We felt tamales were appropriate for Día de los Muertos because of how labor intensive they are. The "tamalada," a family gathering to make tamales, allows us an opportunity to gather as a family to celebrate and honor our ancestors' memory, and at the end of the day, everyone takes home at least a dozen. What makes Tía Chita’s recipe different is the amount of manteca (lard) we use to make it easier for the tamales to slide off the leaf.
There are a few steps to making tamales and it is usually an all-day affair.
Cooking the meat: Chop the pork butt into 3-inch cubes; reserve the bone.
Add the oil to a large pot or Dutch oven and place over medium-high heat (we use a Dutch oven because it seems to cook faster). Add the pork butt to the pot. Sear the sides slightly until just golden, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Add the peppercorns, bay leaves, onion, 3 cloves of the garlic and 1 tablespoon salt. Add 2 to 4 cups of water, or enough to cover the pork butt, then add the reserved bone. Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid and bring it to a boil. Cook on medium heat until very tender, about 2 hours.
Preparing the corn husks: Separate the corn husks and take off all the little hairs and dust from them. Allow them to soak in hot water while the pork is cooking (or soak overnight).
Carefully remove the pork from the broth with tongs to a plate or cutting board. Pour the leftover broth through a colander into a large bowl so that all the onion and other ingredients stay behind. Set the strained broth aside for later (about 4 cups).
Shred the meat with 2 forks into small bite-size pieces. (You want it small enough that you aren’t getting large pieces or chunks into the tamal.) Transfer to a medium saucepan.
Preparing the chile: Cut the stems from the ancho chiles, open them and remove all the seeds and veins. Put them in a 3-quart saucepan, cover with water and add 1 teaspoon salt. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Once the water is boiling, remove from the heat, set aside, cover and let steam for 5 minutes.
To a blender, add the softened chiles, ground cumin and 1/4 teaspoon salt and blend. Press in the remaining clove of garlic and slowly add 2/3 cup of the reserved pork broth. Continue to blend until smooth. Pour through a fine-mesh strainer into a medium bowl. Reserve 1/4 cup of the chile mixture for the masa, then pour the remaining red chile sauce over the shredded pork and mix together to combine. Keep warm over low heat.
Preparing the masa: Melt the lard in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Pour the melted lard into a large bowl. Add the masa harina to the bowl of lard, then add the baking powder, 3/4 teaspoon salt, reserved 1/4 cup of the red chile sauce and 1/2 cup of the reserved pork broth. Knead well. Add more pork broth as needed until the dough is moistened and fluffy.
Assembling the tamales: Drain the husks and pat them dry with a clean towel. Spread the kneaded masa onto the smooth side of the corn husks with a spoon in the center of the husks (2 to 3 tablespoons of masa per husk). Add the meat to the center of the masa, 1 to 2 tablespoons per husk. Fold over the husks in half vertically so that the masa wraps around the filling completely. Fold the pointy side up at the end to hold the tamale in place.
Cooking the tamales: Arrange the tamales open-side up around the inside of a steamer basket that fits into a large (10-quart) pot, packing the tamales together. If there's extra space in the steamer basket, place a mason jar or small heatproof ceramic bowl upside down in the center, arranging the tamales around it. Arrange a layer of husks around the sides of the steamer basket and up over the top of the tamales and cover with a damp kitchen towel. Fill the large pot with 1 to 2 inches of water. (Note: You can put a penny at the bottom of the pot so you can hear it rolling when you need more water.) Bring the water to a rolling simmer over medium-high heat, then reduce to medium low, set the steamer basket inside of the pot and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Allow the tamales to steam for 1 to 2 hours or until the masa pulls away from the husks. Let sit to cool down for 5 to 10 minutes. Use tongs to remove the tamales afterwards and set on a jelly roll pan to cool down.