NOTE: HOMEMADE HOLIDAY/PHOTO/RECIPE
Lorraine Aguilar lives up to a tasty tradition that takes years to perfect: biscochuelos.
The spirit of Christmas lives in Tucson. Her name is Lorraine Aguilar.
She lives in a house with many windows. Light streams in and holiday silver, crystal and Christmas ornaments sparkle. Over every available space are 250 nativity scenes from all over the world.
In the kitchen is the spirit herself. She wears a Yule-red embroidered Mexican dress and is surrounded by good smells of vanilla and sugar baking.
Christmas cups hang on hooks on the wall, a “Season’s Greetings’ bell hangs above the sink. Large jars of green olives wait, ready to be used for Christmas tamales.
“This is my mother’s recipe,’ she says of the biscochuelos, a cookie that she makes every Christmas season. “I usually bake these at midnight,’ she said.
Aguilar also makes these special, sometimes anise-flavored cookies shaped like circles, during the year for gifts and for bazaars. “I put them in a little sandwich bag, six for 50 cents.’
This morning, her childhood friend Alba Torres is there to watch Aguilar make cookies, and to talk. They’ve known each other since second grade.
“My mother never used the anise,’ Aguilar says as she mixes the two lards – yellow and white – together. “I only started after my uncle pointed out I was making them the wrong way.’
Either way, they’re good, she says. Some people add more anise than she thinks they should. Other people add a little orange juice. One person in Tubac she knows makes them with crushed bellotas, a little acornlike nut.
“But nobody makes them as good as you do, Lorraine,’ says Torres.
“Don’t say that!’ says Aguilar. “You can always ruin a batch.’
But even that can work out, she admits. Her husband, Rudy Aguilar, likes the burned ones best. So do a few neighbors, so she always tries to overbake at least one pan.
Making the cookies leads Aguilar and Torres to talk of other traditional Mexican holiday foods.
Torres’ mother used to make tiny empanadas – baked, half-moon-shaped fruit-, meat-, or vegetable-filled pies. Aguilar just made some out of quince from a friend’s tree. They talk about how people used to make them filled with squash, like the big one in the corner of Aguilar’s kitchen.
Tamales also are traditional for Christmas. “Except we used to make them to eat after midnight Mass,’ said Aguilar. “It used to be that Catholics couldn’t eat meat until then.’
Now, adds Torres, everything has changed, and they eat them earlier, on Christmas Eve.
All of the traditional recipes she uses are in Aguilar’s head, not in cookbooks. It was at Torres’ urging that she finally wrote down her recipe for biscochuelos. “I made her measure it out, cup by cup,’ said Torres.
There are certain tricks that aren’t in the written version. Such as: Leave the lards out overnight so they will be soft enough to mix together.
And, “Don’t change the recipe!’ Aguilar knows a neighbor who makes the cookies with Crisco and they’re “pretty good’ but nothing but lard makes biscochuelos taste like biscochuelos.
People who have never rendered suet from beef also may not realize that after one strains it, it is refrigerated and made solid again.
Some things Aguilar has just learned along the way. “One year I noticed they weren’t turning out right and I realized I had changed to cut-rate sugar. I went back to a better brand and the cookies were fine,’ she said.
It’s hard to explain on paper the trick of knowing when the dough is just right.
“Feel how soft,’ said Aguilar of the dough before all the flour is mixed in. Then she kneads it “like a cat does with his paws on your stomach’ and pulling the bulk back over itself, for about five minutes.
Then, when “your hand begins to pull clear of dough, but not totally,’ it’s time to hand shape the cookies.
“My mother wouldn’t let us help her,’ said Aguilar, “because they wouldn’t be uniform.’
Now Aguilar is the same way. “I don’t want to give ugly ones away,’ she says. Instead, she has a special tray she allowed her 10 children, and now her grandchildren, to fill with their own.
It seems the trick to rolling the little cigarette shapes is to roll rapidly and lightly in the broadest part of your palm, turning them over a couple of times. If you roll them too firmly over your fingers, you’ll get ridges.
But they’ll still taste great. Even after a long, long time.
“Once I hid them in the closet because the kids were eating them all up,’ said Aguilar. “Then in June or July I was cleaning in there and there was a biscochuelo, with a little lint on it. I brushed it off and ate it. It was still good!’
Lorraine Aguilar’s Biscochuelos
1 pound lard (pork fat) and 1 cup beef lard (beef suet rendered and chilled)
2 1/2 cups sugar
5 large eggs
4 tsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. vanilla extract
9 cups white all-purpose flour
Anise seed (optional)
Cream lard mixture, using electric beater. Add sugar and eggs alternately. Add vanilla. Add flour, cinnamon and salt, mixed together. You’ve added enough flour when the dough rolls nicely in your palm. If the dough seems dry, sprinkle a little water on it. The dough can be handled all you want, it won’t get tough. Add the anise seed. The dough will be greasy.
To shape each each cookie, put a teaspoon of dough in the palm of your hand, roll into a cigarette shape, then shape into an O, making ends meet.
Bake on ungreased cookie sheets at about 400 to 450 degrees F. for about 20 minutes or until the cookies are a toasty, golden brown.
This makes a nice big batch (about 224 small cookies), and takes about 2-3 hours.
How to render suet:
Sometimes you can find suet in packages at a meat market. Aguilar saves her own, cutting the fat off steak throughout the year and freezing it in small cubes. When she needs it for biscochuelos or tamales, she puts it in the microwave for 10 minutes, then checks it. Usually it takes 10 more minutes to become liquid, which she strains and chills.