Main dish Tex-Mex

Turkey tamales with guajillo-cranberry mole

Turkey tamales with guajillo-cranberry mole | Homesick Texan

My dad’s family always gets together the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I think this is smart as there’s nothing more stressful then either having to make a choice on where to eat on Thanksgiving or—even worse—shuttling between two huge dinners in order to make everyone happy. Nope, Thanksgiving should be a time where you can enjoy yourself and savor both the meal and company, something that my dad’s side of the family has figured out how to do right.

The food on offer at this Saturday gathering is usually Thanksgiving fare, with Uncle Bubba providing additional entertainment by frying up a turkey or two outside. Now, I have to admit, I haven’t been to one of these feasts in quite some time as I return to New York the Saturday after Thanksgiving to avoid the Sunday-travel rush. Graciously, however, I’m always included in the discussion about the get-together, and this year Aunt Janet decided to mix things up a bit by suggesting that a Mexican feast would be more fun instead.

As I started reading the emails from family chiming in on what they’d provide, I was inspired when I saw a request for tamales. As we enter December it also marks the beginning of tamalada season, a time when Texan families gather to make a mess of tamales to feed friends and family throughout the holidays. And what better stuffing for a tamale than leftover turkey?

Turkey tamales with guajillo-cranberry mole | Homesick Texan

Turkey tamales are usually made with one of two salsas, either a tangy tomatillo or a rich mole (pronounced moe-lay). I find that smoked turkey goes especially well with a zesty salsa verde, but nothing beats roasted turkey paired with the earthy bittersweet flavor of mole—it’s a classic combination. I am, however, not one to follow the rules. So while a traditional mole poblano is usually comprised of ancho and pasilla chiles, along with almonds and raisins, I made up a Thanksgiving-themed mole with dried cranberries, pecans and the bright berry-like guajillo chiles instead.

Now, I reckon mole purists may scoff at this salsa, but I believe that the flavors definitely work well together. I often find that traditional mole can be a bit heavy, which after a few days of solid eating may be a bit much for your system to handle. This guajillo-cranberry mole, however, while still complex also has a lightness to it that’s not so overpowering. But the best thing about turkey tamales is that after being soaked in sauce and steamed even the most dried-out turkey meat becomes soft and succulent—a fine way to enjoy the bird.

What do you usually make with your leftovers? I’m still a big fan of the day-after-Thanksgiving sandwich made with leftover turkey, a smear of mashed-potatoes and a spoonful of cranberry relish all doused in gravy. But if you’re looking for a Tex-Mex twist, I highly recommend making tamales.

Turkey tamales with guajillo-cranberry mole | Homesick Texan

I wish I could join my family on Saturday as nothing beats seeing loved ones while savoring a Tex-Mex potluck. I will be with them in spirit, however, as I put my leftover turkey to work and make a batch of turkey tamales. Happy Thanksgiving!

Turkey tamales with guajillo-cranberry mole | Homesick Texan
5 from 2 votes

Turkey tamales with guajillo-cranberry mole

Servings 24 tamales
Author Lisa Fain


Ingredients for the filling:

  • 4 dried guajillo chiles, stems and seeds removed
  • 2 dried ancho chiles, stems and seeds removed
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1/4 medium yellow onion, cut into wedges
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup pecans
  • 1 teaspoon sesame seeds
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 cup canned crushed tomatoes, drained
  • 1 corn tortilla, torn into strips
  • 2 cups chicken or turkey broth
  • 4 cups shredded turkey
  • Salt

Ingredients for the tamales:

  • Dried cornhusks
  • 1 cup lard, shortening or butter, room temperature
  • 4 cups masa harina
  • 2 cups chicken or turkey broth
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
  • Salt


  1. To make the mole, in a dry skillet heated on high, toast the guajillo and ancho chiles on each side for about 10 seconds or just until they start to puff. Fill the skillet with enough water to cover chiles. Leave the heat on until water begins to boil and then turn off the heat and let chiles soak until soft, about 45 minutes. Once hydrated, discard the soaking water, rinse the chiles and place into a blender.

  2. Meanwhile, to get started on the tamales, pick through the cornhusks and choose the widest ones. You’ll need 24 for the tamales plus a couple of more to rip into strips for fastening the tamales. Place the cornhusks in a pan of boiling water, turn off the heat and submerge until completely covered. Let soak for 45 minutes or until soft and pliable.

  3. To continue making the mole, add the vegetable oil to the skillet and while stirring occasionally cook on medium-low heat the onions and garlic cloves until they start to brown, about 5 minutes. Lift the onions and garlic from the skillet with a slotted spatula and place into the blender. In the same skillet, add the pecans and while stirring occasionally cook on medium-low heat until they are slightly darker and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the sesame seeds and cook for 1 more minute. Add the roasted nuts to the blender.
  4. Also add to the blender the cranberries, cocoa, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, crushed tomatoes, corn tortilla strips, and broth. Blend on high speed until smooth.
  5. Pour the mole into a pot, and cook on medium-low heat for 20 minutes, tasting and adjusting spices and adding salt if necessary. Once the mole has cooked, pour out half the mole and set aside. Add the shredded turkey to the pot with the remaining mole and stir until the meat and mole are well combined.

  6. To make the masa dough, in a mixer, beat the lard or butter until fluffy and creamy. Add the masa harina, chicken broth and cayenne and continue to beat until the dough comes together into a moist dough. Taste and add salt if necessary.

  7. To form the tamales, take a moistened cornhusk, which you’ll notice has four sides and is in sort of a cone shape. Place the cornhusk in front of you, with the pointed end at your right. In the center of the husk, spoon out 1/4 cup of the masa and spread it leaving a clean border around the masa. Place 1 tablespoon of the sauced turkey in the center of the masa along with 1 teaspoon of the mole salsa.

  8. Now, join together the two long sides (not the pointed side and the wide side) and then roll the husk until it’s about the width of a cigar. Take the narrower, pointed end and fold it up about 1/4 way of the tamale. You can leave it like this or you can rip strips from a cornhusk and tie the tamale in the middle. Alternatively, you can rip strips from a cornhusk and after rolling, tie up each end like it’s a package.

  9. In a large pot, place a steamer basket or a colander. Add water to the pot just to the base of the basket. Place the tamales in the basket seam side down, bring the water to a boil and then cover the pot and turn the heat down to low.

  10. Check the water level occasionally to make sure there’s enough in the pot, and steam the tamales for 2 hours. You’ll know they’re done when the masa pulls cleanly away from the husk. Serve with additional mole sauce. They will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of days and can also be frozen. To reheat the tamales, once thawed, steam them for 20 minutes.

  1. What a brilliant recipe. Sounds like a perfect way to use leftover turkey.

  2. Totally making this over the weekend! Looks delicious.

  3. The recipe sounds delicious. It's been years since I made tamales, but I'm going to have to try these out. I may even rope my New Yorker boyfriend's family into the process.

  4. what a great way to use those leftovers! i might have to go pick up some cornhusks this week 🙂

    happy turkey day!

  5. I have always wanted to make tamales but they definitely intimidate me. These sound soooo good…smoked turkey could tempt me out of vegetarianism.

  6. HZ in DFW

    That's real inspiration! Maybe I can convince my own family to have a tamalada using your recipe. My favorite leftover meal is like yours: a turkey sandwich with mayo, lettuce and lots and lots of my dad's cranberry relish (no mashed potatoes at our meal). And a side of frozen cranberry salad. Gobble gobble!

  7. Interesting recipe. Too ambitious for me to attempt though.

    I usually make "Bubble& Squeek" , a traditional Brit dish using leftovers. Combine mashed potatoes, stuffing, turkey into patties, fry until a golden crust appear. Serve with leftover cranberry sauce. Voila.

    Enjoy your Holiday Lisa.

  8. I can just imagine how wonderful cranberry and guajillo tastes together…mmm now I'm craving mole! 🙂

    Happy Thanksgiving! I know you're as happy as me to be flying home to Texas soon 🙂

  9. My family always makes (or buys) tamales at Christmas time, but I didn't really know other Texans did too! We don't have any Hispanic heritage in our family, it's just a tradition that goes back to my great-grandmother or maybe even before her. We also eat them with ketchup 🙂

    Your recipe sounds so delicious!

  10. Kalyn–Thanks! Again, too bad we're not neighbors or I'd share some with you!

    Aunt Suzy–Hope you enjoy it!

    Melissa–It's a bit of work but so worth it. Plus it's fun if you have a bunch of people to help!

    Heather–You should! Happy Thanksgiving to you!

    Rachel–Smoked anything could turn a vegetarian, I reckon!

    HZ–Yum! I love the sandwich–it's a Thanksgiving evening tradition!

    Tommy–I'm a big fan of bubble and squeak. My mom went through an Anglophile phase and we ate it at least once a week. I should write about it! Thanks for reminding me!

    DessertForTwo–They go together quite well. Enjoy your time at home!

    Melanie–Ketchup? Now that's a first! Have fun making tamales with your family!

  11. I'm sorry you don't get to partake in the feast, but this looks so good! I love cranberry anything and the idea of cranberry mole is just too good! I bet it would be good on more than just tamales – even just grilled chicken.

  12. Tamales also on my list to try. Your recipe seems quite manageable. Might be a good christmas holiday project I think!

  13. Slomigan. This word apparently doesn't exist on the internet and I have no idea how to spell it, if indeed it's ever written. Slomigan is (allegedly) an Icelandic-Canadian tradition that consists simply of mashed-up turkey, potatoes, stuffing, and gravy. I think this could also work in tamales…

  14. wow, just wow! I am drooling at my desk. I will have to make these for my family!

  15. Katie–I bet it would be good on chicken, too!

    Deb–I admit that there are a lot of steps but it's certainly not difficult. Give them a try!

    Mijke–Yum! I could definitely get into eating slomigan!

    Brooke–Hope they enjoy them!

  16. I have other plans for leftovers on thanksgiving, but for Christmas I'm going to cook a turkey just to make these! Do you think these would freeze well? I want to make a lot to share with family and friends.

  17. Juan (my husband) and I were just talking about tamales de mole this past weekend. We opted for a lighter menu this week in anticipation of the "feast" we are about to partake this weekend. But, when I saw this post, I just had to send the link to him…so going to try this recipe…what a great idea to take something tried and true and put a mondern, lively spin on it! Love it! Will let you know how it goes when I give it a whirl.
    Thank you so much for this one! Have a very happy Thanksgiving!!
    The Fierro Family!

  18. Anonymous

    I don't know your story, but I really enjoy your blog. The creativity of this recipe just blows my mind. Who are you? You're amazing, that's who. I try my best to be a good cook, but I am so not worthy. Fantastic job. I hope one day I can tackle this prepping/cooking event. By the way, born and raised in Beaumont.

  19. I didn't know about tamalada. My family's never done that, but I'm wishing they had. I love Tex-Mex, though.

    I don't know if I want to move away from Texas or not. This is a wonderful recipe!

  20. Wow. Another winner. Have never seen corn husks here in Australia though. My heart aches for a good tamale. A few other Tex-Mex foodies I've gotten to know here have suggested banana leaves. Need to try it, but somehow, I just know it won't be the same. If/when I do, I'll report back! Happy Thanksgiving!

  21. These look so yummy! I can't wait to try out the recipe! Thanks!!

  22. Lisa, you should muster up a Tex-Mex version of Bubble & Squeak.

    I'm certain you'd come up with something awesome. Include it in your book.

  23. Anonymous

    This recipe will finally force me to make tamales!! And a mole recipe that actually sounds good. Wow – it's a home run – thanks!!

    For those having difficulty finding husks to purchase – do you have anyone around who grows corn? Get some husks from them and dry them at home. Free is good…

    Yes, eating tamales is a definite Texas tradition. My Dad talked about them being standard fare, from street vendors, in the home, and widely available for everyone even back into the 19th century. Maybe that tradition got sort of lost as folks became more citified??


  24. I like the idea of a de-stressing laid-back post-Thanksgiving meal. I believe it was the President who is the guiding spirit behind my work, FDR, who first made turkey day a national holiday? I could be wrong about that,though.

  25. Dandelion–Tamales freeze very well. To cook them, let them thaw and then steam.

    The Fierros–Hope y'all enjoy it!

    Anon–Thank you for the kind words!

    Jessica–It's never too late to start having tamaladas!

    Suzinoz–if you can't find corn husks, you can use parchment paper. Banana leaves will also work.

    Lourdes–Hope you enjoy it!

    Tommy–I'm on it!

    Pete–Yep, I've heard the stories about the street vendors as well, such as Mr. Berryhill who sold his tamales in Houston.

    Shelley–I think you're correct.

  26. I adore your blog. I LOVE Texas and miss it so. You are a way to connect for me to a state I love deeply in my heart. I found you through Tickleberry Farm and have newly subscribed.

  27. We often have tamales for Christmas Eve! My sister and I were just talking yesterday about how we wanted to try making them sometime. We're both vegetarian, but this is brilliant for those with turkey leftovers!

  28. I knew I'd found something wonderful to do with my leftover turkey! I love tamales, and plan to host my first tamalada this winter.

    I made your recipe yesterday, and they were FABULOUS! I never would have thought to add dried cranberry to mole sauce, but it worked wonderfully with the turkey. The only modification I made to your recipe was to reduce the broth in the tamale dough by 1/2 cup, and add about a 1/2 cup of the mole to the dough–it added a nice little boost of flavor to the masa (I learned this trip from my friend's tamale making grandmother). Thanks!!

  29. John'aLee–Welcome!

    Jessica–Tamales can easily be made vegetarian, just use vegetable stock and stuff them with beans, corn or roasted vegetables. Hope y'all do it–it's a lot of fun!

    LisaA–You just made my day–I'm so happy y'all enjoyed the tamales. I also love that you added mole to the masa, I'll definitely be doing that next time!

  30. I've always been too intimidated to try making tamales solo, but maybe this will be the holiday season for it…feeling emboldened by this post.

  31. Yum, these look delicious!

  32. Ahh such a great idea!! Looks delicious. I wonder if I could find the ingredients to make it in Paris…. Hmmmm. I love your blog and would love for you to follow mine. I'm an expat living in France reviewing restaurants and helping readers discover the land of Champagne!!

  33. I'm attending my first tamalada next weekend, and this will be the perfect filling to bring along. The cranberries sound like a great addition to the mole!

  34. I've been wanting to make turkey tamales ever since I saw the Two Hot Tamales do it back in the day when the TV Food Network was still about cooking. And reading your blog I decided THIS is the year I'm going to do it.

    I did make a few variations on the mole. I accidentally used up my pecans and didn't want to head to the store. So I used peanuts. Yeah, not a nut. The mole has a sweet peanut undercurrent and needed a bit of heat to offset the sweet spices and peanut, so I added half a teaspoon of habanero powder. After simmering it tastes just the way I want a mole to taste. Sweet, spicy, and so complex that it's nearly impossible to identify specific flavors.

    I also used fresh lingonberry sauce with local berries to give a bit more depth to the flavor.

    The dough I made was pretty stiff, and I sort of molded it flat on the husk. Then I use the husk to roll and press into a nice shape. It actually went much faster than I expected and it so much easier too.

    I really like the sweet, spicy, earthy flavors I get in every bite. Though I dirtied an awful lot of dishes making this; I guess I better sign off and clean the kitchen.

  35. I love your site but it makes me so hungry. My family are originally from New Mexico and I so miss my mom's home cooking. I guess it's time to break out comal. lol

    I have a taste for Southwest cuisine and it's hard to find good Mexican food on the island. The food does not taste the same here. Different seasoning are used and it's just not the same. Filipino cuisine is the closest I can get to satisfy my taste for Southwestern food. Gracias for the recipes!

    P.S. But the rest of the food is really good!!!

    Island Tastes… are a fusion of many cuisines American, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Polynesian and Portuguese. Simply delicious.

    By the way the tamales look wonderful…

  36. i made the mole sauce and used it in pork chili! omg it was delicious & so easy to make! thank you for this grea recipe!

  37. We LOVE tamales so will try these!

  38. Nishta–You should have a tamalada!

    Sidney–I don't know if you'll be able to find all the ingredients in Paris or not. Good luck!


    Lisa is cooking–Have fun! Tamaladas are a blast!

    Kristen–I think peanuts are a fine substitute. Glad you liked the flavor and I love that you added lignonberry sauce–yum!

    The Photo Huntress–The fusion of all those cuisines does sounds delicious!

    Stella–Good to know it's also great with pork and so glad you liked it!

    Weekend Cowgirl–Hope you enjoy them!

  39. To All – Our two sons Jeffrey and John (native Texans) are in the Navy – one in Monterey, CA and one in Poulsbo, WA. John discovered your blog a few months ago and started out with your carnitas. WOW! he was hooked and sends us photos of every meal he makes from your site. For Thanksgiving, we all gathered in CA. The boys prepared the "feast" from start to finish. The Menu: Your turkey, guajillo tamales, black beans and couscous. Precious daughter-in-law made key lime pie. It was perfect! Thanks Lisa!

  40. MHead–What a wonderful story and how great your boys got to come home for Thanksgiving. Sounds like the perfect feast!

  41. I love tamale season. I could really get into these – yum!

  42. These seem perfect. I mean healthier turkey with an incredible guajillo and cranberry mole? So creative bright and fresh I am sure. I wonder if i can find corn husks in france…..

  43. I made these last night for a party and they were to die for! BUT, there was SO much filling left over! I am now going to double the masa recipe for one filling recipe. I had a ton of "foodies" over and they say "Brava!"

  44. Carolyn

    I’m getting ready to make this right now!

  45. Lilmiss

    So mine are steaming in the instant pot right now, my first ever attempt at tamales at my own tamales 🙂 my oldest has made them a few times before, my measurements must be different than yours though I got way more filling than expected. Oh darn I need to make up more Masa and husks to enjoy more tamales darn 😉

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