Atlanta pastry chef Claudia Martinez’s family has been making these meaty Venezuelan tamales around the holidays for generations. In the Martinez household, every family member has a task: Claudia’s dad or grandmother always prepares the guiso, the tender shredded chicken and beef stew that comprises the bulk of the filling. One person slicks scoops of vibrant orange achiote-stained masa dough onto banana leaves, then passes them around the table to get filled. Claudia’s grandma adds a spoonful of guiso; Claudia adds olives and capers; her sister adds a few raisins. Finally, each hallaca gets wrapped up in the fragrant leaves and tied with twine like a tiny present, ready to boil for a late Christmas Eve dinner. The Martinez family usually makes 100 at a time; this scaled-down version of their recipe makes just under 20, enough for a big dinner plus leftovers you can freeze for another day. If you find yourself with leftover masa and stew, do as the Martinezes do: Make arepas with guiso and fried eggs for breakfast on Christmas Day. (If you’re in Atlanta in the days leading up to Christmas Eve, pick up hallacas at Café Claudia, the pop-up Martinez runs out of the Hotel Clermont.)
Banana leaves give a floral and grassy flavor to the hallacas, you can buy them either fresh or frozen at Latin and Asian markets. You can use parchment paper instead, but the outcome won’t be as complex.