In addition to last week’s almond cordial, the anise-flavored torta de recao is another typical Christmas cookie in Murcia. Even though December 25, 2010 has come and gone, the Christmas cookie season won’t be over in Spain until at least January 6, Epiphany. In fact, my friends and I have just made one more batch to make it through the holidays.

Tortas de recao

Far from my original home in this season of traditions, I have found that holiday nostalgia can be shared through cookies. Baking with friends who have grown up with a recipe transforms the mixing and shaping into an act of memory, sparking stories and recollections. As we work together, I feel the encouraging (and sometimes exacting) presence of generations of Murcian mothers, grandmothers and aunts, honored to pass their recipes on.

When three local friends and I set out to make tortas de recao on a recent Saturday, we needed this encouragement – we were all novices in a sense. In fact, many of my friends here are just trying out their wings in terms of holiday cooking. They have seen and participated in the processes year after year, and are now stepping out on their own. They want to be able to carry on the traditions they grew up with, filling their own kitchens and tables with familiar holiday aromas and flavors, such as the anise, almond and honey bite of the tortas de recao.

My friend Santi took on the role of leader, for she had the most experience  – she recently learned to make tortas de recao with her sister-in-law, acknowledged as a pro. Ironically, the least experienced of the crew (guess who) wore an “Old Master” apron.

Santi mixed the dough, plunging her hands in once it was just cool enough to touch, making sure it was smooth. She shaped the dough into balls and showed us how to flatten the cookies and form the edges. She offered tips (and words of warning): quickly shape all the dough while it is warm, for it’s impossible to work otherwise; all cookies should be about the same size for even baking; and be sure the border is high enough to hold in the almonds.

Shaping the dough

The threat of potential pitfalls kept us moving at a clip, and a frenetic energy filled the kitchen. I got frustrated. I just couldn’t get the edge right. I watched Santi and Cari’s nimble fingers forming beautifully crimped rims and tried to imitate the motion, but couldn’t get the same result. I imagined all the mothers and grandmothers in the room cringing over my shoulder. Yet I had to keep moving, and my hands and mind began to loosen up as I worked.

The Assembly line

Can you tell which cookies are mine? I sure can.

Ready for the oven

Nearly six hours and over twelve pounds of flour later, we had twenty dozen golden tortas de recao, which we topped with honey as a final sweet touch. A taste test confirmed we could be proud of our results. I took home five dozen, some of which I gave out to Manolo’s family and friends (they were  tickled by the gesture – tortas de recao from the Americana); some went to the States by plane with my dad (a delicious way to share Christmas in Murcia from afar); and the rest I kept on hand at home to enjoy throughout the holidays. Like many Christmas treats here, these cookies get even better with time, as the honey soaks more deeply into the base.

A kiss of honey

In the end, the oven had been kind to my cookies, and the novice borders didn’t really matter. Since this day, I have seen many tortas de recao in different homes and bakeries throughout Murcia, and can say with authority that no two are the same. To each his own perfection, which may just be in each crunchy, anise-infused bite.

And in the process, through which the bakers’ hands give shape to memories, and traditions are shared and passed along.

Tortas de Recao

These cookies are challenging to make, particularly given the quantities, but are rewarding for all the senses. You could of course reduce the amounts, which would make the recipe easier. Much of the difficulty lies in the fact you have to move quickly to shape the dough while it is warm.

We used a large plastic bin for the dough (one that holds at least 12 quarts) – there is simply too much dough for most domestic standing mixers. An industrial mixer would sure come in handy here!

The recipe calls for mild or light olive oil (suave in Spanish), which is refined and has a milder flavor and higher heating point than extra virgin olive oil. You could use another vegetable oil instead, such as canola or sunflower.

Be sure to bake these cookies in a well-ventilated kitchen. Once the anise liqueur begins to evaporate, the air gets quite boozy, and can even sting the eyes.

Since you add the honey after you have baked these cookies, the flavor is forward and therefore the quality of the honey is particularly important. Many recipes for tortas de recao say to add the honey while the cookies are still warm from the oven for optimal absorption. But you can also add warm honey once all the cookies have baked and cooled, which is a bit less hectic since you are only focusing on one step at a time.

3 kilograms (6 lbs 9 oz) flour

1 liter dry anise liqueur, such as Anís del Mono Seco or Chinchón Seco

1 kilogram (2 lb 3 oz) sugar, plus more for sprinkling

1 liter mild or light olive oil

1 slice lemon zest (about 1 1/2-inches long and 1/2-inch wide)

1/2 to 1 kilogram (1 to 2 lbs) chopped almonds

1 kilogram (2 lb 3 oz)  artisanal honey

Line baking sheets with parchment paper. (We ran out in the end, and placed the cookies directly on the baking sheets as you can see in some of the photos. The cookies didn’t stick much due to the oil content, but the paper certainly made re-use for subsequent batches easier.)

Line a tray with parchment paper for the honey drizzling step.

Cut several five-by-five inch squares of parchment paper (one for each baker). You shape the cookies on these squares, which prevents the dough from sticking to the work surface.

Preheat oven to 375ºF.

Place flour in a large plastic bin. Make a well in the center.

Heat anise liqueur in a large sauce pan over medium-high heat, about 10-15 minutes. Once it begins to steam, add sugar and stir to dissolve. Don’t worry if some crystals remain. (This is a non-conventional step that my friends have added to burn off some of the alcohol in the anise so it doesn’t all burn off in the oven.)

Meanwhile, heat oil and slice of lemon zest in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, about 10-15 minutes. You know the oil is hot enough once it begins to smoke and the lemon zest has turned golden brown. Remove from heat and discard lemon zest.

Gradually, and very carefully, pour hot oil into the well in the flour. The oil will sizzle and steam. Stir with a wooden spoon, being careful not to scald the plastic bin. At this point, the dough will still be clumpy and dry. It’s good to have two people for this step – one to pour and one to stir. Gradually add anise liqueur and stir to blend. The dough should be smooth. Cover bin with a kitchen towel to hold in heat.

Once dough is just cool enough to touch, break off enough to make a golf-size ball with your hands. The dough will be slightly tacky, but shouldn’t stick too much to your hands. Place ball on pre-cut square of parchment paper and flatten into a round disc, about three- to four-inches in diameter (depending on the size cookie you want), with your fingers. Now comes the tricky part – the borders. Basically, you are crimping the rim of the dough as you would a pie crust. Lift a little dough from the edge, fold it over and gently press down into the base. There is a good picture of the process here. Work your way around the cookie, and don’t be too worried about getting it just right. The important thing is to have a slightly raised rim, creating a shallow nest for the almond topping. Transfer to baking sheets, reshaping into circles if dough has stretched.

Prepping the dough

Pierce the base of the dough in several places with a fork. Sprinkle each cookie with a pinch of sugar, then add about a teaspoon of chopped almonds, filling the base. Gently press almonds with your fingers to set them into dough.

Bake until golden, about 25-30 minutes (based on one baking sheet at a time). If you bake two sheets at once, be sure to rotate them once the cookies on top have begun to brown. Lower heat to 350ºF if the tops are browning too quickly.

Meanwhile, warm honey so that it is more of a liquid than a syrup. Place cookies (either still warm or cooled) on prepared tray and drizzle each with about 1/2 teaspoon of honey. The honey will initially pool in the base, but will seep into the cookie over time. Stack cookies one on top of the other and repeat honey drizzling process. Store fully cooled cookies in an airtight container for up to several weeks.

YIELD: 8-10 dozen cookies, depending on the size.

¡Felices fiestas!

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