I lived in Spain for three years as a kid, a period where tortillas were made with potatoes, not wheat, and the highlight of the year was the giant Christmas box of mantecados and polovorones, shortbread cookies typical of Andalucía, Spain’s southern province.
These boxes were the kind of treats that make you forget all other types of cookies. Oatmeal raisin, please. That’s not a cookie, that’s diet food.
With a base of lard and toasted flour, mantecados are crumbly, richly fatty, just sweet enough and flavored with anise, orange, cinnamon, chocolate, or my favorite, limón. In this case that limón is your common yellow lemon, not limes – we’re talking Spain here, not Mexico.
Mantecados applies to all varieties of these cookies, with polovorón referring specifically to the very crumbly almond cookies popular both in Spain and Mexico. The two names are sometimes used interchangeably, but frequently those Christmas cookie boxes are referred to only by polvorones.
The key to this cookies is to properly toast the flour. My own preference is for unbleached naturally white wheat flour, toasted to a light golden honey tone. Think 2 or 3 days at the beach (with properly applied sunscreen), not a whole week. Over-toasting will give the flour a bitter and unpleasant taste. On the following color scale, aim for a toast somewhere in the middle range of tones, with a final cookie color towards the darker shades.
The second key to mantecados de limón are to get the most out of your lemons.
How to properly zest a lemon: Hold the lemon still. With the microplane held teeth-side down, run it back and forth over the surface of the lemon, turning it as necessary. This (very speedy) video demonstrates the technique used by kitchen pros everywhere.
The variety of mantecados are usually cut into clean geometric shapes, but with a lard-derived name, manteca, might as well get the pig cookie cutter out.
Mantecados de limón - Spanish Lemon Shortbread
- 200 g (1 scant cup) lard, room temperature
- 200 g (1 2/3 c) confectioners sugar, sifted
- 2 lemons, zest and juice
- 325 g (2 2/3 c) all-purpose flour, toasted and sifted
To toast the flour: spread evenly over a parchment lined baking tray and bake at 300ºF for an hour, or until a light golden honey tone is achieved. Stir ever ten minutes or so, to prevent burning. If using a convection oven, be sure the fan is turned off before placing flour inside. Cool the flour completely before using.
Cream together the lard, lemon zest, juice and confectioners sugar. Once well mixed, add the cooled toasted flour, mixing until just completely combined. The dough will not form a solid mass on its own, and will need to be pressed together into a smooth ball.
Working on a lightly floured surface, roll out dough to a thickness of approximately half an inch. Cut cookies to desired shape, placing on a parchment lined baking tray.
Bake at 325ºF for 20 to 23 minutes, or until the cookies are golden and very slightly yielding.
Cool the cookies completely, dusting as little or as much as desired with confectioners sugar.
Enjoy con un cafelito, as it is said in Andalucía.