In the hard drive of the brain are buried the myriad experiences of a lifetime, irrepressible memories ready to spring like a jack-in-the box, surprising us with their unpredictability. For example, around 3:30 on any afternoon at school when I’m not buried in work, when there is an unexpected lag in the usual mad teaching schedule, when the door of my classroom is closed and the rest of the world is on the other side, there is an alarm clock that goes off somewhere in my mind. Suddenly my memories turn to the routine (and the glories) of the merienda hour of my childhood.
A chilly, rainy afternoon like today reminds me of how by this time, my mother would have had the table set with hot cinnamon tea or a glass of milk and a plate of hojarascas, semita, campechanas (her favorites) and conchas for her three daughters. Sometimes we were joined by aunts from across the river or señoras who we knew and whose ‘merienda alarm’ was propelling them punctually across town in the direction of our welcoming table. We never learned to make these breads and cookies because, ¡qué idea!, who could make them better and more regularly than La Superior, the bakery in Laredo that had the best Mexican pastries? Going there to pick them out was just part of the ritual.
One afternoon, at a merienda at the house of my cousin, Hilda, (yes, I know, there’s a confusing amount of Hildas and Gildas in this picture) in San Antonio, I tasted her hojarascas and got her recipe. I was reminded of Hilda’s hojarascas when I was in Florence, Italy two weeks ago enjoying my favorite breakfast cookie with a cappuccino at Cibreo’s. It’s called occhio di bue (bull’s eye) because it’s a crumbly sablé cookie like the hojarasca except it’s made with butter, has no cinnamon, and it has a raspberry jam center that looks like a bull’s eye.
In the pure delight of the moment of sitting at a table under the spring sun, watching Italian grandmothers intermittently sipping their coffee, cooing to grandchildren in strollers, and bantering with the barista, I remembered Alex, my son, wishing I could share this precious moment with him.
As a child, Alex loved making cookies with me, the two of us up to our elbows and noses in flour. His job: to do the cookie cutting. Mine: to keep him from pinching off two much raw cookie dough to “taste test.” Often, he and I made Hildas’ hojarascas. This recipe is a very old northern Mexico recipe which is most probably a new world descendent of European sablés. But in the family recipe, I’ve substituted the lard with shortening, realizing that’s not much better health-wise, but the thing about cookies is that hopefully you don’t eat them everyday and making them has the very redeemable feature of luring children into the magic of the kitchen.
The concentrated cinnamon/anise tea that you pour into the dough is the touch that makes them unmistakably Mexican. This is a dough with very little sugar since you will add the sugar on the surface of the cookie. Putting a thin layer of raspberry jam between them would make them divine, in my opinion, since the tartness of the jam juxtaposes well with the cinnamon. But as they appear in this recipe, they are beyond special.
- ½ cup sugar
- 2 cups Crisco
- 5 cups flour approximately
- A pinch of salt
- 2 cups water
- 4 sticks cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon anise
- Combine the water, cinnamon and anise and boil down to ⅓ cup.
- Heat oven to 375 degrees.
- Beat Crisco to make it creamy.
- Add sugar and then tea (cooled).
- Add salt and flour (some flour may be left over).
- Don’t over knead.
- Refrigerate for approximately one hour.
- Then roll out, cut with a cookie cutter and place on buttered cookie sheet.
- Sprinkle with part of the sugar/cinnamon mixture.
- Bake for approximately 25 minutes or until they are golden.
- When cookies are done, put them on cooling rack and then sprinkle them again with more of the sugar/cinnamon mixture.
- In blender, grind roughly 2 cinnamon sticks with ½ cup sugar.
- These roughly pulverized bits of cinnamon may also be added to the flour used for the cookie dough.