There is a whole family of cookies in Spain, originating from Andalucia, called “mantecados.” “Manteca” is the Spanish word for lard, and not surprisingly, these cookies are traditionally made using pork fat, instead of butter or shortening. I have heard stories that the pork fat was added during the inquisition as a way to find hidden Jews and Muslims, but I can’t speak to the veracity of these stories. Regardless of the origins of mantecados, they are still quite popular all over Spain. While you might find them any time of year, these days, they are especially popular at Christmas time.
Polvorones may be the most popular type of mantecado around Spain. They get their name from the Spanish word “polvo” which means “dust.” This most likely refers to how fragile and crumbly these cookies are. Polvorones typically contain coarsely ground almonds in the dough, along with being garnished with sesame seeds, and, usually, powdered sugar. The combination of cinnamon and sesame gives a surprisingly interesting, almost exotic, flavor to these cookies.
Because of how fragile they are, polvorones are usually wrapped in paper, even by home cooks. Of course, you don’t need to wrap yours in paper, if you don’t want to, but they are much easier to eat that way. Besides the paper wrapper making for a cute little presentation of the cookies, it also is quite practical. It not only keeps the crumbs contained, but many people like to squeeze the cookie inside the wrapper, to press it together before eating. You can cut squares of parchment paper or tissue paper for wrapping.
Polvorones are EXTREMELY fragile when they come out of the oven. Resist handling them at all until they have completely cooled down for an hour or two. Even touching them while they are hot can cause them to crumble to pieces.
500g all-purpose flour
150g blanched (peeled) almonds (Marconas, if possible)
250g lard (at room temperature)
200g powdered sugar
1 Tbsp cinnamon
Pinch of salt
3 or 4 Tbsp white sesame seeds
Powdered sugar for dusting
Tissue paper or Parchment paper in 4” squares
1. Toast the flour and almonds: Spread the flour out on a cookie sheet and spread the almonds out on a different cookie sheet. Bake in a preheated 350 oven, stirring regularly. Toast the flour for 15-20 minutes. Toast the almonds until lightly browned - do not burn. This will take 10 – 15 minutes, depending on your oven.
2. Grind the almonds in a food processor, until coarse. Do not grind to a smooth flour.
3. Make the dough: Mix the cinnamon with the sugar. Beat the sugar, salt, and the lard together until very well incorporated and creamy. Sift in the flour, and mix to incorporate well, then mix in the almonds. Form into the shape of a cylinder, then wrap in plastic, and roll the cylinder out evenly to about 1½” diameter. Place in the fridge to rest and chill for at least one hour (or as many as 4 hours).
4. Make the cookies: Unwrap the chilled cookie dough, and use a sharp knife to cut ½” thick circular slices from the cylinder. Arrange the cookies on a sheet pan, and sprinkle a generous pinch of sesame seeds on top of each one. Use your fingers to gently push the sesame seeds into the top of the cookies. Bake in a preheated 350F oven until cookies are cooked through and very lightly browned, 20 – 25 minutes. Do not burn, or the polvorones will get bitter.
5. Let the polvorones cool completely before touching attempting to handle them. They are extremely fragile and crumbly when still hot from the oven. When cooled, dust with powdered sugar. They can be served like this, or wrapped in paper for later.
6. To wrap in paper, place a polvorón two thirds of the way up a square of paper. Being careful to not break the cookie, fold the paper around the cookie and then twist the ends of the paper. They will keep for a few days like this, but if you have any Spaniards in the house, they likely won’t survive more than one night.