Feliz Cinco De Mayo...

I can't say I've ever really understood the appeal of Cinco de Mayo, other than as an excuse to get drunk on cheap margaritas and practice the one line that most Americans seem to know in Spanish, "Más cerveza, por favor!" Since I'm not much of a drinker, I've traditionally reserved the same enthusiasm for this holiday as I do St. Patrick's Day, though at least in Chicago, you get to see the river turn green for that. Even in Mexico, where the holiday originated, Cinco de Mayo isn't considered a major holiday; instead, Mexicans reserve their enthusiasm for La Día de la Independencia, on September 16th, and think Americans are a little crazy for the amount of revelry they practice to commemorate an obscure Mexican military victory over the French on May 5th, 1862.

Nonetheless, I found myself looking to Cinco de Mayo for inspiration for tonight's dinner, because I wanted to make something a little special. You see, tonight marked the first time that Justin's family has visited our new home. I wanted to impress Justin's parents with my cooking prowess, though I did make that incredibly elaborate lemon cake for his birthday last year, and I made them dinner at their own home once, several months ago. Tonight would be my first opportunity to cook for them on my own turf, and I wanted to make sure they got the message that I would be appropriate daughter-in-law material someday. 

I'd picked Justin's brain for recipe suggestions numerous times, but it turns out that he likes so many of the things I've made that he has trouble isolating which are his favorites. When he recommended the chicken tacos I made not long after we moved in together, it dawned on me that his parents were coming over on May 5th, so I constructed a Mexican-inspired menu based on the fact that it was Cinco de Mayo. In addition to the tacos, I knew I needed some sort of vegetable, and my friends at work suggested guacamole. Though I don't eat it myself (I can't stand avocados or cilantro), I found a recipe from one of my favorite writers on Serious Eats, and added it to my lineup. Though it's Spanish, I knew I had a killer sangria recipe in my files, so I decided to prepare that for our guests as well.

The only thing I was stuck on was dessert. I simply couldn't think of a Mexican-inspired dessert that would be both a worthy demonstration of my baking skills and something I actually wanted to eat myself, since I was already making one dish I knew I wouldn't eat. Mom suggested flan, but custard-y desserts have never been my thing. I considered making biscochitos again, but I knew I wanted something more elaborate than cookies, and I ruled out another batch of Mexican chocolate ice cream, because Justin wasn't a huge fan. I was at an impasse.

Then, suddenly, a memory surfaced in my mind: I thought back to my first job, where my boss borrowed office space for me from a company with a very small staff. The executive assistant there was a serious foodie, at a time when I was just starting to expand upon the handful of recipes that got me through college, and the two of us talked food on a regular basis. One day, knowing that I loved cinnamon, she brought me a tiny wedge of a decadent Mexican chocolate tart she had made. I fell in love immediately, and she brought me the recipe, which I promptly filed away and forgot. 

For years, I didn't really have the means to make this recipe. It calls for Ibarra, a brand of cinnamon-infused, coarsely-textured Mexican chocolate that is typically available only at Mexican grocery stores. Plus, I didn't have a tart pan. Within the last six months, I've remedied both problems, by moving to a neighborhood with a thriving Mexican business community that includes a supermercado less than two blocks from my apartment, and by using the Crate and Barrel gift card that Justin got at his corporate Christmas party to purchase a tart pan. Remembering this recipe proved to be a stroke of genius.

It had the added advantage of being relatively simple to prepare. Even though it involved making several components, none of the steps were difficult, and I was able to complete the entire dessert the evening before and have it chilling in the fridge when Justin's family arrived. Nothing is better for entertaining than something you can make in advance.

Overall, the meal was very well-received, and Justin's parents were impressed with our home. The dessert, however, was the star of the evening. Justin's mom proclaimed it to be on par with Sacher torte, the specialty of Justin's grandma, and the special occasion cake of choice in their family. Everyone ate two pieces, even though the tart was incredibly rich. Justin's sister requested the recipe. Not to sound immodest, but I completely knocked it out of the park with this dessert. 

I had to purchase a rather large package of Ibarra in order to make this recipe, so I'm sure I'll be making it again someday, possibly for my own family, who I feel need to experience this deliciousness for themselves. I've long since lost touch with the colleague who introduced me to this recipe, but thank you Patty, wherever you are!

Mexican Chocolate Tart with Cinnamon-Spiced Pecans
adapted from Bon Appétit

1 large egg white
2 tablespoons white sugar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 c. pecan halves

4.5 oz. Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers, finely ground in a food processor
1/4 c. white sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 c. whipping cream
4 oz. semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 3.1 oz. disk Ibarra chocolate, chopped
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, and cut into 4 pieces
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt

For nuts:
Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray rimmed baking sheet with nonstick spray. Whisk all ingredients except pecans in medium bowl. Stir in pecans. Spread in single layer on sheet, rounded side up. Bake until just browned and dry, about 30 minutes. Cool on sheet. Separate nuts, removing excess coating.

For crust:
Preheat oven to 350°F. Blend first four ingredients in processor. Add melted butter; process until crumbs are moistened. Press crumbs into 9-inch-diameter tart pan with removable bottom, to within 1/8-inch of top. Bake until set, about 20 minutes. Cool on rack.

For filling:
Bring cream to simmer in medium saucepan. Remove from heat. Add chocolates; whisk until melted. Add butter, 1 piece at a time; whisk until smooth. Whisk in vanilla, cinnamon, and salt. Pour filling into crust. Chill until filling begins to set, about 15 to 20 minutes. Arrange nuts in concentric circles atop tart. Chill until set, about 4 hours.

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