) seeds, or substitute 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

4 cups precooked masa (white cornmeal)

2 2/3 cups warm water

banana leaves, parchment paper or aluminum foil

4 hard-boiled eggs, sliced

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a skillet and saute pork, beef, onion, pepper and garlic. Add tomatoes, chives, broth, vinegar, raisins, olives, pimentos, oregano, salt, pepper and hot sauce. Simmer 15 minutes. Add chicken and cook 5 minutes. Heat remaining oil and annatto seeds or turmeric in a small saucepan and cook just until seeds color the oil, about 5 minutes. Strain.

Combine masa, salt to taste, water and annatto or turmeric oil to form a smooth dough that holds together well. Add more water and oil as needed. If using banana leaves, cut into 13-inch squares. If using parchment paper or aluminum foil, cut into 10-inch by 15-inch pieces. Brush leaves, paper or foil with oil. Spread 1/2 cup dough into a thin rectangle on leaf, paper or foil, smoothing with the fingers. Spoon 2 tablespoons of filling onto dough, a little to the side of the center. Top with a slice of egg.

If using leaves, fold one side, against the grain, over the filling. Then fold the other side of the leaf over, using it to make dough edges meet and enclose filling. Then carefully wrap leaf, joining opposite sides and folding ends under. In the same manner, wrap tightly in a second leaf and press seams closed. Close ends over seam side and tie securely with kitchen string. If using paper or foil, fold in half so that filling is covered by dough. Fold long edge back toward the center and fold short edges toward the middle. Tie 2 packages together with kitchen string.

Stack packages on a rack, folded side down, in a large pan of boiling water. Cover and simmer 1 1/2 minutes or until dough is firm and loses its raw taste. Serve immediately or wrap in plastic and refrigerate or freeze. To reheat, steam without thawing 1/2 hour or until hot. Serve leftover filling on the side. Makes 12.

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