Sunday, January 18, 2009

Torta de Aciete

Torta de Aciete

$1.50-1.75 each at coffee shops, boxes from $3.99

It doesn't usually take a dare to get me to eat a new cookie, but in this case...

Early last year I was having coffee in Rosie's, a cafe/deli/bakery in south London's Brixton Market presided over by Rosie herself, a red-lipped, black-tressed retro firecracker who prefers giving orders to filling them. There were a handful of customers enjoying her masterful espresso drinks on that grey afternoon and Rosie figured we needed a jolt. Reaching into a jar she drew out a large flat cracker wrapped in greasy wax paper. She broke the cracker into sections and went around pressing each of us to try a shard: "It's kind of cookie, kind of cracker, with salt and sugar and aniseed. It's really strange! Come on..."

I normally run a mile from anything flavored with anise; liquorice is admittedly an excellent material for making small novelty sculptures, but I'd sooner eat plastic. But since you don't say no to Rosie I accepted a bit and popped in in my mouth while she watched to make sure I didn't slip it into my napkin.

If only I could taste torta de aciete again for the first time! The first bite lit up my mouth like a pinball machine, ricocheting from sweet to salty, lightly dinging the aniseed bell and finally melting away with a buttery finish as satisfying as half a dozen bonus balls.

Torta de aciete, or olive oil cookies, are a Spanish speciality with north African roots. In 1910, in the Andalusian capital of Seville, a woman named Ines Rosales began to sell torta de aciete baked from an old Moorish recipe. At the modern Rosales factory, tortas are still made using the original recipe, and each torta is flatted and wrapped by hand.

In my opinion, the original is also the best, but Rosales has plenty of worthy competitors. San Martin de Porres (torta above and label below) is a little thicker than the croissant-flaky Rosales, with the sugar topping melted into glassy patches instead of standing out in discrete, crunchy crystals; the flavor is great but the texture is a little blah. A newcomer to watch out for is Matiz, a specialty exporter of Andalusian foodstuffs. Matiz tortas are expensive but widely available, and come in a range of non-traditional flavors, including cinnamon, almond, and a savory herb version. The Spanish Table in Seattle's Pike Place Market usually stocks all three brands.

The Martin de Porres label lists the ingredients as wheat flour, virgin olive oil (24%), sugar, sesame seeds, aniseed, essence of anise, salt, and yeast. I wasn't able to find a recipe to match exactly, but this recipe using egg whites looks promising, and for quick fixes when the store is out of tortas, here's a recipe based on pizza dough.

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