It’s no surprise that food brings people together. But it’s a rare gift when you come across a food that brings people together across an ocean and several hundred years.
Molletes are a sweet anise bread, a favorite in my family, similar in some ways to Portuguese sweet bread. My abuela is famous for her molletes, which come out soft and fluffy and golden brown, delicious with butter or jam. But it’s not a well-known bread, even in New Mexico. You won’t find it in typical bakeries or restaurants, the way you do biscochitos. They’re a secret delight, a recipe passed down through generations.
So you can imagine my surprise when I mentioned to a fellow parent that I was making molletes that evening, and he did a double take. “Did you say molletes?” he asked, pronouncing it properly (moh-yeh-tehs). It turns out that his wife grew up in a small town called Zamora in Spain, which is home to one of the few remaining enclaves of Spanish Jews. It is also the only town in Spain where you can find molletes.
This made sense to me. I’d learned about two decades ago about the Conversos of New Mexico, Spanish Jews who had converted, sometimes forcibly, to Christianity but still faced suspicion and outright persecution in Spain. They emigrated to the Spanish territories in the New World, and a large contingent settled in what is now known as New Mexico. Those were my ancestors. There’s nothing left of Jewish tradition in my family now, except molletes, which I often introduce as Spanish challah.
That’s because there are serious similarities between molletes and challah. Both are enriched with eggs and basted to attain a beautiful sheen and soft crust. Both are sweetened, almost a dessert. They’re rich and decadent and wonderful. Molletes, however, are a slightly drier bread than challah, and they contain anise seed, giving them their characteristic but subtle licorice flavor. I like to eat them with apricot jam, my husband prefers butter, my children Nutella.
Note that molletes are one of my inspirations for the elf cakes in A Witch’s Kitchen, along with banana cookies. I imagine elf cakes as tasting like molletes but as thin and springy as banana cookies. One of these days, I’ll try to find that magical hybrid. In the meantime, I’m starting to teach my thirteen-year-old, who can inhale an entire loaf of bread every day, how to make her own bread, and we are slowly working our way up to her favorite bread: molletes.
This recipe was handed down to me by my abuela, but I found an identical recipe in Great Southwest Cooking Classics, a compilation of recipes published in the Albuquerque Tribune, and the name of the author, Josephine Telles, seems vaguely familiar to me. Was she a cousin with the same recipe? It’s more likely that my abuela, when writing the recipe down for me, couldn’t quantify it easily – she has long baked by tossing ingredients in a bowl until they look right – and so she borrowed it from a ready source. How do I know she had a different recipe? Well, I remember her using lard in this, instead of shortening, and she never, ever used raisins.
I have modified the recipe to use the Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day method of using a kitchen mixer to do the dirty work.
1-1/2 tablespoons (2 packets) yeast
1 cup lukewarm water
1 cup scalded milk
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
3 large or 4 small eggs, well beaten
4 tablespoons melted shortening or butter
7 cups sifted flour
3 teaspoons anise seed
1/2 cup floured raisins (optional)
Soften yeast in lukewarm water with one teaspoon of the sugar. Stir remaining sugar and salt into scalded milk and cool to lukewarm. When cooled, combine with yeast mixture and all other ingredients. Knead by hand or using a kitchen mixer (prefered) until you have a smooth, elastic dough that does not stick to the bowl or your hands. If it’s still sticky (as often happens in the humid Northeast), add a little flour until you reach the desired consistency, without making the dough stiff. Cover (not airtight – in New Mexico, we use a moistened towel) and let rise until doubled in bulk, about one hour.
Turn onto floured board and shape into four loaves. Place on greased pans or pans lined with parchment paper and brush lightly with melted butter on top. Cover with wax paper. Let rise again until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.
Bake for 20 minutes at 350 degF or until golden brown. To test for doneness, tap sharply; loaves should make a hollow sound. Turn out onto a rack to cool. Brush again with butter for a softer crust. Store in plastic bags in refrigerator or freezer.
Which recipe would you like me to post next week? Tell me in the comments!