May 5 is just around the corner, and since we already discussed the history of the holiday last year (it's not Mexico's Independence Day), I though I would wax nostalgic about my first true taste of Cinco de Mayo and authentic Mexican food.
In 1970 my high school's band in Texas was invited to participate in the Cinco de Mayo festivities in Chihuahua, Mexico. I'm sure the school board and our parents thought it would be a wonderful cultural experience and decided to foot what must have been a pretty hefty bill for the trip.
From our standpoint as 16-year-old degenerates-in-training we were going to the promised land, where anything goes, and hopefully would.
After an eight hour bus ride to the border, we were loaded on a train for the second leg of our journey. Arrangements had been made for the train to stop along the way where we would be fed by the locals. Our first meal was a lunch of chicken soup and tortillas made memorable by the inclusion of the chicken's feet in the soup.
Since it hadn't really set in that there wasn't a McDonalds around the next corner, we decided we weren't hungry and instead amused ourselves by pulling on the little tendons causing the foot to open and close.
Dinner time arrived and again the tortillas, but this time accompanied by braised beef. Long, stringy beef. Our departure from the familiar was beginning to set in.
By the time we got checked in to our hotels (Chihuahua didn't have one large enough to house 100-plus people), we had all but sworn off eating. The one thing that kept us going was this panaderia near the hotel that served up simple, subtle and buttery cookies, a lot like the ones that we're making today.
These two recipes are for cookies that are usually served for special occasions and holidays. Wedding cookies resemble a pecan sandie and are a lot like Russian Teacakes.
The addition of chocolate makes them a little more interesting and no less traditional considering Mexico's history with chocolate. The bizochitos are flakier like pie crust. In Arizona they're know as biscochuelo while native Californians called them puchitas. Both can be made ahead of time and therefore provide you with an easy out for desert if you're planning a Cinco de Mayo party.
Now here's the irony of my high school adventure. I consider myself a serious student of Latin cuisine. I watched "Apocolypto" thinking I might get a recipe out of it. All the books, magazines, and obscure travel shows on PBS that I've poured over in an attempt to recreate the authenticity. The same authenticity that we thought repellent all those years ago. I wish I could have it back - all but the chicken feet.
Chocolate Mexican Wedding Cookies
makes about 3 dozen
1 cup pecan halves
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup sweetened cocoa powder
1 3/4 cups flour
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup butter, softened
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup sweetened cocoa powder
Using a food processor or blender, grind the pecans with the 1/3 cup of powdered sugar until fine. Transfer to the bowl of electric mixer, add the butter and beat until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and the vanilla.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the 1/2 cup cocoa, flour, cinnamon and salt then add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture. Mix just until the dough forms. Gather the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic and chill for about an hour.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
From the dough into 1-inch balls using the palms of your hands. Dust your hands with flow if things start to stick. Place balls about an inch apart on a cookie sheet and bake for about 15-18 minutes. Test them by gently pushing on the side - if it slides, they're done. If your finger starts to make a dent, keep baking. You want them to be just set but not cracking. Remove to cool on racks but not too cool.
Combine the topping in a small bowl. Roll each cookie in the mixture while still a little warm. You want them a little warm so the cocoa will stick. Otherwise, you end up inhaling the powder.
makes about 2 1/2 dozen
1 tablespoon anise seed
3 T water
3 1/2 cups flour
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup softened butter (see note)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp. anise extract
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
5 T sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Combine the water and anise seed in a small cup (a coffee cup works), and microwave on high until very hot. Allow the mixture to cool. Reserve the liquid.
Meanwhile, mix the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter with the sugar until fluffy. Reduce the speed and add the eggs, anise extract and anise seed mixture. Gradually add the dry ingredients and mix just until the dough forms. Gather it into a ball, wrap in plastic and chill for about an hour.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured work surface to a thickness of a quarter inch. Using a cutter, cut the 2-inch cookies, place about an inch apart on a cookie sheet, dust liberally with the cinnamon sugar and bake for 10-11 minutes. You want them to be light brown on the bottom and just set. Cool on racks.
Note: Some people suggest substituting lard for some or all of the butter. We used half and half.
• Brian Shaw and his wife, Ardie, own the Cafe del Rio, 394 S. C St. in Virginia City.