Recipe courtesy of Larisa Alvarez for Food Network Kitchen


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  • Level: Advanced
  • Total: 6 hr
  • Active: 4 hr
  • Yield: 25 hallacas (25 servings)
Hallacas are a Venezuelan Christmas tradition. Put simply, cornmeal masa gets folded and stuffed with a meaty stew and a couple of garnishes. However, unlike most other traditions, this one seems to be a national requirement. Every Venezuelan family that I know gathers in early December to divide up the work, celebrate family and the holiday season. We make hundreds to eat through December, having them for dinner every Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s. What makes hallacas even more special is that the contents vary across families and regions. My dad’s mother, Abuela Chabe, whose seasoning is in this recipe, makes her stew with just pork and adds potatoes and chickpeas to it. The region where my mom’s mother, Abuela Josefina, is from is known for not cooking the stew before adding it to the masa. It took me two Christmases to convince my mother to let us add a second plum, as it is one of my favorite bites. All this is to say: Every family has an evolving recipe that is distinctly theirs. This is ours.


Guiso (Stew):


Plantain Leaves:



Abuela Chabe’s Adobo:


Special equipment:
an Instant Pot® multi-cooker
  1. For the guiso: Heat 1/4 cup of the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat until hot. Add the onions and a large pinch salt. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions start to turn translucent and release their liquid, about 10 minutes. Add the diced bell peppers, adobo and bouillon cubes. Add another 1/4 cup oil if the bottom of the pot looks dry. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the bell peppers start to break down and the mixture resembles a dark red-orange soup, about 10 minutes. The heat should be low enough and there should be enough oil so that nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot. Add the leeks, scallions, 3 tablespoons salt and remaining 1/4 cup oil if necessary. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables break down, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and capers, stirring occasionally, until the mixture resembles a slaw tossed in a bright brick-red barbecue sauce and some oil, about 10 minutes.
  2. Once the vegetables have softened and become a homogenous mixture, add both wines, the mustard, Worcestershire and dissolved panela and stir together. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. Taste and add more salt, if necessary.
  3. Add the pork and beef to the vegetables, stir to combine and bring to a very low simmer. Cook, covered, about 15 minutes. The beef and the pork will have released some juices, so stir to evenly combine everything and redistribute some of the meat from the bottom of the pot to the top. Cover and cook at a low simmer for another 30 minutes. I like to put my ear close to the lid every 5 to 10 minutes. If I hear aggressive bubbling inside I lower the heat so the meat doesn't get tough. Once the 30 minutes are up, taste a piece of beef. It should be tender and fall apart when bitten. If it is still a little tough, cook for 5 to 10 minutes more. If you are doing the process all in 1 day, transfer the guiso to a bowl so it cools faster. If you are spreading out the process over a couple of days, divide the guiso into smaller containers, let cool a bit, then cover and refrigerate overnight.
  4. For the chicken: Put the chicken in an Instant Pot® or pressure cooker (see Cook's Note). Add 7 cups water, the bouillon cubes, a large pinch salt and the reserved leek tops from the guiso. Follow the manufacturer's guide for locking the lid and preparing to cook. Set the meat setting to medium, turn off the Keep Warm button if you have one and let cook. (If there is no meat button or you are using a standard pressure cooker, pressure cook for 15 minutes.) After the cycle is complete, follow the manufacturer's guide for natural release and wait until the natural-release cycle is complete.
  5. Remove the chicken to a medium bowl and let cool slightly. Strain the liquid into a large saucepan and reserve 7 cups for the masa. Tear the chicken apart into 1/4-inch chunks and set aside for garnish.
  6. For the plantain leaves: While the guiso and chicken cool, carefully rinse the plantain leaves, then open them up like a book or pamphlet until you reach the center and are looking at one smooth leaf. The goal is to divide the leaves into three categories: mains, supporters and strips. Or as we call them: las primeras (the firsts), las segundas (the seconds) y las fajas (the strips).
  7. The mains are the leaves that will directly touch the masa and that you will use to fold the masa over itself. They must be strong and, therefore, can’t have any holes. Sometimes you’ll buy bags of leaves that will be whole and you'll be able to cut them to your desired size; this is the dream scenario. But, other times, the leaves will have many tears, so arranging them is a bit of a puzzle. Assuming the leaves are roughly the same length, cut each main leaf into a rectangle about 15 inches long; each supporter, about 13 inches long; finally, each strip, ideally 3 to 4 inches wide (just throw the leftover pieces here). You need at least 25 of each, but realistically you’ll end up with just enough mains and lots of supporters.
  8. Sort the leaves into 3 stacks by size, then gently wipe each one dry with a cloth and remove any remaining dirt.
  9. At this point, my father, the plantain leaf king, wraps 2 cutting boards in plastic wrap: a large rectangular one that's bigger than the largest leaf rectangle; and another that's about a 10-inch round. These will act as a masa press (wrapping them in plastic wrap helps the dough release easily and prevents staining).
  10. You'll also need what we call a “muñequita” (“little doll”), which is a clean rag for greasing the plantain leaves. Take a rag (cheesecloth works here, too) and create a little ball at one end about 1 1/2-inches wide, then tie it off with kitchen twine, leaving some fabric to use as a handle.
  11. For the masa: Add 3 tablespoons salt to the saucepan with the chicken broth and heat over medium heat until slightly hot (the hotter the better, but not so hot you can't knead the dough when it's added to the masa), 2 to 5 minutes. It should taste like a salty chicken soup. This is what's going to season your masa! It needs to be flavorful.
  12. Meanwhile, heat the oil and 2 tablespoons of the annato in a small saucepan over medium heat until the oil turns a beautiful red-orange, about 2 minutes; keep an eye on the seeds so they don't get dark and burn. (The annatto oil stains forever so be careful and use gloves when working with the oil and the dough). Strain the annatto oil into the warm chicken broth and stir to combine. Return the seeds to the small saucepan and set aside.
  13. This next part is best done with two people: one to drizzle in the annatto broth and one to hold the bowl steady and knead the dough with gloved hands. If you are the drizzler, please know that your job is equally important. (I have been trying to get promoted to kneader for years now, so I can sympathize.) Working in sections, add about 1 cup of the broth to a corner of the cornmeal in a large bowl. Pause and let the kneader (don’t forget those gloves!) incorporate the broth until worked into that section of the cornmeal. Taste a little bit of the dough. Is it flavorful? Or does the broth need another pinch or two salt? Let the kneader rotate the bowl; add another cup of the broth and repeat the drizzling and kneading process 2 more times, incorporating more broth into the dryer parts of the dough each time (for a total of about 4 cups broth), then combine and knead them together. 
  14. Once there are no visible grains of cornmeal left, combine all the dough together evenly before adding more broth. My mother kneads it all into a large ball, then flattens it against the bottom of the bowl and pokes holes throughout so that when the broth is drizzled in it doesn’t go straight to the edges. Once you have about 3 cups of broth left, transfer the dough to a large roasting pan and continue to knead there. Don’t do this on a counter or a cutting board—it will stain. Repeat the process of working the dough together, poking some holes and adding about 1/2 cup of broth 5 more times. (You likely won’t need to use that last 1/2 cup of broth but it’s good to have.) After adding the fifth 1/2 cup, the dough should get wet enough that it starts to stick to the bottom of the pan a little bit, but once you continue to work it and the dough absorbs the liquid, nothing is left behind on your hands or on the pan. Grab a handful of dough, roll it into a ball and then flatten it. If there are cracks on the side, you need a little bit more liquid. If there are none, you are set. It should feel like a very malleable and soft Play-Doh.
  15. Weigh the dough and divide by 25 (or 24 if you’ve been snacking on the dough too much like some people in our household are known to do). Our sweet spot for each portion is between 105 and 112 grams (a little under 4 ounces). Do not go below 100 grams. Divide the dough into equal pieces and roll into balls. Take your time with the rolling; the rounder the balls, the rounder they will be when they are flattened. Cover with a wet dark kitchen towel to keep the dough from drying out.
  16. For the assembly: Add the shortening and remaining 2 tablespoons annatto seeds to the drained annatto seeds in the small saucepan. Heat over low heat until the shortening melts and turns a deep red color, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. If the shortening starts to solidify while wrapping the hallacas, melt over low heat until smooth again. 
  17. Cut kitchen twine into 25 lengths, each about 52 inches long, and set up the following stations: 
  18. Dough flattening: the plastic-wrapped cutting boards, annatto shortening, la muñequita, the “main” plantain leaves and a stack of plates.  
  19. Filling: all of the garnishes including the guiso, bell pepper slivers, chicken, raisins, almonds, capers, olives, bacon, dried plums.  
  20. Wrapping: “supporting” plantain leaves and strips.
  21. Tying: the twine. 
  22. You’ve made it to assembling! This is my favorite part. At this point we grab our adult beverages of choice, settle into our stations and turn on gaitas (Venezuelan equivalent of Christmas carols). We also boil a pot of water because it is mandatory to taste hallacas when you are done assembling.  
  23. Your first person will start by placing a “main” leaf, smooth-side up, on the larger wrapped cutting board. Hold the muñequita by the excess fabric and dip the little ball into the melted shortening, then generously grease a 9-inch round onto the center of the leaf. Place a masa ball in the center of the round and flatten with the smaller cutting board until an 8-inch round forms. Put your weight into it! Transfer the leaf with the disk of dough to a plate and pass it off to the filling station. 
  24. The filler will add a little less than 1/2 cup guiso in a straight line on the masa that lines up with 2 of the opposing diagonal corners of the leaf, leaving an inch on either side of the round. Think of this as a burrito that you are going to fold up, so everything needs to be slightly rectangular and in the center with room to fold. Place 1 bell pepper slice on each of the long edges of the filling. Then take a four-finger pinch each (in this order) of chicken, raisins, almonds and capers and sprinkle over the guiso. Top with 2 pieces of the bacon and place 4 olive halves throughout. Top with 2 dried plums, one on each short edge. Pass the plate to the wrapper.
  25. The wrapper will grab a corner of the leaf that's perpendicular to the line of filling and fold it over and peel the masa off slightly to cover half of the filling lengthwise. Repeat on the other side so the masa overlaps with the first half and the 2 sides of the disk meet each other in the middle. You should have a rectangle of masa rounded off on the short sides, diagonally in the center of the plantain leaf. Using each short side of the leaf, bring in the corresponding short side of the masa to try and cover the edges of filling that are visible. Carefully peel off and pat down the short sides so that the dough sticks to itself and completes the rectangle. Ideally, the filling should be covered but it's not a big deal if it isn't.
  26. Next, wrap the dough in its "main" plantain leaf like you would a present: Fold over 1 corner of the leaf toward its diagonally opposing corner and create a "crease" at the bottom (this is why you went diagonal with the filling). Repeat on the other side to enclose the dough lengthwise, then fold over the 2 short sides to create something that resembles an open envelope with a triangular flap. Close the envelope by tucking that triangular flap underneath until you have a perfect rectangle. Transfer the rectangle, flap-side down, to the smooth side of a “supporting” leaf, placing the rectangle in the center on a diagonal. Wrap the rectangle, making sure that the edges in particular are well protected; then snip off any protruding triangular flap. The name of the game here is: Keep water from getting into the masa. Once you fold the final flap, stick a strip in the opening and wrap it crosswise around the middle of the rectangle to complete the seal. Pass the hallaca off to the tyer and return the plate to the first station.
  27. Tie the hallaca also like you would a present. We like 2 rows each of twine going lengthwise and crosswise, which creates a 3 x 3 grid of twine.
  28. Repeat the wrapping and tying and don’t forget to toss your first couple of hallacas into the boiling water, which brings me to the cook!
  29. Cook the hallacas in rolling, boiling water until the smell of plantain leaves fills up your kitchen, at least 1 hour. Freeze any hallacas you don't cook in sealed plastic bags (we like to double up the bags) for up to 6 months. If you’re cooking them from frozen, boil them in batches for 1 hour 15 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes.
  30. Once the hallacas have cooked, remove them to the sink with tongs or a large slotted spoon and carefully open up the leaves. If the leaves were well greased, the hallacas will slide off easily. Be careful, since they will be very hot. Try to place the hallaca seam-side down on the plate, if possible, as the top is usually much prettier. Serve immediately.

Abuela Chabe’s Adobo:

  1. Stir to combine all of the ingredients in a small bowl. Use on chicken, beef, pork, rice or vegetables and grains. Makes about 2 tablespoons.

Cook’s Note

My family usually does a mix of port and Marsala, but if we don’t have both, 6 ounces of just one will work. For 25 hallacas, start with about 4 1/2 pounds of meat. I like the beef more so I use 2 1/2 pounds of it and only 2 pounds of pork but feel free to adjust the amounts depending to your preference. Cooking the chicken creates one of the garnishes as well as the broth needed to make the masa. You can braise the chicken or pressure cook it, which is what we like to do. Either way, make sure you add enough water so that you have at least 7 cups broth left for the masa.