We are in the thick of cookie season. At no other time of year are we inundated with so many wee baked things, handed to us at parties, given to us in decorative tins or plated to us by our children meant for imaginary gift-giving saints. Gingerbread, shortbread, sugar cookies shaped like trees, but here, you’d be remiss not to include the aromatic official state cookie, the biscochito.
New Mexico was, in fact, the first state to have an official cookie (Massachusetts now officially celebrates the chocolate chip cookie, how original). The crunchy rounds were declared a state symbol in 1989. Biscochito is the diminutive form of bizcocho in Spanish, which basically means “biscuit,” and while they are extremely similar to Spanish mantecados, shortbreads made with pig fat, the distinctively spicy, disarmingly simple biscochito is an original New Mexican recipe, integral to Norteño cuisine.
The signature flavor in biscochitos is anise, the tiny aromatic seed that flavors ouzo and Absinthe. Anise is a medicinal herb with a whole host of beneficial attributes: It is a potent digestive aid with carminative effects (particularly useful at Christmas if you’re lactose-intolerant but defiantly drink eggnog anyway, if you know what I mean), and is said to help with menstrual cramps as well. Anise theoretically tastes similar to licorice or fennel, but biscochito recipes use true anise, from the pimpinella anisum plant, as the flavor is far subtler, more floral than acridly spicy. Many spice mixes or recipes substitute ground star anise, which tastes reasonably like anise but comes from a totally different plant. Star anise is actually the dried fruit of an evergreen, and the pods are shaped like little hard flowers, or stars. It smells like anise, but has a far more acrid flavor and should be used sparingly.
Biscochitos are usually also flavored with, and dusted with, cinnamon. Cinnamon is ubiqutious in cold-weather recipes, possibly because it’s both a tasty flavoring and a potent medicine, with aggressive anti-fungal and antibacterial properties, the ideal spice for flu season. But cinnamon is another spice with a low-end doppelgänger. True cinnamon, or Ceylon cinnamon, is the fragrant bark of the cinnamonium zeylanicum tree, native to Sri Lanka. All other cinnamon, including Saigon cinnamon and Khorinje cinnamon, is the bark of the cassia tree (cinnamonium cassia), a related but distinct plant that produces a harder, thicker, darker bark.
If you’re going to powder the outside of your biscochito with it, spring for the slightly pricier Ceylon cinnamon. It has a softer texture when ground and a much subtler flavor. Cassia cinnamon is common in the U.S. (most of it comes from Indonesia), but in Mexico Ceylon cinnamon is more common, and when Mexican recipes call for cinnamon, they mean the more delicate Ceylon variety. Cassia is best used sparingly — it has a harsher, sharper taste and can be overwhelming if overused. It also contains higher levels of coumarin, an aromatic chemical sometimes used in perfumery and flavored tobacco that in large enough amounts can cause liver damage (and a large enough amount can be about a teaspoon, for a child). Ceylon cinnamon, by contrast, contains hardly any coumarin at all. Problematically, most ingredient labels (and even packaged spices) don’t specify which kind of cinnamon they contain. It’s a good bet that if the ingredient listed is just “cinnamon,” you’re buying cassia cinnamon, since Ceylon cinnamon is always more expensive and will be labeled as such to let you know why.
Also, most traditional cookies are not vegan, but biscochitos are not even vegetarian. Traditional recipes always involve lard, aka rendered pig fat. Once a symbol of all that is wrong with the American diet, lard is having a bit of a renaissance now that the (often capricious and arbitrary) nutrition gods have decided it may actually be a health food, arguing that the type of saturated fat in lard is actually better for us than the vegetable fats they tried to get us to eat in the ’90s. For baked goods like biscochitos, you should be using “leaf lard,” the highest grade of lard, which comes from the fat around the pig’s kidneys. Leaf lard is snow-white and practically odorless and flavorless, lending a pleasantly savory mouthfeel (yes, mouthfeel) to your cookies without making them taste like bacon (take your hipster cookies somewhere else, thanks). The lard can be replaced with butter or vegetable shortening, of course, but the result will be markedly different (but suitable for vegetarians).
Claudia Perez, head baker at the Tesuque Village Market, makes some of the most addictive biscochitos in (or slightly outside of) town — light, crunchy and always fresh. Perez believes that lard is the way to go, though she sometimes makes them with butter in a pinch. “I think the flavor is different,” she says. Unlike many other rolled cookie recipes, Perez does not refrigerate her biscochito dough, rolling it out and baking it immediately after mixing. Perez and her assistants are responsible for all the cakes, tiramisus and other baked goodies that pour out of the Tesuque spot. The biscochitos are almost an afterthought to that whole operation, but they’re exactly like your abuelita would have made if you’d had one. You’ll find hand-packed bags of Perez’s biscochitos up by the register at the market for $5.
Or if you’re downtown, stop by chef Juan Bochenski’s new hot chocolate and cookie cart on the Inn at the Anasazi patio, only open until New Year’s Day, where you can get sublime Mexican hot chocolate spiked with basil and the chef’s selection of cookies. If you’ve ever stayed at the inn, you’ve probably experienced these cookies — they give them out as amenities everywhere, all the time, on your pillow, in the lobby, etc., and they’re all baked in-house. And while they (amazingly) crank out at least 20 different sweet confections (including macarons, chocolate tuiles and booze-spiked truffles), biscochitos are big for Christmas (Bochenski’s biscochitos are also made with lard, naturally). Plus, if you hang out in the bar or restaurant, they might give you one for free. ’Tis the season, after all.