Hojas are corn husks that are dry and papery but usually clean of silks, trimmed, flattened and ready for use. To soften them, pour plenty of very hot water over them and leave to soak for several hours or overnight. Shake well to get rid of excess water and pat them dry with a towel.
Cut the brisket into large squares and put into a large pot with the onion, garlic, salt, and peppercorns. Cover the beef with water and bring to a boil. Lower the flame and simmer until tender – about 3 hours.
Set the beef aside to cool off in the broth. Strain, reserving the broth, and chop beef with garlic roughly.
Cover chiles and comino seeds with water and bring to a boil. Let them stand until chiles are soft and water cools. When they are cool enough to handle, slit them open and remove seeds and veins. Using a molcajete or a blender to grind/blend them along with the comino into a paste.
Melt lard, add chile paste and sautée for about 3 minutes stirring all the time. Add beef and garlic, continuing to cook for the flavors to meld. Add ½ cup of the broth and let the mixture cook for about 10 minutes over a medium flame. Filling should not be watery. Add salt as necessary.
If you get your masa from a tamale or tortilla factory, ask for masa for tamales or masa quebradita. If you use masa harina, get the one for tamales and follow the directions.
Melt the lard. Use a large mixer to mix masa, salt, baking soda, broth, and the lard (one cup at a time). Continue beating for 10 minutes or so, until a ½ tsp. of the masa floats in a cup of cold water. If it floats you can be sure the tamales will be tender and light. If it doesn’t float, beat more melted lard into the mixture. Beat until fluffy and semi-shiny. Masa should be of a stiff consistency but spreadable.
MAKING THE TAMALES
Using a Tbsp. or a knife spread a thin coating of the masa over the broadest part of the corn husk, allowing for turning down about 2 inches at the pointed top. Spread the masa approximately 3 inches wide and 3 ½ inches long.
Spoon some beef filling down the middle of the dough (about 1 Tbsp.). Fold the sides of the corn husks together firmly. Fold up the empty 2 inch section of the husk, forming a tightly closed “bottom” and leaving the top open.
COOKING THE TAMALES
Fill the bottom of large soup pot or a tamale steamer with 1 inch of water and bring to a boil.
If using a pot, either put a molcajete, bowl or ball of aluminum foil at the bottom of the pot and fill in with leftover corn husks. Stack the tamales upright, with the folded part down at the bottom. Pack firmly but not tightly. Cover the tamales with more corn shucks. Cover the top of the steamer with a dishcloth or thick cloth, or cover the pot with a tightly fitting lid.
Cook tamales for about 1 ½-2 ½ hours over a medium flame. Keep water in a teapot simmering so that you can refill the pot when necessary. If you use a tamale steamer you should not have to add any more water.
To test the tamales for doneness, remove one from the center, and one from the side of the pot. Tamales are done when you open the corn husk, and the masa peels away easily from the shucks and the tamale is completely smooth.