Not to be confused with a Latin American tamalea tamale pie is a beloved retro casserole in the United States, the kind of recipe you’d find in 1950s home economics classes, but in a really good way. A layer of chopped chili topped with cornbread, it’s an easy, convenient, and thoroughly customizable classic that doesn’t get as much attention as, say, a Chicken soup but has the same cozy look.
Because stews weren’t really a thing in my childhood, I didn’t meet a tamale pie until college. There it lay in the cafeteria, golden on top, brazen on the bottom, looking to my uninitiated like something to be wary of.
But then I tasted it. The warm cornbread was crispy, crunchy on the edges and very tender. And the ground beef was seasoned with a touch of chili powder, for a kick so tender it felt more like a nudge. It was not like any chilli I had had before. There were no beans and the meat was littered with sliced pimento-stuffed olives and yellow corn kernels. Yet somehow it melded into something really delicious and thoroughly comforting.
When I moved off campus, I completely forgot about the tamale pie for a decade or two. Then one day I came across the recipe in “The Joy of Cooking.” I made it as soon as I could gather the ingredients. They were mostly the same as I remembered, but with the addition of beans and without olives (which I honestly didn’t miss).
When I lifted the pan from the oven, it was polished, bubbling perfection, a warming meal that immediately went into our dinner rotation.
Of course, over the years I have modified the recipe and enriched the cornbread with sour cream, melted butter, grated Cheddar, a drizzle of honey. And I also sharpened that chili by doubling the chili powder and adding cilantro, along with jalapeños and poblanos to amp up that gentle nudge into a full-blown kick in the pants.
The tweaking continues in this version, where I’ve omitted the meat altogether. Then I took it even further by charring the chiles and onions, a technique common in Mexican salsas. It does require an extra step, but using a broiler keeps it relatively quick.
This compressed version would never have passed home EC, but it’s sure to get an A-plus at your next festival.