If you visit a home in Murcia this time of year, your host will inevitably set a tray of traditional Christmas sweets in front of you. In addition to the creamy turrón and crumbly polvorones found throughout Spain, the Murcian Christmas tray also includes local treats, such as the almond-packed cordial.
These aromatic cookies are a balancing act between several Mediterranean flavors and textures. The crunchiness of the almonds is offset by moist candied squash, and the first impression of these principal ingredients fades into lingering hints of cinnamon and lemon.
After two years here in Murcia, cordiales have become an essential part of Christmas for me. They’ve been offered as a welcoming gesture and shared with great pleasure around many a holiday table. It seems no coincidence that cordial, in both English and Spanish, also means from the heart.
In each place I call home, I pick up recipes as comforting souvenirs. These Murcian cookies will forever be part of my seasonal baking routine, joining the ranks of spiced pumpkin bread and ginger cookies.
This year, I decided it was time to learn how to make my own cordiales, and immediately thought of Fuensanta, my friend Inma’s mother, whose cordiales were not only the first I ever tasted, but also the most flavorful.
We met in Inma’s kitchen on a Saturday in early December, and Fuensanta quickly got to work mixing the ingredients by hand. Instead of measuring, she discussed the quantities with her husband, Paco, who had also come to help. After each step, Paco confirmed the dough looked as it should.
Both fretted that the cookies would run in the oven, thus losing their characteristic dome shape. (While a few did spread a bit, I would argue it doesn’t really matter, for the taste is the same.)
Inma and I joined in when it came time to shape the dough into little balls, which we carefully set on wafer paper (the kind used in communion) for baking.
The golden result was pronounced Christmas cookie tray-worthy. The highest praise of all came from Manolo’s grandfather, who described our cordiales as “como los antiguos” – like they used to make.
Fuensanta’s Almond Cordiales
This recipe is made for sharing. Fuensanta bakes a big batch of her cordiales at the beginning of the holidays and stores them in airtight containers, where they keep for up to several weeks. This means she always has some on hand for holiday visitors. In fact, locals say these cookies get even better with age.
Making the dough is a relatively quick and easy process in Spain, where candied squash (called cabello de angel,angel hair) is available in cans. I haven’t been able to locate this product in the US (let me know if you find it somewhere), so have included a link to an Emeril Lagasse recipe for spaghetti squash jam. This extra step will obviously make the cookies more labor-intensive, but can be done days in advance.
Wafer paper, or oblea, another common ingredient in Spain, is available by the sheet at most local bakeries in Murcia this time of year. In the US, you can find wafer paper on many specialty baking sites on the Internet, such as here, where it comes in packs of 100, and here, where it can be bought in individual sheets. To make one batch, ten sheets would be a safe bet. But the wafers can be omitted without any loss in flavor – simply use parchment paper instead.
With the quantities involved, the entire baking process took us about three hours, since we only baked one sheet at a time. (The ovens here tend to be smaller than in the US.) If you bake two sheets at once (which may take longer than the time given), be sure to rotate them at least once to ensure even browning.
2 1/4 pounds finely chopped almonds
zest of 2 lemons
2 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 1/2 cups candied spaghetti squash
Wafer paper (8 x 11 inch sheets) (optional)
Make candied spaghetti squash, if you are not using canned. Store in a clean jar in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Preheat oven to 350ºF. Line baking sheets with wafer or parchment paper.
Mix almonds, lemon zest, sugar and cinnamon in a large bowl. Fuensanta uses her hands, but a wooden spoon would work, too. Add eggs and mix to blend. At this point, the dough should be goopy, but not runny. Work in candied spaghetti squash with your fingers, breaking up any clumps, until more or less evenly distributed. Be careful not to overmix—you don’t want to release too much water from the squash.
Shape dough into ping-pong-size balls using your hands and set them on prepared baking sheets, spaced about 1-inch apart.
Bake until golden, 20-25 minutes. Allow to cool before serving. If you have used wafer paper, break into individual cookies, making the edges as neat or as rough as you like. The wafer is at its crispest on this first day, and many children (and adults) here like to nibble at the leftover crumbs.
YIELD: 40-50 cookies