Guess Who's Back...

Enough is enough. I'm calling an end to the Martha moratorium. It's been nearly three months since I instigated my embargo on Cookies: The Very Best Recipes to Bake and Share, and while it was good to stretch myself by baking some pies, and make better use of my cookbook library, Martha's book was never far from my mind. I wish I could say that eventually it lost its hold over me, but I'd still flip through it, longingly looking at the gorgeous photography and plotting my next kitchen experiment. I suppose I'm a kind of addict; whereas I stayed on the wagon for almost three months, I never stopped thinking about Martha's cookie recipes. Yesterday, I finally broke.

I suppose it had something to do with the ill-advised decision I made to watch nearly seven hours of 9/11 programming on the History Channel.  Last year, I told my 9/11 story, but this year, I think the stories of miraculous survival and tragic loss hit me in an entirely different way. As I listened over and over to stories of women who lost husbands in the attack, my thoughts naturally turned to Justin. What would I do if the love of my life were suddenly ripped away from me? It's an outcome I can scarcely bring myself to contemplate, but for thousands of families, it became their reality. After thoroughly emotionally devastating myself, I turned to a source of pleasure and solace that was familiar to me: baking cookies.

For my foray back into the world of Martha, I went straight for the recipe that had been next in my queue before the moratorium started. Since I've been approaching the book with a more open-minded eye this year, I was attracted to a recipe for biscochitos, the state cookie of New Mexico and supposedly a holiday staple all over the American Southwest. I found the recipe intriguing because it was the first cookie recipe I could recall seeing that was composed in the modern era and still called for lard. Ever the curious sort when it comes to baking, I wanted to give them a try, even though I was dubious about their anise/orange/cinnamon flavor combination.

The unusual dough proved very difficult to work with; it was exceedingly soft. Though I usually use powdered sugar to roll out cookies instead of flour in order to prevent toughness and additional gluten formation, this dough was so wet I figured the extra flour couldn't hurt, and subsequent re-rollings of the dough did prove easier to handle, though I still had to work quickly to get them from the counter to the cookie sheets. All the flour, when combined with the cinnamon sugar that got sifted over the cookies turned my counter into an epic mess, but the finished product proved to make the mess worthwhile.

The lard gave the finished cookies a great, crumbly texture that I've not seen in any other cookie, while its flavor remained neutral. Surprisingly, the seemingly disparate flavor components all played well together and created a complex, but not unpleasant combination of tastes. Anise is, by far, the most dominant flavor, and they actually reminded me a bit of a less dry, texturally superior version of the "S" cookies made by my father's side of the family.

Most surprisingly of all, however, was their popularity at the office today. I had no idea that anise was such a popular flavor (I kind of regard it as an acquired taste, and despite eating "S" cookies my entire life, I still merely tolerate it), and people raved about them, though only one person could figure out the secret ingredient. Americans have such a fear of lard that most of us don't even know what it tastes like any more, but one person, my boss' Italian secretary, walked straight into my office and said in her lyrically-accented English, "You made these cookies with lard! I can tell! That's why they are SO good!"

Given that the dough was a pain to work with, I'm not sure when I'll get around to giving biscochitos another chance. They were exceptionally well-received, but I think it'll take a special occasion for me to want to go through the effort again. They're definitely worth trying once, if only so you can have the following exchange with your significant other:

Haley: I baked cookies tonight.
Justin: Ooo, what kind?
Haley: Biscochitos.
Justin: Disco Cheetos? What on earth is that?
Haley: (laughs hysterically and makes a mental note to blog this moment)

adapted from Martha Stewart

1 c. sugar plus 3/4 c. for sprinkling
1 1/4 c. lard or vegetable shortening
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other orange liquer
zest of one orange
3 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons anise seeds
2 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
all-purpose flour, for dusting the counter

1. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix 1 cup sugar and the lard on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about three minutes. Add egg; beat to combine. Add vanilla, orange liquer, and zest; beat to combine.
2. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Gradually beat flour mixture into the sugar mixture on low speed. On medium, gradually add water until dough forms a ball, adding more if necessary. Wrap dough in plastic and refrigerate at least 30 minutes, up to overnight.
3. Preheat the oven to 350. Combine the remaining sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl; set aside.
4. On a floured surface, roll out the dough to 1/4 inch in thickness. Working quickly, cut the dough into desired shapes, and sift cinnamon sugar over them. Transfer to parchment-lined baking sheets and refrigerate or freeze 30 or 15 minutes, respectively. Bake 12-14 minutes, until set but not brown. Remove cookies to wire racks to cool completely before eating. Re-roll the scraps and repeat until all the dough is used.

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