In Mexico, the Christmas celebrations begin eight days before, with Christmas parties held to commemorate Mary and Joseph's unsuccessful search for an inn, or posada. Posada parties can be as simple as a midday meal with a few friends, or as elaborate as a banquet for several hundred. The posada culminates on Christmas Eve, with a family meal that might include tamales, a bowl of posole accompanied by savory empanadas, and sweet bunuelos.
Those wishing to sample some of this typical Mexican holiday fare can purchase the ready-to-eat specialties at several North County food establishments.
On any given day, clusters of customers crowd around the display cases of the San Luis Rey Bakery in the shadow of Oceanside's historic mission. For Christmas, Fidel Olivos, a native of Mexico City and the new owner of the bakery, will make his special empanadas, small pockets of pastry dough filled with pineapple jam and pumpkin puree.
Beginning Jan. 1, Olivos will also make the typical Rosca de Reyes, or Kings' Crowns--an eggbread shaped like a crown, topped with candied and dried fruit. The rosca is traditionally eaten on Jan. 6, the Feast of the Kings.
Although the restaurant attached to the San Luis Rey bakery serves tamales year-round, it sells more during the Christmas season than at any time of the year.
Business is also brisk at Lola's Deli, opened in Carlsbad in 1943 by the parents of Ofelia Escobedo, who runs the family business today.
"We made at least 500 dozen sweet tamales last year," said Escobedo. "It's a very time-consuming process, and not too many people make them at home anymore." Indeed, Escobedo, her two sisters and the rest of Lola's staff will spend the better part of the two weeks before Christmas preparing tamales.
Starting with masa, or freshly-ground corn dough, Escobedo blends in traditional ingredients, such as raisins, pineapple, and coconut, and liberal doses of a syrup made from sugar cane and cinnamon.
She spoons the mixture onto soaked corn husks, wraps them, and steams them upright for close to an hour. Before covering the steaming pan with foil, Escobedo sets a wet cloth over the tamales the way her grandmother used to.
The steaming hot, delicately sweet and plump tamales are traditionally eaten with a cup of coffee on Christmas morning.
Olga and Jose Guttierez, owners of Francisco's Mexican Deli in Vista, transformed a former tortilla factory into a neighborhood deli featuring specialties from their native San Antonio, Tex.
Among the deli's specialties: barbacoa, tamales, bunuelos and champurrado . "Our tamales are thinner than the California ones, and we fold them instead of tying them, like many people do here," Guttierez said.
Tamales can be frozen, cooked or uncooked, and reheated, either over steam or in the microwave. If frozen, flavor will be best if they are used within two weeks.
San Luis Rey Bakery, 490 North El Camino Real, Oceanside, 92054. 433-7242. Open Tuesday to Thursday 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Specialties available daily at the bakery, and on special order. Meat tamales, $18 a dozen; Rosca de Reyes eggbread, 14 inch size $8.99; empanadas, 65 cents apiece.
Lola's Deli, 3292 Roosevelt Street, Carlsbad, 92008. 434-2191. Open Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Sundays and holidays. Order Christmas tamales several days ahead. White masa: 79 cents a pound; fresh tamales, any variety: $12 a dozen.
Francisco's Mexican Deli, 821 North Santa Fe, Vista, 92084. 724-0045. Open Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Special orders require two days' notice. Freshly ground white masa, 80 cents a pound; prepared masa $1.05 a pound; bunueloa, 60 cents apiece; champurrado drink, 60 cents a cup; meat or vegetarian tamales, $17 a dozen.