From an early age, my mom taught me the language of food, its power as a bond within family, between cultures, and, when done right, how it draws us back to our roots. Meals such as a simple bowl of caldo de rezbecame pillars of my childhood. I can still smell the aroma of chile de arbol simmering in a saucepan—an aroma so powerful, no closed door could shield me from its potency. Food holds memories of the past close to us, pulling us adults back to simpler times of our youth. I remember these Eggo waffle sandwiches my brother Luis used to make; loaded with cheese, syrup, and scrambled egg, they symbolized our brother sister bond—a funny combination of the weird and childlike, yet lovely.
Many years and many meals later, I now live in Japan where authentic Mexican cuisine is practically nonexistent. When I asked my Japanese co-workers what their favorite food was, there was a resounding response of “Japanese food”. It makes sense. When all around us is a food landscape of sushi, ramen, udon, and the one or two “Mexican” restaurants, I have doubts that Japan has done enough to open its doors to the world. Mexican food is a novelty here while Mexican culture is simply unfamiliar. The Japanese favorite “taco-rice”—an odd combination of ground beef, tomato, lettuce and shredded cheese over rice—doesn’t count, albeit a nice gesture. As Japan becomes more globalized, people are becoming more curious for the unfamiliar, hungrier for the unknown. All it takes is to taste something new. I felt it was time for my co-workers to try Mexican wedding cookies for the first time.
Polvorones, as they are also known, are a traditional dessert in Mexico brought over from Spain. Much like Russian tea cakes, they are soft, heavy, and crumbly, made with nuts and coated in powdered sugar. Recipes vary from family to family, but Mom’s cookies were always simple, and in my opinion, the best. I first tasted them when I was young—Mom had once returned from visiting relatives in Mexico. She always brought back tons of pecans since our family owns an orchard in Camargo. In our home, pecans would be caramelized, baked into other treats, crushed over ice cream, or eaten whole. We had so many that before I left for Japan, my mom had stuffed three Ziploc bags full of them in my suitcase, as if they were a first aid kit. In a way, they were.
Although time consuming, making polvorones is a simple process. All that’s needed is flour, butter, and powdered sugar along with whichever nut you prefer. Traditionally they’remade with almonds, but you can guess what mom used to make hers. Fortunately, the Costco in Hiroshima sells huge tubs of almonds, which gave me the chance to make the original Spanish recipe.
Mexican Wedding Cookie Recipe
Courtesy of Bianca Sanchez
1The first step is to sift the sugar into a large bowl and mix in the butter until creamy.
2Before adding nuts, grind them in a food processor or blender until very fine (you can leave some chunks for added texture).
3Sift flour into the butter-sugar mix, add the ground nuts and mix everything until completely blended.
4Cover the bowl with a clean, damp cloth and chill for 3 hours.
5After chilling, you can start shaping the dough.
This is where my recipe takes another turn from my mom’s. She likes to shape her dough into small crescents, or something resembling tiny croissants, a shape polvorones rarely ever take on. It was one of her many creative, artistic twists to a dish she’s making.
With my batch, I followed the traditional way and formed the dough into balls, then baked them for 20 minutes at 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
Once done, remove the sheet, let the cookies cool (they should be a little warm), then roll each one in more powdered sugar. They’re best at room temperature with coffee or chocolate caliente*. You can also store polvorones in the fridge in an air tight container.
*Far from Swiss Miss instant cocoa, Mexican hot chocolate uses cinnamon, nutmeg, and chili powder for those bold enough to try.
When I think back to how my mom made these cookies, I realize how often she didn’t follow the recipe, and that goes for almost every dish she made. If there was a way to tweak traditional methods and break barriers, she would do it. As an artist and painter, experimentation was normal: blending mediums—and ingredients—together was what produced her best work. While cooking, she did not just with flavors, but with cultures. Italian, Indian, even Japanese food, nothing was “too foreign” for her to want to cook or experience. She respected the importance of authentic cuisine, but knew that to keep a culture of food alive, it didn’t hurt to adapt in some way. That is what makes food powerful; its adaptability is what brings people together. That is how it speaks a language we can all understand. When I bite into a polvoron, it tugs me back to someplace familiar: my childhood, my family and my mom. When my co-workers tried them for the first time, they were no longer outsiders to my culture.
One co-worker named Yamane-sensei—who, coincidentally, is learning to speak Spanish—was particularly excited to try her first polvoron. It was almost Christmas and we were in the English office where everyone was handing out treats. Wrapped in clear plastic baggies and tied with a gold string, my homemade offering surprised the other teachers. I watch as Yamane-sensei unwraps her cookies and takes a bite, followed by the other teachers, when I hear a resounding “mmm” between mouthfuls. No longer among outsiders, I feel the tug again. I am home.