Tamales Empipianados (Tamales with a Red Spiced Sunflower Seed and Pepita Mole)

Adapted from Gonzalo Guzmán's "Nopalito, " these Pueblan-style chicken tamales with mole made with pepitas and sunflower seeds are worth every hour spent making them.

For as long as I can remember, cooking and eating together has been a central part of our family's dynamic. When we gather, we gather around food, the kitchen and dining areas being the heartbeat of what ever home we’re gathered at. I remember birthday parties with candy-filled piñatas and holiday celebrations with both sets of grandparents, aunties and uncles and friend's of my parents overflowing from the kitchen out into the backyard as the food and drinks flowed. There were beef, pork and chicken filled tamales. Carne aside tacos with the my dad’s super spicy salsa cruda. Carnitas with crispy pork belly and pig ears. Steaming bowls of pozole or albondigas. I even remember once a hot coal-filled pit dug in the backyard for barbacoa (and days before finding that lamb head sitting on the refrigerator shelf having scared 8 year-old me nearly to death and my dad rolling on the ground laughing about it!). Then there were parties where the menu included Italian-American classics like lasagna, spaghetti with meatballs, and pizzas. There were cookouts with frequent appearances of my dad’s zesty coleslaw, my mom’s macaroni salad, while hamburgers, hot dogs, Mexican grilled corn and ribs with my dad’s homemade barbecue sauce practically flew off the hot grill. The food was always accompanied with my dad’s collection of 45s streaming “oldies" from speakers. I remember homemade wine coolers before they were cool and available in bottles; the cut crystal goblets coming out for glasses of sangria that I couldn't wait to try once I was old enough. There was homemade layer cakes like chocolate, carrot, strawberry or red velvet with homemade-not-from-plastic-tub frosting and free-flowing laughter. And there was love. Lots of love. 

The frequency of the celebrations have slowed tremendously as my parents are now in their 70s and their health not what it once was. With the death of my beloved maternal grandmother last year, both sets of grandparents are now gone. We've all been grown up for years, my five sisters and I, with one sister now living on the east coast. Our complicated lives are so filled with things that need doing that gatherings of the entire family has waned over the years, often being relegated to major holidays with the occasional big number birthday celebration thrown in.

Our family gatherings may have lowered in number but food is still a central component when we do gather. Just earlier this month, my sister and brother-in-law hosted us for Mother’s Day, my sister doing the cooking herself. As usual for our family, there was an abundance of choices with mimosas to keep us in high spirits. 
I’ve been thinking back a lot on those days lately. Remembering dishes that used to make an appearance at gatherings and how I wish I’d paid more attention to them. What exactly were they? How were they made? Who made what and are they still around to show me how to make it? Sadly, the answer to that one is most often no, they aren’t. So I’m left searching my memories for clues, sometimes resorting to a frustrating internet search. Then, a cookbook made it onto my desk, “Nopalito: A Mexican Kitchen” by Gonzalo Guzmán, and I knew I’d found a book that could help me navigate through some of those food memories. 
The book is not only beautiful, but filled with one great Mexican dish after another. I’ve found many that are close to what I grew up, many I’ve not heard of and others that I’m glad to have as a blueprint for my own explorations. One such recipe is today’s tamales empipianados. These tamales will be making an appearance at the next family gathering. They are chicken tamales with a red spiced sunflower seed mole and they’ve become a bit of an obsession. 

“These Pueblan tamales get their name from pipian, a mole or complex sauce containing different kinds of seeds such as pepita, sunflower, or sesame. The seeds add a richer texture and nutty flavor to what would otherwise be a simple tomato-based salsa.” Gonzalo Guzmán, from “Nopalito” 

I’ve made several different kinds of moles before but never this sunflower version. Though its heat level was mild the flavor of the toasted dried chiles still came through. I made some tweaks to the recipe to better align with my own palate and family traditions. I’ve pointed out those changes in the head note. 
“These need to go into rotation, Ani,” declared my aunt the first night we had these tamales. 
Yeah, I don’t think I’ll be waiting for an official family gathering to make these again. 


Tamales Empipianados 

{Tamales with a Red Spiced Sunflower Seed and Pepita Mole}

The headnote says the mole can be made with pepitas, sunflower seeds or sesame seeds but the instructions didn't include pepitas; I added them and loved the outcome. I am fortunate enough to live near several tortillerias so I was able to purchase freshly ground nixtamalized corn masa instead of nixtamalizing my own from scratch. Another tweak was how the masa was prepared. The recipe says to dump all the ingredients into a stand-mixer (or large bowl to mix by hand) and mix all the ingredients at once. In my experience, this produces a denser finished product. I prefer my steamed tamal to have a lighter and fluffier dough. The key is to start with solid shortening and whip it along with the salt and baking powder until the shortening is light, pale (if using butter) and doubled in volume BEFORE adding the masa bit by bit. The final tweak is the addition of a slice of potato and an olive. Full on meat tamales are a bit heavy for me. My family has always added veg or cheese to tamales; I prefer the variety of textures and flavors this produces. I made these by myself from start to finish in one 6 hour session (4 hours prep time, 2 hours to steam and clean up while steaming). Your time may vary depending on how experienced you are at assembling tamales.

Recipe adapted from "Nopalito: A Mexican Kitchen" by Gonzalo Guzmán.

Makes about 24 tamales with extra mole for serving

For the chicken

1 whole (3 ½ to 4 pound) chicken
½ white onion, peeled
3 fat cloves garlic, peeled
2 bay leaves
sea salt

24-26 large corn husks or up to 48 smaller ones

For the mole

4 large dried guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded, then cut into quarters
3 dried ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded, then cut into quarters
¾ teaspoon ground cloves
¾ teaspoon ground cumin
¾ teaspoon ground allspice
¾ cup raw sunflower seeds
½ cup raw pepitas
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
4 cups canned diced tomatoes and their juices
3 cups chicken stock
¼ cup lard

For the masa

2 cups lard (or butter, neutral coconut oil, or vegetable shortening)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon sea salt, plus more if needed
6 cups freshly ground nixtamalized corn masa (or prepared from store-bought masa harina)

For the assembly

large russet potato, cut into 24 matchsticks
24 pitted olives, green or California black

For serving

crumbled queso fresco or cotija cheese
Mexican crema or sour cream
toasted pepitas
toasted sesame seeds
toasted sunflower seeds


Cook the chicken: Add the chicken to a stock pot along with the onion, garlic, bay leaves and salt. Add water to cover by 4 inches. Bring to a boil, then skim off and discard the foam that rises. Lower heat to maintain a simmer and cook the chicken until it's falling off the bone, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove chicken to a plate to cool then shred, discarding the bones and skin; strain the broth and reserve. (This step can be done up to a day in advance.)

Ready the husks: Place the husks in a large stock pot and add water to cover. Bring to a boil, weighing down the husks with a plate or bowl. Cover the pot and leave to sit while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. This will ensure the husks are soft and pliable enough to wrap when you're ready to assemble.
Prepare the mole: Heat a griddle or large skillet on medium-high heat. Add the chiles and toast for 30 seconds on each side. Remove the chiles to a pot. Add water to cover then bring to a boil; cover and turn off heat. Allow to steep for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, add the mole spices and seeds to a hot griddle or skillet on medium heat and toast stirring, until fragrant, about 2-3 minutes. Add them, the chiles and tomatoes along with their juices and ½ cup of chicken stock to a blender. Blend until smooth. Taste for seasoning, adding salt if needed. 

To finish the mole, heat the lard in a Dutch oven. Once melted, pour in the sauce and cook for 30 minutes on a low simmer, adding some of the reserved chicken stock as needed to keep a nice smooth consistency of a loose pancake batter. 

While the mole is simmering, prepare the masa: Add the lard, baking powder and salt to the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Whip the lard on medium high until it's doubled in volume, about 10 minutes. Add the masa in stages, whipping on medium until fully incorporated before adding more. 

Assemble and cook the tamales: Add the shredded chicken to a large bowl. Pour in 4 cups of mole and stir to combine; reserve the rest of the mole to serve. Place a large husk onto your work surface, point side facing up and away from you with the large, wide side closest to you. Spread ¼ cup of masa onto the husk, leaving a ½ border along the wide side and going up only ¾ of the length of the husk, leaving the majority of the tail end free of masa. Add ¼ cup of the chicken mixture to the center of the masa, spreading it vertical so it is a bit of an oval shape. Add a slice of potato and an olive then bring up the sides of the husk, overlapping them. Fold the tail end over the and place on a large tray or cookie sheet, seam side down. Repeat this process until you have 24 tamales or run out of meat/masa/husks. 

Add the tamales to a large stock pot with a steamer insert or large tamale steamer (available online or at Mexican markets), keeping them vertical if possible, with the open ends facing up. Cover the tamales with a clean damp tea towel, add the lid and allow to steam on low heat for 2 hours, adding ½ cup of hot water if needed (add the water so it drips down the side of the pot to avoid saturating the tamales). The tamales are done when they pull away easily from the husk or when a toothpick inserted comes out mostly clean.

To serve: Unwrap the tamales, spoon on some warmed mole sauce and top with cheese, crema and or sunflower or pepitas. 

To store: Allow tamales to cool completely before refrigerating. Will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks or in the freezer for up to 8 months. 

To reheat tamales: Never microwave! Tamales gets tough when microwaved. Instead you can: 
  • Resteam (my favorite way), adding them to a hot steamer and steam for 15 to 20 minutes
  • Fry, unwrapped, in some vegetable oil in a hot cast iron skillet until the outside is golden and caramelized
  • Heat a griddle or dry skillet and toast two or three tamales in their husks until the husks are charred and the tamales are warmed through

Until next time, friends … ¡Buen Provecho!
xo, ani


  1. Ani, you've written beautifully about your family gatherings, something I didn't have growing up. But I am determined to make it happen for my own family.
    And the description of preparing the food makes my mouth water!
    Would I ask for "masa nixtamalisada" at a Mexican grocery? (Good place to practice my Spanish.)
    I made your enchilada sauce recently and my husband loved it.

    1. Thank you, Karen! You can just ask for masa para tortillas. That's what I used. It's just the ground nixtamalized corn. That way you can prepare it as specified in the recipe. Sometimes you can also find masa preparada for tamales which already has the lard/shortening, leavening and salt added. I prefer to have more control over mine and prepare this myself. But know the option is out there.

      I'm so glad you husband liked my family's easy enchilada sauce recipe! ;)


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