Friday, December 18, 2009

The secret ingredient is lard.

Behold my first Christmas cookie of the season, a heart shaped biscochito. The biscochito is the New Mexican State cookie, and a very special one at that. It is an anise-flavored shortbread that appears in cookie jars almost exclusively at Christmas — and also sometimes at weddings, baptisms and quinceƱeras. The cookies are dusted in cinnamon sugar. Cooks often use brandy or wine for flavor. They are light and flaky and crispy, like a good sugar cookie. And they are made with lard.

I had you until I said lard, didn't I?

Don't feel alone in your repulsion to the idea of lard. I was the same way at first, totally grossed out. And to be honest, the idea of lard still kind of freaks me out. I don't exactly know why, because I love bacon. I even save bacon fat in an old jelly jar for sauteing Brussels sprouts and melting into sauteed greens. Bacon fat is delicious. I mean really, really delicious. Do you like bacon? Most of us do. So if you like bacon, and if you eat bacon, and if you are not disturbed by the idea of Brussels sprouts sauteed in pancetta, then why would you be grossed out at lard?

It's just a little bit of pork fat. Or Manteca de Puerco, depending on where you buy it.

However, if the delicious bacon argument has not warmed you up to lard cookies yet, read on. I will try to appeal to your intellect through the power of lard science. I have a theory that the more you know about lard, the less grossed out you will feel. For example, did you know that freshly rendered lard has less saturated fat and less cholesterol than butter? Lard contains just 40 percent saturated fat (compared with nearly 60 percent for butter). So while it is not considered healthy, it is healthier than the butter or hydrogenated shortening alternative.

Keep in mind that this health value is only relevant in fresh lard, the kind that must be refrigerated. Commercial lard (the kind that comes in the blue or green box or tub) is hydrogenated, and therefore has the same faults as shortening. Plus, it lacks flavor. Two good reasons it should be avoided.

Still not convinced? If the similarities to bacon or the healthful composition of lard does not sell you on its superiority as a baking staple, consider your alternative, shortening. Not only is Crisco hydrogenated, which is bad for your heart, it is also of dubious origins. Let me enlighten you to the historical context of the product. Solid vegetable shortening, which became popular around the middle of the 20th century, was discovered when researchers hydrogenated cottonseed oil in the hopes of finding a way to make soap and candles. Of course, soon electricity diminished the need for candles. But these same scientists noticed how much their candle-wannabes resembled lard, and so they opted to market it as a cooking oil. The name they gave it was Crisco — a contraction of "crystallized cottonseed oil."

The idea that hydrogenated shortening was originally designed as a candle should repulse you as much as your original reaction to the thought of lard.

When you use shortening, you are using what was originally developed as a household candle. Ick. Plus shortening is full of trans fats. Vegetable shortenings that are solid at room temperature — or hydrogenated — are chocked full of 'em. There is plenty of evidence that trans fats raise bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower the more protective cholesterol (HDL).

In addition, authoritative figures tout the merits of lard in cooking. Many a fine chef and baker declare lard the superior fat for baking. It makes light, flaky, savory pie crusts. And in a biscochito it makes a crispy, crunchy, not-to-sweet Christmas treat. Really lard is the only way to make these cookies taste as they should.

Of course, acquiring the lard required some less tasty experiences, including a trip into a stinky meat market, a run-in with a cooler full of frozen pig heads, and the discovery that a place with a wall of tripe and beef tongues is not guaranteed to also carry fresh lard. It took us three different stores and the purchase of more than 60 fluid ounces of rendered pork fat to find the Manteca de Puerco I needed for baking. All in all it was a pretty gross adventure, and I was almost turned completely off of the idea of baking with lard. So when my first batch came out of the oven, I hesitantly tasted the first cookie, first with a small nibble, and then with a more confident bite, chew, swallow, and a smile.

Sadly, my husband was less receptive. After his first biscochito, Sam promptly declared his mouth tasted like pork fat and poured himself a glass of Scotch to burn out the flavor. I, on the other hand, was delighted. The cookies tasted just like I remembered them. Only now I have four dozen biscochitos and none to eat them with.

I think his turn off comes down to seeing and smelling the lard pre-batter. One word of advice, if baking with meat market lard, try not to smell it. It smells like, um there is not better way to say this, it smells like rendered pork fat. Which, of course, is what it is supposed to smell like. But still, it smelled a bit ick. And it also looked a bit ick.

In summary, the Christmas consider moving into the realm of authentic baking. Just try not to look at, smell, touch, or think about the Manteca de Puerco (lard) and you will adore your Christmas biscochitos. Oh yes, and keep them away from vegetarians.

New Mexican Biscochitos

6 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking powder
2 cups shortening
1 1/2 cups white sugar
2 teaspoons anise seed
2 eggs
1/4 cup brandy
1/4 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C)
2. Sift flour with baking powder and salt.
3. Cream shortening with sugar and anise seeds until fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time.
4. Mix in flour and brandy until well blended.
5. Turn dough out on a floured board and pat or roll to 1/4 or 1/2 inch thickness. Cut into shapes (the fleur-de-lys is traditional). Dust with a mixture of 1/4 cup sugar and 1 tsp cinnamon.
6. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes in the preheated oven, or until golden brown.


Myra said...

You said blue box of lard, I have only seen the green one that is pure lard, like we use for tamales.

Kate said...

I am sure different regions have different lard distributors and different box colors. You can find one brand of lard in a blue box ( and another brand of lard in a green box (, and both are hydrogenated like shortening to keep them shelf stable. Fresh rendered lard is sold in the refrigerated section and will look something like this

Unknown said...

Who sells Manteca de Puerco in San Antonio, Texas?