First served at Routh Street Cafe, in Dallas, in the late 1980s, chef Stephan Pyles's elegant tamale tart began as a baked dish: a soft corn masa shell topped with Pyles's signature venison chili (the dish was originally an homage to the humble, chili-topped Frito pie) and cooked in the oven. Over the decades, Pyles has refined the tart through trial and error and, in the process, brought it closer in spirit and practice to a traditional tamale. He ditched the oven for a steamer, which keeps the masa shell moist, and he sealed the tart in plastic wrap to mimic a tamale's corn husk cocoon. The steaming performs double duty: it helps the silky, savory garlic custard (which replaced the venison chili) to set gently, while also producing an especially tender tamale shell. Here's how it's done.
1. Spread a sheet of plastic wrap across the work surface and place the prepared masa shell on top of it. Pour in the custard.
2. Using a rubber spatula, gently distribute the pieces of roasted garlic in the custard, taking care not to damage the edges of the masa shell.
3. Pull the plastic wrap over the top of the tart, pressing it onto the custard to force out any air. Tuck the edges under the tart pan.
4. Transfer the tart to a bamboo steamer set inside a wide-bottomed pot filled with water by 1 inch; place pot over medium-high heat.
5. Secure the bamboo steamer's lid and reduce heat so the water stays at a simmer; cook until custard starts to set. Remove tart and unwrap it. Remove tart ring.
6. Let tart cool slightly; then cover the top of the tart evenly with the prepared crab mixture. Cut tart into wedges; serve warm.