Sunday, February 19, 2012

Snacking State-by-State: New Mexico III - There's Lard in Them Thar Cookies!

As it seems, New Mexican cuisine is a bit closer to the actual cuisine of northern Mexico than is Tex-Mex.  That doesn't make it any better or worse - it's just an observation.  Many dishes you will find in northern Mexico have similar versions in New Mexico, which was part of Mexico for centuries before the Mexican-American War.  New Mexican cuisine isn't all savory and spicy dishes.  Take the remarkable, hearty biscochito (or bizcochito) cookie, for example.  Or better yet, take a few.

Official Name: State of New Mexico
State Nicknames: The Land of Enchantment
Admission to the US: January 6, 1912 (#47)
Capital: Santa Fe (4th largest)
Other Important Cities: Albuquerque (largest), Las Cruces (2nd largest), Rio Rancho (3rd largest) 
 Southwest, West; Mountain (US Census)
RAFT NationsChile PepperPinyon NutBison
Bordered by: Colorado (north), Oklahoma & Texas (east), Sonora & Chihuahua (Mexico) (south), Arizona (west), Utah (northwest)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: biscochito (cookie), New Mexico cutthroat trout (fish), yucca flower (flower), chile pepper (vegetable, though technically it's a fruit), frijol (vegetable - yes, two state vegetables), pine nut tree (tree - for the pine nuts, not the tree), New Mexico black bear (animal, though these are not ever eaten these days)
Some Famous and Typical Foods: Southwestern (specifically New Mexican) cuisine; the fabled New Mexico chile, Native American (such as Navajo) foods such as frybread, Navajo taco, etc.

The bizcochito, which gets its name from the larger flaky bscocho pastry from Mexico, became the first official state cookie anywhere in the United States in 1989.  It is regularly eaten at Christmas and other special events (birthdays, quinceañeras, weddings and so forth).  The bizcochito is an addictive little cookie filled anise seed and coated (normally) in cinnamon and sugar.  But one thing  makes it so different from any other cookie I have ever eaten or made: the bizcochito isn't made with butter or (for the love of God) Crisco, but lard.  Real, honest to goodness lard.  And it's the lard that gives it a very distinctive flavor and flakiness that I don't normally find in a cookie.

Out of the various recipe I found, I was intrigued by one posted by Sharon Niederman on the Santa Fe New Mexican website.  Niederman went in search of the best bizcochito in New Mexico, and she found a version  by Tuda Libby Crews, author of Wild, Wild West Cowboy Cookies.  I didn't see that book, but I did see the interview Niederman does with Crews about her extra-special bizcochito.  Crews gets the recipe from her abuelita, but since my grandmother was Italian, I had to get this recipe from Crews, who grew up with these cookies at every special occasion.
"There's no Christmas without bizcochitos," [Tuda] says. The cookies are as essential to her family's holiday as the posole, beans and chile that are always on her table this celebratory time of year, in addition to a roast of their home-grown beef, prepared simply, on the grill, with just salt and garlic salt, until medium rare. [Niederman 2008]
No I don't have the time or money to make all that other stuff.  The bizcochitos alone with have to do.

The Recipe: Tuda's Bizcochitos

For these bizcochitos you will need:

* lard (no butter, no Crisco, no "healthy" vegan palm oil substitute.  Lard.  I halved Crews' recipe and had almost enough, so I added a little bacon grease to make up the difference.
* sugar (had it)
* flour (I used the soft kind, but any all-purpose flour would do)
* eggs (had them)
* baking powder and salt (had both)
* red wine (any good, drinkable kind.  I ran out and bought a small, resealable cardboard wine container from the Bota Box people.  A small container of Cabernet Sauvignon is $5)
* frozen orange juice concentrate (about $2.50 at Wegman's)
* anise seed (about $7, also at Wegman's)
* cinnamon (had it)
* You will also need butter or oil to grease your cookie sheet, a rolling pin and either plastic wrap or a few large Ziploc bags in which to roll the cookie dough out)

Crews uses a standing mixer.  I don't have one of these (I know, right?) so I had to use my hand mixer.  Beat the lard at the highest or almost highest speed until it is silky - about 10 minutes.

After about seven minutes.

When silky, while still beating the lard add sugar - a heaping cup for every pound of lard.

Cream together the lard and sugar.

Next, add all of these things...

...after adding the eggs, one at a time.

Next, add your anise seed...

...your flour...

...salt and baking powder...

...your red wine...

---and your frozen OJ concentrate.

Next, put your dough between two pieces of plastic wrap (or do what I did and put it inside a plastic ziptop food storage bag).

Roll out your dough to about 1/2 inch thickness and halve or quarter it into large squares.

Now here is where I ran into a big problem: the dough was pretty goopy.  So much so in fact that I had to just stop and pop it all in the freezer.  While it was hardening, I set the oven to 350°F and mixed together some more sugar with cinnamon. You will dip the squares of dough into the sugar-cinnamon mixture.

Once hardened enough, I broke out my pizza cutter (Crews suggests a knife).

Cross cut it to make squares.

Crews tells her readers to notch each square on its side and fold in each side to make little rosettes.  My cookie dough was just too goopy to do this (the little bit of bacon grease perhaps?), so I smooshed in the corners to try to at least make them not look like plain old squares.

Bake at 350°F for about 15 minutes.

And here these beauts are, smelling like lard and sugar while they cool down.

While these cookies aren't as pretty as Crews' probably are, they are tasty and - to my palate - unusual.  I've never had lard-filled cookies before.  They give them a unique, rich flavor that isn't so much better or worse than butter, but just pleasantly different.  I find that the lard undercuts the sweetness of the cookie just a little bit.  In the future, I would probably not add the bacon grease, and completely freeze the cookie dough before working with it.

- - - - -

New Mexico is done, and now I'm heading back from the Southwest to the Northeast to look at one of the culinary capitals of the country.  New York City and State have so much to offer that I'm afraid I'll be spending quite a while exploring it.  So in order to actually finish, I'll have to edit what I investigate from the Empire State.  A lot.


Albuquerque Convention & Visitor's Bureau.  "New Mexican Cuisine".  Published 2008.  Copyright Albuquerque Convention & Visitor's Bureau 2012.

Albuquerque Journal.  "Mexican Food Lover's Guide".  Date unknown.  Copyright Albuquerque Journal 2012.

Bueno Foods.  "Traditional New Mexican Green Chile Sauce".  Date unknown.

Detterick-Piñeda, Cynthia.  "Navajo Fry Bread, Indian Fry Bread".  WhatsCookingAmerica.Net, date unknown.  Copyright WhatsCookingAmerica.Net 2012.

Niederman, Sharon.  "Bizcochitos? Biscochitos?".  Posted December 16, 2008.  Copyright The Santa Fe New Mexican 2012.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "New Mexico" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "New Mexico".