Wednesday, 6 June 2012

That's why they call them polvorones

The photo of homemade Mexican cookies at the end of this post is an illusion, a dangerous flight into the world of a biscuit that does not exist. It's like one of those hypothetical lurkers at the back of the Periodic Table of Elements that only ever existed for a few seconds in a laboratory.

Our story begins with the end of my holiday in Menorca, when my wife and I were feeling too lazy to cook anything more complex than bolognese sauce. I squeezed out a blog post by rhapsodising about Spanish tortilla, but when the end of yet another week was in sight and I still had yet to crack open a cookbook, I began to worry.

Fortunately (it seemed at the time), inspiration came in the form of a flat-warming party. Instead of bringing store-bought biscuits or cake, I thought, why not make something homemade and Mexican?

I know very little about Mexican sweets. In fact, most Americans' experience of Mexican sweet dishes is probably limited to the flan and deep-fried ice cream. (By the way, why is ice cream the only thing Scottish people won't stick in a deep fryer?)

What you eat as a sweet tends to be culturally prescribed, much more so than savoury dishes. Most people I've met are wiling to try most other cuisines, at least for lunch or dinner. But candy, ice cream, cake, and desserts from other countries tend to inspire fear and suspicion. If you've ever been to a candy store in New York's Chinatown, you'll know exactly what I mean.

Even very similar cultures can reach an impasse where sweeties are concerned. In the UK, purple Skittles are black currant flavoured; in the US they're grape flavoured. And while many Americans have developed a taste for chocolate and orange, it remains a characteristically British combination (and one I personally can't stand). Meanwhile all Brits hate rootbeer (which they say tastes of medicine), but they themselves are a bit more fond of aniseed-flavoured sweets than we are.

So it should be no surprise that, even though Mexican food has been successfully exported, Mexican candy and cookies, generally, have not.

I stupidly resolved to remedy this, even though baking is really not my forte.

I looked in Rick Bayless's Authentic Mexican. Bayless certainly thinks real Mexican sweeties are worth exploring, but he mostly gives dessert recipes, and certainly no cookies.

Ditto Thomasina Miers, though she at least includes chocolate con churros. (I've only had this in Spain, but who cares? It rocks!)

Good old Diana Kennedy, however, didn't let me down. She provided not one but two cookie recipes: roscas (ring-shaped aniseed cookies) and polvorones (Mexican shortbread cookies).

I opted for the polvorones, because they seemed easier, and because I'm am idiot.

I should have known better: I know enough Spanish to know that the name polvorones comes from polvo, "powder". But despite this and Diana Kennedy's myriad warnings that the cookies are very crumbly, I thought I could pull this off.

Polvorones are made primarily of wheat flour and ground roasted almonds, which means they were introduced by the conquistadores. Indeed, Spain still has a similar sweet biscuit called a polvorón (the singular of polvorones). But as with all such things, Mexico has put its own stamp on their version.

I've written before about the importance of dry-roasting things on a hot, flat metal cooking surface called a comal ("asar-ing" things). That these Mexican cookies would require almendras asadas (roasted almonds) is no surprise; that the asar technique applies to the flour as well, however, is.

Yes, the first step in making this dough is to dry-roast the flour on a comal. Luckily, Diana Kennedy's recipe lets you do it in the oven.

Kennedy's introduction to the recipe tells us polvorones are traditionally eaten at weddings and at Christmas. She also says they can be flavoured with cinnamon or orange. I said "Fuck that"and flavoured mine with cinnamon and orange, using half a cinnamon stick, roasted (asado) and ground, and the zest of one orange.

Once again, baking is not my forte. In fact, it's my culinary Achilles Heel. If it weren't, I might have seen that I was heading for a disaster and taken steps to avoid it.

Mexico, you see, may have got wheat from Spain, but excluding the North, there isn't much of a cattle industry, and I believe even in the North the cattle are for beef, rather than dairy. Which means butter is not a traditional Mexican ingredient.

So the original Mexican polvorones were made with lard. Even Diana Kennedy recommends ditching this, however, and using a combination of butter and shortening. I opted to use all butter.

And here is where things started to go wrong: the fat. Scotland has its own traditional shortbread cookies, and if I were much of a baker I'd probably have made them several times by now. And I'd have noticed there its usually a ratio of 1 part fat to 1.5 parts flour (I have researched this following my fiasco).

The Diana Kennedy recipe for polvorones called for less than half a part fat (taking both kinds into account) to 1 part flour (counting the ground almonds as part of the flour).

Basically, the damn things just wouldn't stick together, and sticking together is what good biscuits do.

Even though I did manage to roll the "dough" out, cut them into shape, and (very gingerly) lift them into a greased baking tray, I might as well not have bothered. After baking them for 15 minutes at 180° C and letting them cool completely, they still fell apart the moment I tried to pick them up. Luckily I got a photo before I tried to move them.

I have discussed my failure with some more experienced bakers, and they all agree that the fat content was too low. Still, it seemed odd that a Diana Kennedy recipe could go so wrong. Then my mother-in-law pointed out that fresh almonds are quite oily, and that could have been the source of more "sticking power" in the original recipe.

This makes sense: one the reasons Mexican recipes insist you grind nuts and seeds in a molcajete instead of chopping them in a food processor is that grinding releases the natural oils, whereas chopping does not.

This is great for Mexico, where you can go down to the local mercado and but fresh almonds from a stall. My almonds came from Tesco, and though they weren't "off", who knows how long they'd been sitting on that shelf in their sealed plastic package?

All was not lost, however. The powdery crumbs were delicious and made and excellent crumble topping (make do and mend in these times of austerity).

Also, I will have another go at polvorones, probably at Christmas, using more fat. Because baking will never cease to be my weak point if I don't keep trying.