Meet the Chef Behind Fresh Tortillas in East Hampton

Kristina Felix makes tortillas infused with kernels of wisdom.
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Kristina Felix presses homemade masa flour tortillas in her East Hampton studio and kitchen. Photograph by Doug Young.

Kristina Felix grew up in a Mexican-American enclave of Aurora, Illinois, but her “kernel to masa” journey didn’t begin in her family’s kitchen. After earning an MFA in studio art and transmedia, she received a grant to work with textile artists in Peru, where she connected with families by foraging for food and sharing meals in their homes. “I realized that the art I was making didn’t communicate as directly as the food we were sharing,” Felix says. “I began to ask questions about my foodways and what was lost from my Mexican heritage.”

Having shifted her career focus to cooking and growing delicious food, Felix now works as an assistant to East Hampton–based cookbook author and Barefoot Contessa host Ina Garten, who “indirectly inspired my tortilla venture after I made her a breakfast taco, something she had never tried and loved so much that she included it in her cookbook Modern Comfort Food.” The experience jump-started a conversation about store-bought tortillas, “which just aren’t that great and should be better, considering that they are the basis of most Mexican cuisine.”

Her curiosity piqued, Felix did some research and came across a company called Masienda, a supplier of organic corn that “imports incredible varieties from Mexico. I began to order 55-pound bags.” From there, she started experimenting with nixtamalization, a Mesoamerican process of cooking and steeping corn kernels in an alkaline solution of water and lime, which are later drained and hulled and then ground between volcanic basalt discs to form masa dough. “This is indigenous, ancient wisdom,” says Felix. “It keeps me interested in the connection to my heritage.” Working out of her East Hampton studio and kitchen several days a week, Felix makes masa tortillas with a host of colorful corn types and sells them both to private clients and at the Springs Farmers Market on weekends under the label House Masa.

Cooking the corn in the calcium hydroxide solution begins the nixtamalization process. After letting the corn sit overnight, Felix drains and “washes away as much of the skin as possible, which makes for a more pliable, pillowy dough.” She then puts the corn into the hopper of a Molinito tabletop mill (a revolutionary design, also sourced from Masienda), where the kernels are ground by removable basalt grinders. “Something happens with water, nixtamal, and basalt,” Felix says. “You know you’ve got it just right when the masa comes out warm and comes together really easily.” The masa dough is then kneaded with the help of some water and a stand mixer, rolled into golfball-sized spheres, and then flattened in a tortilla press. “I cook the tortillas on a hot comal or cast-iron pan for a minute per side, depending on thickness.”

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Felix uses a wide variety of corn from Mexico to make her tortillas. Photograph by Doug Young.

Her artistic background comes into play with the wide range of colors and textures of corn that she uses to make her tortillas, including ocotillo amarillo (yellow corn from Oaxaca), mushito azul (blue corn from Michoacán), and xocoyul rosado (pink corn from Tlaxcala). “The pink corn from Tlaxcala is a bit heartier, with different terroir notes typical of corn varieties grown near volcanic soils,” says Felix, who has also been experimenting with local grains grown by Amber Waves Farm in Amagansett. “Every time I make nixtamal, I learn something new. I’m still trying to crack the code.”

The print version of this article appears with the headline: Ancient Art.