I love living in the San Francisco Bay Area… I may have mentioned that one or two or 46 times before. There are few other American communities so rich in diversity– we have nearly every kind of people represented within an 80-mile or so radius, which means lots of food, holidays, rituals, and generally cool shit. One of the biggest ethnic populations is our Latino community, which is very diverse in its own right. Among the most beautiful and meaningful holidays celebrated in Latin-American cultures, especially Mexico, are Días de los Muertos, or Days of the Dead, and the occasion is becoming more prominent in American culture, much to my delight. It blends indigenous Aztec traditions and Catholic practices of honoring the dead, coinciding with All Saints Day and All Souls Day on November 1-2. It is marked by such rituals as festive celebration, flowers, food, drink, and brightly colored skulls and skeletons in the form of face-painting, costumes, and dolls, all in the spirit of engaging in activities that the deceased loved ones enjoyed. Instead of focusing on the sadness of loss, Días de los Muertos celebrate the lives of those who have passed; I think this is such a lovely sentiment, such a wonderful way to keep the dearly departed near. Especially considering the increasing commercialization and loss of meaning of some of the winter holidays, it’s great to see this holiday celebrated with so much heart and passion. In typical BAKED fashion, Baked Occasions includes a recipe that beautifully honors the holiday. Baked Sunday Mornings made these Chocolate Cinnamon Chipotle Sugar Cookies for this week’s recipe, which are pretty, festive, and delicious.
I remember that when I first cracked open Baked Occasions, I was delighted to see this recipe not only because it was cool, but also because I had just bought a set of Días de los Muertos skull cookie cutters with decorative pattern stamps on the tops. I had visions of elaborately piped designs, but as per usual, my imagination is much more successful at these sorts of endeavors!
Confession: I made these cookies last year (without the icing) and they are quite a labor of love. This time around, I made them over the summer because with my job as a school counselor, there would have been a 0% chance of these getting done in October! Also, I only tried to decorate a handful of cookies because I didn’t want it to take all summer. 😉 (This didn’t turn out quite as planned, but that’s another issue…) I decorated the rest with colorful sanding sugar.
The dough has a light chocolate flavor and is perfectly spiced with cinnamon and chipotle powder. Chipotle powder is made of dried and ground chipotle chiles, which carry a mild heat and smoky flavor. The magical trio of chipotle powder, cinnamon, and chocolate in baked goods are reminiscent of Mexican chocolate… and don’t we all need more of that in our lives??
You’ll cream together the butter and shortening, add the sugar, and beat this mixture until smooth and fluffy. Add an egg and vanilla extract, followed by melted chocolate– I used my go-to Guittard 72% Coucher du Soleil chocolate couverture wafers. (My mixture looked a little unemulsified after adding the egg, but it came together fine after adding the chocolate.) When this mixture is evenly blended, you add the pre-whisked dry ingredients (flour, salt, baking powder, cinnamon, chipotle powder) in two additions to form a soft, sticky, light cocoa dough. This needs to be patted into disks and chilled for at least a few hours in the fridge. Making the dough was the easy part…
Working with the dough in the next steps with these particular cookie cutters required a lot of patience, swearing, a lot of flouring, and several trips to the freezer in-between re-rolling the scraps. It is very sticky and softens quickly. I learned from last year that the dough will stick to the nooks and crannies of the skull cookie stamps pretty badly (tearing/mangling the cookies), so this time I made sure to chill the skull cutouts before stamping the face designs. (Another trip to the freezer!)
Stamping them, even cold, was careful business– I basically had to press the stamp onto the dough, then press the dough gently into the design to make sure that all parts of the face were stamped evenly, then ever-so-gently peel the stamped cookie off the stamp. Most of the time I managed to retrieve intact cookies, but I did lose a few that simply fell apart. These cookie stamps need an awful lot of babying; fortunately, the ones that came out well were beautiful because the face patterns are detailed and ornate.
We are instructed to bake the cookies for 10-12 minutes, until they appear dry on the surface. The first time I made these cookies, I took them out right at 10 minutes, but they were quite soft, even when cooled. This time I left them in for 12, especially given that the icing would likely soften them to some degree. However, they were still a bit soft, so I might leave them in another minute or so longer in the future.
So… about that icing. First of all, let me say that cookie decorating has never been my forté in the realm of baking, but I did work on it a number of years ago before deciding that it was for the birds. I remember from cookie decorating classes that you’re supposed to pipe a stiffer border around the edge of the cookies before applying the flood icing. We are not explicitly instructed to do this, but the icing (made of confectioners’ sugar, egg whites, cream of tartar, and lemon juice) seemed too runny to stay on top of the cookies, so I set aside a small amount in a separate bowl and whisked in a tablespoon or so of confectioners’ sugar to thicken it. I piped this thicker icing (very clumsily) around the cookie edges and let them dry for 15 minutes. I then piped what was probably about a teaspoon of the looser icing into the center and carefully spread it evenly to the icing border with a toothpick. (This icing was, by the way, a huge mess! It spilled out of both ends of the pastry bag and onto the counter every time I put the bag down while my attention was focused on working with the cookies… Oy.) These dried overnight before I proceeded with the royal icing decoration. I purposely applied a thin flood layer so I could still see the skull face details, which I planned to trace with the royal icing…
Welp, I tried to do the decorative icing, I really did. My royal icing was apparently too thin, and it was just a runny, awkward mess– let’s just say my cookies were more or less indistinguishable from a preschooler’s artwork! I probably should have used a smaller cake tip in my piping bag, but I’m not trying to pass the buck onto the equipment. After ruining a few cookies, I decided to call it a day, and I was happy enough with the sugared-topped cookies, although the mistake cookies with the icing were extra delicious.
At first I thought the cookies tasted like gingerbread, but the more cookies I ate, the more I could differentiate the cinnamon and chipotle powder. I did it for science.
If you are looking for a beautiful way to bake for Día de los Muertos, consider these lovely Chocolate Cinnamon Chipotle Sugar Cookies, the recipe for which can found at Baked Sunday Mornings. Hopefully the other bakers had a more successful time decorating their cookies– check out their efforts and good luck to you. 🙂
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2016.