Friday, November 15, 2013

Café de Olla Sticks

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.

Bench notes:
- 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 herehere and hereGood Morning America/Yahoo; 25 Best Food Blogs for Boomers15 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.


Victoria said...

These look beautiful and sound delicious. I wonder how they would be with licorice ice cream.

pastry studio said...

Hello, Victoria! Hope you're enjoying the changes of seasons.

I'm thinking about this and I don't see why not. The cookies flavors blend very well and the licorice would accent the anise.

Kate said...

One of the best sounding cookies for the holidays I've seen. I like the not over the top sweet nibble and ground coffee in a cookie is delicious. Would love to try these.
Victoria's licorice ice cream idea sounds wonderful.
I have many friends with aversion to that flavor although it's one of my favorites.
I do love your strong coffee pairing... maybe I'll take my cue from that.
Do you have a flavor pairing other than licorice?

pastry studio said...

Good morning, Kate! I love anise. I also love figs and raisins. But I know all those things cause lots of people to run in the other direction. It's a crime! But every now and then I just have to do my thing and hope my readers can forgive me!

It's kind of hard to describe the flavor of these cookies. They're very rustic, have an old country feel to them. I would say the predominant taste is the anise (and I cut back on the amount), then the coffee, then some of the almond and cinnamon. With each bite, the whole thing really grows on you. I hate to sound unimaginative but I think a simple and good vanilla ice cream would be nice and allow the other flavors to take their place.

Kate said...

Thanks for the descriptive explanation.
A good vanilla doesn't sound unimaginative at all.
After reading your assessment it sounds like the perfect backdrop.

festive cookies said...

What a lovely description of Oaxaca!
Thank you for the recipe, I will add this recipe to my holiday cookies list, I can´t wait to taste them!