People! I invented a cookie! They are a chunky, chewy, chocolaty, spicy (yes, spicy!) tribute to our great American melting pot. They require a sense of adventure with unique ingredients. You may need to travel your area markets on a mission of discovery so put down your chef’s toque for this one and stick a feather in your explorer’s cap. But first, a little back story.
Back in May of this year my husband and I made our first trip to Mexico. A dream vacation to beautiful Cancun. The night before our flight I called my parents to proudly declare the family name. In spirit, for the ancestors, I would reclaim my maiden name and carry the entire Chacon legacy back with me to the Motherland! Because we are Mexican! Viva la raza! Viva mi raza! But my family pride was not met with any flag raising fanfare because as it turns out I’m not who I thought I was. “We’re not Mexican,” says mamá y papá.
“Lo que lo?” says me.
I say that I’m confused. Dad’s name is Chacon. Mom’s name is Barela. My grandmothers names were Perea and Trujillo. They called me hijita and mija and told me that if I didn’t behave myself La Llorona was going to haunt me. Aunt Dolores teaches high school Spanish. Uno. Dos. Tres. Quatro. Cinco. Our Christmas celebrations were feasts of homemade tamales and enchiladas prepared by loving aunts and in-laws. When I was a little girl my mom used to sit me down at the kitchen table to sort the good pinto beans from the bad ones. They would simmer for hours on the stove with a ham hock nestled deep in their pot. I learned how to keep a kettle of hot water nearby to keep the liquid from drying out while they cooked. Another pot of pozole simmering in a blend of red chile and made from dried hominy – never canned – on the back burner while the house filled with a humid, salty air. We were Mexican. And the food proved it. Especially my mother’s sopapillas. Little pillows of fried dough as soft as they are perfectly crisp. They were the Christmas staple. We ate them over her shoulder as fast as she fried them in boiling hot shortening, a recipe handed down to her by her own mother who fried them in lard. Sometimes we ate them so fast there weren’t enough left over to pass around the table by the time the meal was ready to be served. Uncles grumbled. Grandmothers sighed heavily. Children ahhh-ed with disappointment but everyone rubbed their guilty bellies, round and soft with the warm bubble bread that filled them. We were Mexican and these were the traditions of our heritage.
Except we weren’t. And our heritage was something else entirely.
As it turns out we are Spanish. And French. Native American too. I have one great-great grandfather from Basque and another great-great grandfather from Ireland. Ireland? What the shamrock? “Yes,” says dad, “Rockwell was the name.” Then mom chimes in, “Don’t forget that I have Dutch on my mother’s side.”
I argue, “But what about the green chile with pork?”
“That’s a New Mexico thing where most of our family settled in the United States. Who told you we are Mexican anyway?”
“Everyone!!” Anyone? Who did tell me? No one? Did I tell myself? A few family members used to get irritated with me when I said we were Mexican but I thought they were being snobby Francophiles. I knew we had French blood and Spanish blood but I thought that was so distant as to be all but insignificant. So what was I thinking? Did the pozole whisper it to me in its steam escaping from the bubbling pot? In a way, yes, I think that is exactly where I planted my own family tree; in the soil of our traditions which were the recipes we shared.
The food we cooked meant very much and not just to me, to all of us. It connected us in a way that I’m sure your family recipes connect you to where you have been and in many ways inspire where you will go next. In my memory we never talked about the family tree but we did talk about the enchiladas and the biscochitos for days after they had been devoured and the pans were scrubbed clean. And now that we’re older some of us may start to out green chili each other. My husband says my spread of these old family favorites rivals my mom’s. You hear that mom? Battle green chili is on!
Some people know their family history with intimate details. I envy you if that describes your connection to your family tree. I am just getting to know mine. Ever since I found out the truth about my heritage I’ve been thinking a lot about who I really am and where I came from. How much does your family tree really have to do with who you are at the end of the day? To be honest there was a sense of loss involved with this discovery. I liked being Mexican. It was a delicious time in my life. But now I’m wondering what a new understanding of where I came from will mean to me. I don’t want to ever lose the family traditions of our recipes and I want for my ancestors to live on not just in the food but in my understanding of who they really were. Because, yes, at the end of the day it does matter to who I am. I came from them and I want to know them. Maybe I will learn new traditions and develop new recipes. Which Native American tribe do I come from? What did my Irish grandfather eat? What is common in Basque cuisine and can someone please tell me where I can get some Dutch stoofpeertjes? I have a food adventure ahead of me. And I’ve already started by inventing a cookie in my family’s diverse honor. So it is with no further ado I present the Chocolate Chacon Chewy. They represent the melting pot of places from where I come and the people who made me who I am. You’ll need a tall glass of milk to accompany this one, not so much for the chocolate which is surprisingly mild and the sweetness is well balanced with salt, but I recommend a glass of milk to combat the heat from this treat. The Hatch green chili from New Mexico that I fold into the melted chocolate gives it a kick that will knock you back to Plymouth Rock. When you sit down to enjoy these I hope that you will share them with your family and that you will raise a toast to each of our families, to their stories that have become our stories, to our collective past and to our hopeful future. Viva la raza humana!
Chocolate Chacon Chewy
The base of this cookie is adapted from a recipe by Giada De Laurentiis but the ingredients that pay tribute to my family history are my own. I also have specifically chosen to use Dutch-processed cocoa in the batter. Not only does it help me include that part of my family history but as it turns out the Dutch-process serves an important purpose in the cooking process with the baking powder. The difference will be between a flat cookie or one that puffs and rises in the oven. Read about that here. There are lots of popular and readily available brands of Dutch-processed cocoa. I bought mine at Williams-Sonoma. Moving on to the other ingredients and their meaning, the Hatch chilies I use are from New Mexico where we settled. They are seasonal and only available during mid-late August through early September. I buy them pre-roasted at Whole Foods and freeze a big ol’ bag of them to use in recipes all year. (Pre-freeze separately on a parchment lined baking sheet before you store them in a freezer bag so they don’t stick together and you can pick out one at a time to defrost as needed.) When Hatch chilies are not available try adapting this recipe with a single pureed Chipotle pepper coated in Adobo sauce or just one tablespoon of the sauce straight from the can. You can find a can of Embasa brand in just about any grocery store in the country. (If you try it this way please let me know how they turn out!) The Spanish peanuts pay tribute to that lineage coming down through the Basque region. Dried cherries are a nod to the Native American in me. Because I don’t yet know the tribe we came from I couldn’t get real specific but cherries were commonly used for medicinal purposes by many North American tribes. I like that. All families have hurts that need healing. I’m happy with food therapy and don’t mind using medicinal cherries in just about any recipe. Finally a little Irish booze to make this a party and why not top it all off with a little gourmet French salt. You can find many brands in a gourmet shop or natural foods store and while you’re there look for the Dutch-process cocoa too. The saltiness of Fleur de Sel is much more mild than table salt. Steal a taste from the bag when you bring some home and you’ll see. Soon you won’t be afraid to add it as a topping on your caramel ice-cream or across a juicy slice of watermelon. It makes perfect sense with savory or sweet. I sprinkle just enough on top of the unbaked cookies to make them look delicious.
- 6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, separated into their portions off the bar (Each individual square snapped off from a Ghirardelli baking square equals 1/2 ounce for your measuring. I use one bar and a half.)
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, slightly softened just to help it melt with the chocolate
- 1/3 cup dark chocolate-covered espresso beans
- 1 cup flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 2 eggs, at room temperature (Important to the recipe. Get the rest of the ingredients set up and ready to go while they come up to temp. Portion everything out, melt then cool the chocolate, etc. )
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
- 2 – 4 roasted Hatch green chilies, skins peeled and seeds removed (2 – 4 at your heat preference level. Go easy your first time out until you get used to cooking with them. Removing the skins can be a delicate process but the char from roasting them makes it much easier. It doesn’t have to be perfect but I do suggest completely rinsing off the seeds.)
- 2 tablespoons Irish whiskey or Baileys Irish Cream (can substitute with water if that is preferred)
- 1 ½ cups Spanish peanuts (leave the skins on)
- 1 ½ cups dried cherries
- Fleur de Sel for sprinkling on top
Place an oven rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to a lower setting than you be used to for cookies: 300 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats. Set aside.
Peel and remove the seeds from the Hatch chilies. Chop into course chunks and then puree in a small chopper with 1 – 2 TBS of water to help smooth it along to a nice pureed consistency. Set aside.
In a small glass mixing bowl, combine the chocolate and butter. Place the bowl over a pan of barely simmering water and stir occasionally until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth. Set aside to cool to the touch. Once cooled, stir in the pureed Hatch green chili.
In the bowl of a food processor or coffee grinder finely chop the chocolate covered espresso beans to consistency similar to finely ground coffee. I used my little electric coffee grinder and counted to ten for a powdery result. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the chopped espresso beans, flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt.
In another medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, eggs. Add the Irish whiskey or Baileys (can substitute with water) and vanilla extract. Gradually add the dry ingredients and very gently stir until thick and smooth. (Use a rubber spatula to keep the batter from sticking.) Gently fold in the melted chocolate and chili mixture. Gently fold in the Spanish peanuts and dried cherries. Using a measuring cup scoop a scant 1/4 cupfuls of the batter (don’t pack the cup) onto the prepared baking sheets. This batter will be runny but the chunks of peanuts and dried cherries hold it all together. They grow in the oven to a large cookie so I only scooped 5 mounds of batter at a time on the baking sheet to give them plenty of room. Sprinkle cookie mounds with a little Fleur de Sel to your tasting preference. Bake until slightly puffed and the tops begin to crack, 18 to 20 minutes. Allow the cookies to cool completely on the baking sheets. This is important. These cookies are very moist and will stick to your pan or fall apart if you try to remove them before they have completely cooled.
Makes 12 – 15 large cookies. Enjoy!