It was early on a bright sunny morning in a bustling café off the zocolo in Oaxaca that I had my first taste of café de olla. I’d returned to this colonial town to explore more of its historical sites and to sample more of one of the most distinctive and flavorful cuisines in the world. On that morning, café de olla seemed an absolutely perfect way to start a day of new adventure.
A lot of what happens in Oaxaca feels like a magical coincidence. As you wander the streets full of color and intriguing shops and food, you invariably encounter surprise after surprise. Whether it’s the lovely rooms and gorgeous courtyards that seem to be everywhere, a restaurant with the best Caesar salad in the world, an opera house, an ancient market full of the startling early morning staccato of Zapotec and Mixtec Indian languages or the absolutely irresistible aromas drifting from kitchen after kitchen, it is an intoxicating feast of the senses. It’s also a city of contrasts, a constant reminder of the stark collision of the colonial and the modern: internet cafes and Spanish and Belle Epoque architecture; ancient dusty ruins and modern art galleries; rustic markets stacked with traditional wares and elegant hotels with breathtaking panoramas. There are flowers everywhere. The people are the salt of the earth.
Café de olla is a special brew of coffee traditionally prepared in clay pots made by local artisans. The coffee is bolstered with cinnamon and piloncillo, a very rustic and flavorful unrefined Mexican brown sugar. Its raw quality and slight impurities give it its unique flavor profile, which is hauntingly delicious with notes of caramel and rum. I wrote about it in my cookbook recipe for Piloncillo Ice Cream with Spiced Pecans, one of my favorite ice cream compositions.
Alice Medrich’s recipe for Café de Olla Sticks brought back this flood of great memories for me. She writes in her headnote that these cookies remind her of a café de olla she tasted outside of Mexico City more than 30 years ago.
These are very rustic cookies in the style of biscotti. They’re brittle and not too sweet. The scent of the spices linger in your kitchen long after you’re done baking. Enjoy them with a good strong cup of coffee.
- My scale doesn’t have the same precision so I rounded up.
- It’s easy to shape the cookie dough free form but you can press it into a 9” x 5” loaf pan lined with plastic wrap if that is easier for you. I use a bench scraper to square up the sides.
- I used 1/2 teaspoon aniseed and the full amount of cinnamon. My preferred cinnamon is the stronger, sweeter, more aromatic Vietnamese (sometimes called Saigon cinnamon), which I buy at my bulk grocer.
- My cookies baked in 14 minutes. I checked them at 12 and added 2 minutes as needed.
- I got 26 cookies. If you slice them thinner, watch the baking time more closely.
- Here are a couple of recipes for café de olla: one with lots of spice and one that uses brown sugar and molasses.
- Thanks and appreciation to these sites for Pastry Studio mentions around the web: Babble here, here and here; Good Morning America/Yahoo; 25 Best Food Blogs for Boomers; 15 delicious chocolate dessert recipes.
Café de Olla Sticks
Makes 36 – 46 cookies
1 1/4 cups (5.625 oz) flour
1/2 cup + 1 1/2 tablespoons (4 oz) sugar
2/3 cup (2.67 oz) almonds
scant 3/4 teaspoon whole aniseed [I use 1/2 teaspoon]
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 3/4 teaspoons freshly and finely ground coffee beans
slightly rounded 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
slightly rounded 1/4 teaspoon salt
3 oz (6 tablespoons) cold butter
2 tablespoons cold brewed espresso or very strong coffee
1 teaspoon vanilla
Place flour, sugar, almonds, aniseed, cinnamon, ground coffee, pepper and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Process until the almonds are finely ground.
Cut the butter into 1/2” pieces and add to the flour mixture. Pulse until it resembles coarse meal. Combine coffee and vanilla and add. Process until the dough looks damp. It will be crumbly but should hold together when pinched.
Gather the dough on a piece of plastic wrap. Press and shape into a 4” x 9” rectangle, firming it up and squaring the edges. Chill thoroughly.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line baking sheets with parchment or silpats.
Use a sharp knife to cut the chilled dough into 1/4” slices and place 1” apart on the prepared baking sheets. Bake until the edges just begin to take on a golden brown, about 12 – 18 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through the baking. Place the baking sheets on a wire rack and cool.