Who takes Mexican cookies to a Lunar New Year party?
That would be me.
But these crisp, orange-scented, piggy biscuits are tough to resist. And in the Year of the Pig? That’s a free pass.
I first had piggies from a storefront bakery in Pilsen (Chicago, not Czech Republic), right down 18th Street from The National Museum of Mexican Art. The panaderia moved hundreds of puerquitos — pillowy, crackle-topped, molasses numbers that were more like sweet rolls than cookies — every day. But it was their thin, cinnamon-y cochinitos that enticed me to take the long way home once in a while.
Cochinitos (little piggies)
Adapted lightly from my 30-year-old, broken-spined copy of The International Cookie Cookbook by Nancy Baggett. Here, I’ve favored butter over her specified lard, settling on a 5:4 ratio, since butter averages 80% fat (versus 100% for lard). If you prefer a lacier, sandier cookie and can get good, fresh lard, knock the fat back to 3/4 cup). Makes about 4-1/2 dozen 3-inch cookies.
- 3 cinnamon sticks (about 4 inches each)
- grated zest of 1 large orange
- 1/4 cup juice from that orange (top off with water if necessary)
- 3/4 cup packed brown sugar (I prefer 1/2 cup light + 1/4 cup dark)
- 2/1-3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 3/4 cup + 3 tbsp butter, softened to room temperature
- 2 tbsp granulated sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- generous pinch of fine sea salt
Mix the granulated sugar, ground cinnamon, and salt in a small bowl; set that aside for sprinkling atop the cookies just before they hit the oven.
In a small saucepan, mix together the zest, cinnamon sticks, orange juice, and brown sugar. Bring to a low boil over medium heat, stirring regularly so you don’t get burnt bits on the bottom of the pan. Once the sugar’s completely dissolved, set the pan aside and let the syrup cool before you strain it. Save the lovely, orangey, spicy syrup; toss the solids.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and baking powder. In a separate bowl, cream the butter with an electric mixer until light and fluffy (probably about 4 minutes). Scrape the sides of the bowl, add the syrup and vanilla, and mix for a few turns. With the mixer on low, tip in the flour (I go gradually, in 3 stages) and beat until everything’s incorporated.
Divide the dough in two. Place each half on a sheet of wax paper or plastic wrap, smash the blob into a disk (this’ll make it easier to roll out later), and wrap it up tightly. Refrigerate for at least an hour (longer — up to a day — is fine, just give them a chance to warm up for 10 minutes or so before you try to roll).
When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375ºF/190ºC, and grease several baking sheets or line them with parchment or silicon mats.
Roll out the first disk on a lightly floured surface. Cut out the piggies (or your favorite shape) and use a spatula to transfer them to the baking sheet, keeping a good inch margin around each cookie. Bundle and re-roll the scraps till you fill the first pan. If the dough gets sticky and soft, re-chill it for a few minutes before you resume.
Sprinkle each cookie with the cinnamon mixture. Bake 8-10 minutes, until lightly browned all over. If your oven has hot spots (most do), rotate the pans 180º halfway through. Remove the pan from the oven, and let the cookies crisp up for a couple minutes before you lift them over to a cooling rack. Repeat the process with the rest of the dough.
Completely cooled cookies will keep nicely (they do stay crisp!) in an airtight container for 5 days or so. For longer storage, tuck the container into the freezer.