One small bite of mole (pronounced MOE-lay) holds a big mouthful of flavours - sweet, bitter, fruity, earthy, and piquant. Moles are part of Mexican cuisine and are used traditionally to make stews with chicken, turkey, pork, or beef. Dark chocolate blends well with these savoury ingredients to bring out a rich, complex flavour.
The word mole comes from molli, the Aztec word for sauce. Moles usually feature a variety of dried chilli peppers and an impressively long list of other ingredients that often, but not always, includes chocolate.
A Brief History of Moles
Chocolate was not part of any mole prior to the 17th Century. Many fanciful legends have sprung up about the origins of mole poblano, the traditional mole from the Mexican state of Puebla. The most likely story is that the nuns from the Santa Rosa convent near Puebla City, Puebla, collected mole recipes from the indigenous people, modified a mole recipe by adding cocoa, and served the tasty dish to a visiting dignitary.
Mole poblano's popularity spread quickly, and it soon became a national dish. Mole poblano is served at Christmas and other holidays and on special occasions, such as weddings and birthdays. In the state of Puebla, turkey mole poblano is served at the annual celebration of the Battle of Puebla on 5 May.
Today, there are probably as many family mole recipes as families to eat mole. The number of ingredients ranges from 10 to over 301, with most recipes having over 20 ingredients. Chocolate is a traditional ingredient in mole poblano and mole negro oaxaqueño, the latter being black mole from the state of Oaxaca.
A Bit About Chillies
The chilli, regionally spelled either chile or chili, has been part of the South American diet for thousands of years. Pasillas, anchos, mulatos, guajillos and chipotles chillies are mild to medium in heat, very flavourful, and often used in mole:
Pasillas are dried chilacas that have a warm heat and a raisin-like flavour. Pasilla varieties available in the United States include California and New Mexico chillies, with the latter being a bit spicier due to the hotter climate.
Anchos are dried poblanos that have a mild heat and a fruity flavour.
Mulatos are also poblanos but with a warm heat and a liquorice or coffee flavour.
Chipotles are smoked, dried jalepeños with a medium heat. Jalepeños are very similar in heat and flavour to African Snub, Kenyan and Caribe chillies. Chipotle chillies are often ground and sprinkled on foods or canned in adobo, a sauce that includes tomatoes, garlic, vinegar, and spices.
Guajillos are a variety of marisol peppers so called because they grow up toward the sun rather than pointing down as other peppers do. They have a mild to medium heat, a strawberry flavour, and can be used to add red colour to any dish.
Although chillies originated in South America, thousands of chilli varieties are grown around the world. If you have difficulty finding these varieties of chillies, try other flavourful varieties with mild to medium heat.
Safety warning: Capsaicin, the spicy substance in chilli peppers, is an irritant. When you are handling chillies, you should wear gloves. Never rub your eyes. When you toast the chillies, the capsaicin released into the air can irritate the lungs and airways if inhaled. Toast chilli peppers in a well-ventilated area or better yet, outside.
The Other Ingredients
The cinnamon used in Mexican cuisine is the soft Ceylon cinnamon, also called canela, not the hard stick cinnamon.
Piloncillo is molasses sugar that comes in hard, cone-shaped lumps. You can substitute molasses sugar or white sugar and a dab of treacle.
Plantains are firmer than bananas, and not as sweet. If you substitute bananas, use less sugar.
Some mole recipes call for Mexican chocolate, a mixture of sugar, cocoa, ground nuts, and spices. If you use Mexican chocolate instead of dark chocolate, use less sugar.
If you can't find an ingredient, try something else: dried apricots instead of raisins; toasted bread or tortillas instead of almonds. Vary the spices, put something in, take something out. Be creative. Do you have some dried currents left over from last December? Did someone give you courgettes (zucchinis)? Do you want to use yams (sweet potatoes) instead of plantains? Throw them in!
Techniques and Equipment
When making mole, you'll need to char some ingredients - in other words partially burn them. For example, the tomatoes are charred so that their skins have blackened and blistered spots. The charred ingredients provide flavour and colour in moles the way deeply roasted barley does in porters and stouts.
Chillies, nuts, seeds, and spices are toasted in a frying pan to bring out their flavours.
A comal is the traditional Mexican clay griddle used to char and toast foods. Comals are now more commonly made from iron, steel, or aluminum. You can use any heavy-bottomed skillet, such as a cast iron skillet.
Chocolate will burn at relatively low temperatures. To avoid burning the chocolate, you can melt it before adding it to the rest of the mole. You can melt chocolate in a double boiler2, pour some of the hot mole in a bowl with the chocolate and stir until the chocolate melts, or melt the chocolate in the microwave:
- Put broken pieces of chocolate in a microwave-proof bowl.
- Microwave on 50% power for 10-15 seconds, then give the chocolate a stir, even though at first it appears as if no melting has occurred.
- Repeat step 2 until about three-quarters of the chocolate is melted, then stir gently until nearly all the chocolate is melted.
Due to the large number of ingredients and the many labour-intensive steps, there really isn't any point in making a small amount of mole sauce. This recipe makes about 5 litres of mole paste, which can then be thinned with stock to make about 7½ litres mole sauce.
- 280 grams (10 ounces) dried New Mexico chillies
- 110 grams (4 ounces) dried guajillo chillies
- 110 grams (4 ounces) dried ancho chillies
- 225 grams (1½ cups) raisins
- 1 whole bulb of garlic
- 4 white onions
- 15 roma tomatoes
- 1½ tablespoons allspice
- 1 tablespoon anise seeds
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 1 stick cinnamon
- 1½ tablespoons cloves
- 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
- 1 tablespoon oregano
- 225 grams (1½ cups) almonds
- 200 grams (1½ cups) pumpkin seeds
- 200 grams (1½ cups) sesame seeds
- 3 plantains
- vegetable oil to fry plantains
- one 200 gram (7 ounce) can chipotle chillies in adobo or 28 grams (1 ounce) dried chipotles
- 2 or 3 lumps piloncillo
- 280 grams dark chocolate, or more
Wipe the dried chillies clean with a damp cloth. Stem and seed them3. Toast4 each chilli on both sides over medium heat. Be careful not to burn them - toasting only takes a few seconds for each chilli as the pod5 starts to change colour and becomes more flexible. Put the toasted chillies and the raisins in a large bowl, cover them with water and then let them soak for a few hours or overnight.
Toast the garlic. Char the onions until blistered. Char the tomatoes until their skins blister. Set aside.
Reduce the heat, and lightly toast each of the spices until their aroma is released. Increase the heat slightly, and toast the almonds, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds. Fry the plantains in oil.
Using a food processor, puree the chillies, raisins, and chipotle chillies in adobo using enough of the soaking water to give the puree the right consistency. Place the chilli puree in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan and cook over a medium heat for 10 minutes.
Puree the garlic, onions, tomatoes, spices, nuts, seeds, and fried plantains. Add them to the chilli puree. Once these ingredients are all in the saucepan, continue cooking over low heat for 45 minutes, stirring frequently from the bottom to prevent burning.
During the 45 minutes and between stirs, add the lumps of piloncillo. While they are dissolving, melt the chocolate and add it to the mole. Cook for the remainder of the 45 minutes, stirring frequently from the bottom. Add more chocolate if desired.
How Much Chocolate?
This is a matter of personal taste, as is cookery in general, but the chocolate should complement and not overwhelm the other flavours. Add small amounts of chocolate and taste the mole before adding more. Cleanse the palate between tastes, perhaps with a pale ale or a lager.
Storing and Using Mole
A large amount of thick mole paste will hold a lot of heat for a long time, so spread the paste into shallow pans and place them in the refrigerator. Once the paste has cooled, package the paste in airtight containers and store in the refrigerator for up to three months or in the freezer for up to six months6.
To use the mole paste, dilute 2 parts paste to 1 part stock. For vegetarian dishes, dilute with vegetable stock.
Make chicken mole by adding pieces of chicken to the mole sauce, turkey mole by adding pieces of turkey, etc. Mole also can be used as a sauce over roasted meats, vegetables, veggie burgers, and wraps.