Growing up in New Mexico, I was immersed in a unique mainstream culture that was strongly rooted in Spain and old Mexico. Everyone in the state, regardless of their ancestry, shares in these time-honored and beloved traditions. I have vivid memories of my maternal grandmother, whose ancestry was completely Irish, making red chile, posole and pinto beans, and attending mass in Spanish in an old adobe church.
No time of year is this cultural influence strongeror more delicious, frankly than when the frigid air from Las Cruces to Santa Fe is redolent with woodsmoke from pinon logs, and the scent of red chile and tamales cooking.
My favorite taste of the season is the New Mexico cookies we Land of Enchantment denizens know as bizcochitos. These little anise and cinnamon shortbread cookies were brought to the area in the 16th Century by Spanish explorers (or colonizers, depending upon your perspective) and continue to be a local holiday tradition.
This year, I didn’t go overly fancy on my bizcochitos, shape-wise, because I’d recently moved and realized that my cookie press and cutters were all still in storage. I ended up rolling out the dough and slicing it with a pastry scraper, into rectangles, squares and diamonds, as the Spanish must have done so long ago. The one luxury I have that the conquistadores didn’t is my KitchenAid stand mixer, which is an amazingly wonderful thing because I could let the lard and sugar cream together while I prepared the dry ingredients.
So, are you ready for a taste of authentic New Mexico history? Let’s do this! (Please note: The following recipe is the one I use, and comes from a website called newmexico.org).
Makes: 5 dozen
Baking Time: 10-12 minutes
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 to 1 ½ teaspoons ground anise
½ teaspoon salt
½ pound lard, softened
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 large egg
2 tablespoons rum, bourbon, or sweet white wine
For the Topping:
¼ cup granulated sugar
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Sift together the flour, baking powder, anise, and salt.
2. Beat the lard in a electric mixer, gradually adding the sugar, and cream until extremely fluffy and light, about 8 minutes.
3. Add the egg, followed by the wine, and continue beating.
4. Mix in the dry ingredients, adding about one-third of the mixture at a time. Stop the mixture as you make each addition, and beat no longer than necessary to incorporate the dry ingredients. A stiff pie-crust type of dough is what you’re seeking.
5. Chill the dough for about 15 minutes for easy handling.
6. Use a cookie press to form the biscochitos. If you don’t own a cookie press, the dough can be rolled out ¼-inch thick on a floured work surface and cut with a small cookie cutter. Avoid handling the dough anymore than necessary. Transfer the cookies to ungreased cookie sheets.
7. Preheat the oven to 350º F, when ready bake the cookies for 10 to 12 minutes, until just set and pale golden. While the cookies bake, stir together the topping ingredients.
8. When the cookies are done, cool for just a minute or two on the baking sheets, then gently dunk the top of each in the cinnamon-sugar topping.
9. Transfer to absorbent paper to finish cooling. Biscochitos, tightly covered, will keep for at least a week.
Note: they freeze well for up to a month.