It’s the holiday season, which means it’s also the baked goods season. Everywhere you go, someone is handing you some kind of cookie in the shape of a Christmas tree, an oatmeal-raisin cookie, or the ever-popular chocolate chip cookie, but let’s not forget the official state cookie of New Mexico—the bizcochito (also spelled biscochito).
New Mexico was the first state to even have an official cookie. Since then, Mississippi adopted the butter cookie, Texas the Mexican Wedding Cookie, Massachusetts the chocolate chip cookie (very original of them), and California the snickerdoodle.
But let’s talk about New Mexico’s completely original cookie.
The story begins in 1540 when the Kingdom of New Mexico was first claimed for Spain by conquistador Don Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. Between then and 1607, when the city of Santa Fe was officially founded, Spanish settlers began baking the mantecado shortbread cookies. These were a little dull, so New Mexicans added a unique blend of ingredients that gave the cookie its distinct flavor.
Speaking of unique tastes, there is a fascinating phenomenon where certain ingredients create a new and unique taste, called fantasia flavors. An example is cola. Can you tell what three ingredients make up “cola” flavor? I’ll give you a hint, it has nothing to do with cola nuts. Cola flavor is made up of cinnamon, vanilla and
lemon. Of course caramel coloring is added to make the beverage brown in color. Bubble gum flavor is coriander and banana flavors. Butterscotch is actually a mix of brown sugar, butter, cream, vanilla and salt. Bizcochitos also have a fantasia flavor.
The first flavor in Bizcochitos is anise ( pimpinella ani
sum), the tiny aromatic seed we know from the Greek liqueur Ouzo and from Absinthe. Anise, whose flavor many compare with licorice or fennel, is considered by some to possess medicinal properties including aiding with digestion and easing menstrual cramps.
Bizcochitos are made with true anise, not licorice or fennel, and certainly not star anise, which is actually not anise but the dried fruit of an evergreen tree with an acrid flavor.
The second flavor is cinnamon. Like anise, cinnamon is more than just a spice. Many consider cinnamon to be a powerful medicine with strong anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. Be sure to use true cinnamon or Ceylon cinnamon. All other cinnamon is actually the bark of a cassia tree, and some people are sensitive to the coumarin in this.
The next important ingredient in bizcochitos is lard—yes, rendered pig fat. Don’t panic. Recent opinion from doctors and nutritionists is that lard is actually better for you than vegetable fat. Use leaf lard, which is the finest lard you can buy. It’s snow-white and does not taste like bacon.
The final flavor is brandy (or sometimes wine). The alcohol bakes out by the time you eat the cookies, but the brandy flavor stays.
Anise, cinnamon, lard and brandy work together to give bizcochitos their delicious taste. A properly made bizcochito melts in your mouth. This is accomplished by minimal handling of the dough.
Traditional shapes for bizcochitos are crescent moons and stars, but fleur-de-lis, circles and hearts are also popular shapes. In addition to being part of a New Mexico Christmas, bizcochitos are baked for weddings. For those occasions, the cookies are diamond shaped and dusted with powdered sugar to make them white.
No matter what shape (or even if butter is used to make the bizcochitos suitable for vegetarian friends), our state cookie is a delicious and original flavor of New Mexico, and worth share with all of your friends and family.